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Writer Emma Donoghue was so confident her novel Room would be adapted into a film, she wrote the screenplay before the book was even in stores. (Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)
Writer Emma Donoghue was so confident her novel Room would be adapted into a film, she wrote the screenplay before the book was even in stores. (Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

On set of the Room as Donoghue watches her novel come to filmic life Add to ...

In the middle of a cavernous soundstage, just east of downtown Toronto, is a small room. Inside, lying on the floor, huddled close together, is a mother and her young son. They are going over the plan, one they hope will lead to their escape, a final time. The boy, who recently turned 5, has a set of instructions to follow, and he repeats the words back to his mother until he gets them all right: truck, wiggle out, jump, run, somebody.

“I’m scared,” he says.

“I’m going to be there in your head talking to you the whole time,” she replies.

Emma Donoghue’s Room is one of the bestselling Canadian novels of the past decade, with sales exceeding two million copies around the world since it was published in 2010. A finalist for the Man Booker Prize and winner of the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, it tells the story of a woman kidnapped by a man only known as “Old Nick” and held captive in a soundproof garden shed for seven years, where she gives birth to a son, Jack. The film adaptation, an impressive distillation of everything that made Donoghue’s novel great, arrives in theatres Friday.

“It’s every writer’s fantasy to see carpenters and designers and wardrobe people walking around and bringing the contents of your imagination to life,” says Donoghue, sitting in a director’s chair on the Pinewood Studios set during a break in filming one morning last November. “I didn’t know I’d have my own chair with my own name on it. These little things make you feel really welcome.” She smiles, mischievously. “I’m imagining I can’t steal the chair.”

Even before Room arrived in bookstores, Donoghue had written the screenplay; she was confident the novel, her seventh, would be adapted into a film, joking, “It’s the only time I’ve ever had a plot.” She was right – Donoghue was inundated with offers, but proceeded cautiously. “Quite often big names got in touch, but they were just never the right names,” she says. “Other people were writing me letters that didn’t even get the title right: ‘I love your property, The Room.’” She didn’t want any potential adaptation to be overly sentimental or “sleazily voyeuristic,” and was worried “the wrong director could wreck this film.”

“I remember, at a certain point, my partner, Chris, said to me: ‘Are you going to keep saying no forever? You do want it to be made, don’t you?’ I said, ‘No, I only want it to be made if it’s going to be great.’”

One of the first directors to reach out to her was Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson, who’d read the novel soon after it was published.

“I was totally hooked very quickly, after a page or two,” he says, joining Donoghue and me for lunch after filming has wrapped up for the morning. “And I got more and more hooked as I read it.”

After finishing the novel, Abrahamson wrote Donoghue a 10-page letter, part mash note and part pitch. At the time, he’d only directed two “very small Irish films,” 2004’s Adam & Paul and 2007’s Garage. (Donoghue admits she’d never heard of Abrahamson at the time, but “I never told [him] to fuck off or anything.”) He also figured the fact that he was Irish, like Donoghue, would work against him. (Born in Dublin in 1969, Donoghue has lived in Canada since 1998.)

“That’s kind of our native Irish inferiority complex,” he says. “I thought if I was in Emma’s position, and I had something which was garnering such international attention, and I got a pitch from an Irish director and an Irish production company, I’d think, ‘Look, if I’m ever going to have a film of global impact, this is the one. Why would I possibly go back to the town I left now that I’ve made it across the water?’ But,” he continues, “I wouldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t make a really serious pitch for it.”

About a year later, Donoghue’s film agent informed her that the Irish indie director who wanted to adapt her book was starting to get noticed – he was preparing to direct Frank, starring Michael Fassbender. In the meantime, Donoghue had watched his films and become a fan.

“I felt he had aesthetic and moral taste,” she says. “There’s not a crass or vulgar or conventional moment in any of his films. Now, I was worried they were very downbeat, and very indie, so, when we met, I said, ‘Do you promise it won’t be in black and white? Do you promise nobody dies in the end? And do you promise there will be a bit of music?’”

He promised, and the pair began working together in 2012, with Abrahamson spending a week with Donoghue at her London, Ont., home, refining the script.

“It was a really interesting process, because I think he’s as devoted to the book as I am, and we were always looking for some way to translate the magic,” she says. “It didn’t ever feel like I was trying to make it be more like the book, and he was trying to make it be like a film.”

While it’s a faithful adaptation, not everything in the novel has made it into the movie; characters have been excised, plot points ignored, points-of-view altered. Still, Donoghue says she has been pleased with the process, “My only disappointment is that I was hoping to write something based on my horrendous experiences with the film.”

Before filming restarts after lunch, Donoghue leads me on a tour of room, which is large enough to accommodate actors Brie Larson, who plays Ma, and Jacob Tremblay, who plays son Jack, and not much else – the majority of the crew follows along on monitors. It is, as Donoghue says, a “grimy, nasty space,” a prison for Ma, yet, at the same time, for Jack, his world entire. Paintings, drawn by Larson and Tremblay together in the lead-up to filming, are tacked on the walls. “They still make it look beautiful at times,” Donoghue says.

This afternoon is to be the last day of shooting here; Room is being filmed sequentially, meaning that after the escape scene the entire production, like Jack, is moving beyond the soundstage.

“This is our last day in there, and I’m ready to leave it, I have to say,” says Abrahamson. “But I suspect that I’ll miss it a bit.”

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