Arts & Culture

Building a new but still-devastating ‘Room’

Emma Donoghue
Emma Donoghue

The process of creating Room had a profound effect on author Emma Donoghue — although not what you might expect.

Her 2010 novel about Ma and Jack, a mother and son trapped in hellish circumstances and struggling to persevere, is a harrowing yet hopeful story, one that earned reams of critical praise and awards attention upon its release.

Writing about such a good mother makes me hyper-aware of all the moments when I’m not a good mother.

Author Emma Donoghue

Five years later, Room has been adapted into a feature film by Donoghue. It stars Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, and opens locally Friday, at Dallas’ Landmark Magnolia and Plano’s Angelika Film Center.

“Writing about such a good mother makes me hyper-aware of all the moments when I’m not a good mother,” says the 45-year-old Irish-Canadian mother of two over coffee at Hotel ZaZa. “I often felt like a [expletive] mother for writing this book. Especially when I’d go on book tour, and my daughter was only 3 at the time, and people would say to me, ‘You must be such a good mom,’ and I’d think, ‘My 3-year-old is at home going, “Where is she?”  

Donoghue had to take leave of her family again to help guide Room from the page to the screen, collaborating with director Lenny Abrahamson and working to turn her idiosyncratic narrative — the novel is narrated exclusively by Jack, who knows nothing of the world beyond Room’s four walls — into a film, without sacrificing its unique qualities.

“I sort of waited until I found the right director,” Donoghue says. “Lenny’s from the European art-house tradition, so he didn’t have the studio mentality of, ‘Let’s put an experienced screenwriter in.’ … It just so happened that my sense of how to proceed and Lenny’s sense [of how to proceed], we both arrived independently at, more or less, the same conclusions that you would use cinematic techniques to create the equivalent of that first-person point of view, but you wouldn’t use any tricks.

“The story does not get better if you add flashbacks or make it more conventional, like a thriller.”

2010 Year the book ‘Room’ was released.

The result is one of the more satisfying book-to-film adaptations in recent memory, deftly streamlining the narrative while taking care to preserve the Ma-Jack relationship and the profound emotional wallop Donoghue’s story about the power of motherly love delivers.

Posing a question

Being confronted with an audience’s immediate, visceral reaction — at a recent screening, a woman to my right was openly sobbing by the film’s conclusion — has been a fascinating experience for Donoghue.

“When you go to a play, it’s different every night because the actors are initially responding to the audience,” says Donoghue, who has also written for the stage. “I would have thought that films … the audience may be different, but the film is the same, but I have to say, the audience responds so differently each time.

“Some audiences really get all the laughs, some make themselves laugh quite a lot, and others are big criers. … I have to say, making people cry is a fabulous sensation — the sheer power of it.”

I have to say, making people cry is a fabulous sensation — the sheer power of it

Author Emma Donoghue

But, apart from the story’s sensational tendencies, it’s the act of motherhood — parenting in general, really — that Donoghue feels Room most directly addresses, and, moreover, most deeply resonates with its audience.

“I think our generation is very focused on exactly how well do we parent,” she says. “In a way, I don’t think our parents sat around thinking, ‘Am I a good enough parent?’ Our generation is maybe hyper-focused on this, especially, of course, [because] a lot of us are working long hours and then we’re seeing less of our kids.

“I think a story like Room is probably really intriguing to our generation, because it’s about how could you parent well under bad circumstances, but what about if you gave it all you had, rather than doing it part-time, like most people?”

Preston Jones: 817-390-7713, @prestonjones