Adapting Room To The Big Screen

A taut narrative of captivity and freedom

Both highly suspenseful and deeply emotional, Room is a unique and touching exploration of the boundless love between a mother and her child.

At once a taut narrative of captivity and freedom, an imaginative trip into the wonders of childhood, and a profound portrait of a family’s bonds and fortitude, Room is a beautifully transcendent experience based on the award-winning global bestseller by Emma Donoghue, who wrote the screenplay, based on her original novel.

Director Lenny Abrahamson remains faithful to the novel while bringing Jack, Ma and their entirely singular world to heart-pounding and intensely cinematic life.

Processed with Rookie Cam

Novelist and screenwriter Emma Donoghue and director Lenny Abrahamson on the set of Room

After 5-year- old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and his Ma (Brie Larson) escape from the solitary, locked, 10”x10” room that Jack has known his entire life, the boy makes a thrilling discovery: the outside world. As he experiences all the joy, excitement, and fear that this new adventure brings, he holds tight to the one thing that matters most of all—his special bond with his loving and devoted Ma.

At once a taut narrative of captivity and freedom, an imaginative trip into the wonders of childhood, and a profound portrait of a family’s bonds and fortitude, Room is a beautifully transcendent experience based on the award-winning global bestseller by Emma Donoghue, who wrote the screenplay, based on her original novel.

Director Lenny Abrahamson remains faithful to the novel while bringing Jack, Ma and their entirely singular world to heart-pounding and intensely cinematic life.

Room demonstrates the triumphant power of familial love even in the darkest of circumstances, and is sure to take its place among the most emotionally affecting films to ever explore the bond between parents and children.

The story of Room first stunned critics and readers alike when Donoghue’s book stormed onto the literary scene in 2010 and was declared not only a hugely popular bestseller, but an instant modern classic. Part fairy tale, part thriller, the book tackled themes of captivity and liberation, of isolation and connection, of how we create and perceive the world in our heads. But it was also an undeniable celebration of parental love and human fortitude, exploring the life- sustaining, chaos-overcoming bonds between parent and child as few novels ever have. Equally so, few novels have ever had as remarkable a narrator as Jack, the exuberant 5-year-old who has never seen the modern world we all know outside the place he calls Room.

The book was the subject of a fierce bidding war, then became the must-read of the season, passed between friends and family, and was soon garnering awards, including being shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. Naturally, in the course of all the attention, there was talk of a feature film.

But could a story that was so exhilaratingly internal, that had started as a dispatch from the limitless, loving, spontaneous realm in a little boy’s head be re-envisioned as an equally powerful visual experience? It would take the author of the novel, Donoghue, the creatively fearless director Lenny Abrahamson, and a small but utterly devoted cast to answer that question.

Reconstructing ROOM

Having built her novel so meticulously, Emma Donoghue was perhaps the best candidate on earth to remodel ROOM into a visceral, visual experience that would embrace the book but also reach out to audiences completely unfamiliar with it.


Emma Donoghue (Screenwriter/Novelist) was born in Dublin in 1969 and now lives in Canada. She writes fiction and history as well as drama for radio, stage and screen. She is best known for her international bestseller Room, short-listed for the Man Booker and Orange prizes and winner of the Commonwealth (Canada/Carribean), Rogers Writers’ Trust and Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year Awards. Her fiction ranges from contemporary (Stir-fry, Hood, Landing and Touchy Subjects) to historical (Slammerkin, The Woman Who Gave Birth To Rabbits, Life Mask, The Sealed Letter and Astray) to fairy tale (Kissing The Witch).

Yet, it’s rare for authors to adapt their own bestsellers for the screen; and Donoghue had no screen credits to her name when it was published. So Donoghue decided, even as she was writing the novel, that she would pre-emptively start her own adaptation, bringing her unique vision to it.

“I always felt Room might be a film because the storyline had so much natural momentum, though I realized it would take a very smart filmmaker to work out exactly how to bring it to life,” Donoghue says. “So as soon I’d written the novel, before it was even published, I started working on the screenplay. I thought, ‘Now is the perfect time to write the film with no one interfering’ – to kind of seize the power. Since I had no track record as a screenwriter, I also thought it might put me in a stronger position to have a draft ready to show as soon as the idea came up. Writers are often bedeviled by uncertainties, but from the beginning with ROOM, I always had clear, strong instincts.”

Indeed, as her instincts suggested, the subject of a film soon came up and Donoghue was prepared. She was also excited, rather than trepidatious. “Jack was going to have a physicality, he was no longer just a consciousness,” she muses.

Jack and Ma had originally come to Donoghue unexpectedly. She had written a number of critically admired novels, several short story collections and works of literary biography, but nothing that entirely presaged the broad popularity of ROOM. One day, Donoghue had her mind sent reeling in surprising directions by the harrowing true story of Elisabeth Fritzl – an Austrian girl imprisoned by her abusive father in a basement dungeon for 24 years. While in captivity, Fritzl had given birth to several children, some of whom were raised with her in their sealed chamber.

Donoghue had little interest in the more conventional enticements of the story: the lurid crimes committed against Fritzl or our titillating cultural fascination with psychotic criminals. She was drawn to far larger, juicier questions about human nature and human resilience that Fritzl’s strange motherhood and sheer survival triggered: What would being a parent be like in a locked room? How could you best hope to raise a child completely removed from society from birth? What would happen if you emerged into modern life after living in apart from it all or part of your existence?

The metaphorical underpinnings of ROOM were swirling and vast – at every turn the story seemed to reflect on the mysteries of life itself: on the

wondrous, haunting privateness of childhood; on the primal, protective drives of parenthood; on the urge to create meaning out of wherever and whatever we are. As Donoghue puts it: “It was a way of taking the most extreme parent- child situation to explore the everyday experiences of parents and children – to explore the full span of emotions that come into play in this essential, somewhat crazy drama of our lives.”

The book’s darkness was offset by an undercurrent of love – messy, flawed, burdened, never-ending love – that runs throughout. Says Donoghue: “One of the ideas behind ROOM is that children have this natural tendency to thrive. So long as they’re getting love and affection, even if it’s in dark or incomprehensible circumstances, they’re so adaptable, they’ll find a way to be OK and to grow up.”

Those same themes would remain at the heart of the screenplay. But Donoghue was acutely aware that film demands an immediacy a novel doesn’t, so she approached the screenplay as its own linked but independent creature.

While Jack’s voice had slowly lured readers into the book, Donoghue felt the film had to kick off on a more propulsive note, putting the audience smack into the life Ma and Jack are leading in Room.

“The excitement for the reader is slowly putting together all these clues as to what is happening, but I knew for a film audience, I had to get the story rolling fast,” Donoghue says. “I didn’t want to use a lot of voice-over. It was the obvious choice, but I didn’t want to rely on the obvious or on the literary. I wanted to see if it could work to open the film with the mother and the boy getting on with their lives in Room. Later, we did add a bit of voice-over – but we never use it to explain what is happening or to heighten emotion. Instead, it often cuts against what’s going on in the scene, a counterpoint between what is in Jack’s head and what is going on externally.”


To keep the physical space of Room itself from feeling too stifling to a film audience, Donoghue divided it up into a map of inches-long interconnected zones, each of which is enormous in Jack’s playful awareness. She says: “I did my best to create different sub-spaces – Under the Bed, Wardrobe and Bathroom are each their own locations. I never wanted to sentimentalize what it is to be in prison, but there is a whole tradition of people who have lived in cramped spaces – whether prisoners or mystics – who have created vast worlds in their heads. Room has icky aspects to it from our perspective, but from Jack’s perspective it is home and that had to come across.”

Perhaps the biggest puzzle of the adaptation was how to contrast life inside Room in the film’s enclosed first half with the total sensory overload of life outside Room in the chaotic but redemptive second half. While it might seem that Ma and Jack’s battle is over, instead it quickly becomes clear their freedom will demand as much of Ma and Jack as Room ever did. Even as they try to bounce back from an overwhelming ordeal, they have to keep adapting and holding fast to each another.

“When you’re in Room, you might be constrained by a lack of space and choice, but there’s this fundamental magic and humor of a mother and child making up the world every day,” Donoghue observes. “The second half of the story is different, but I think it gives the film its universality. We haven’t all experienced captivity but we have all had those growing-up moments with our parents, those moments when we realize, ‘Oh, we’re not getting on the way we used to.’ Jack is seeing all these new sides to Ma. In Room she was focused only on him and it’s got to be absolutely unnerving to now have to share her, and watch her be different with other people.”

Ma’s life is also completely altered by leaving Room. Not only does she have to face the stunted youth she left behind, she also faces a media maelstrom, as reporters descend upon her, building her up into a maternal hero, then tearing her down in ritualistic fashion. In the midst of it all, she struggles mightily to gain a sense of herself, and to reconnect with Jack in new ways.

“I knew that film would bring out the media aspects of the story really well, because as an audience watching Jack and Ma in this situation, there’s already a voyeuristic aspect,” Donoghue notes. “What’s so hard for Ma is that she has been declared a kind of icon of motherhood by strangers, yet she feels herself slipping away from the relationship she had with Jack in Room.”

As Donoghue watched her story morph into flesh and blood on the set, the process captivated her – especially because filmmaking is a form of storytelling that is all about community. “A novel is your own private little world,” she points out, “but a film is teamwork. You can easily overestimate the power of the words even in a film like this because the end result has as much to do with atmosphere and performance and all the subtleties and details that Lenny and this tremendous cast and crew brought at every level. Though I treasure the autonomy of writing on my own, this experience was a great joy to me.”

Finding the right director


Lenny Abrahamson (Director) studied physics and philosophy at Trinity College Dublin, where he directed short films with a filmmaking society which he co-founded with Ed Guiney. He graduated with first class honors doing further post-grad work at Stanford University in California.He directed numerous commercials for television in Ireland, the UK and worldwide before taking the helm on his first feature film, Adam & Paul, a stylized, downbeat comedy written by Mark O’Halloran and released in 2004.His second feature film, Garage, another collaboration with writer Mark O’ Halloran, was selected for Director’s Fortnight at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival and won the CICAE Art and Essai award. What Richard Did, his third feature, was released in 2012 to critical acclaim. Abrahamson’s fourth feature, Frank, premiered to great praise at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.He is developing a number of projects including The Little Stranger, a film based on Sarah Waters’ novel, with Potboiler and Film4, and Neverhome, an adaptation of Laird Hunt’s Civil War novel, with Element Pictures and Film4.

Emma Donoghue always knew it was going to take a bold and resourceful director to give Room the life she envisioned, but she did not expect to receive a lengthy letter from an Irishman passionately explaining in blueprint detail how he planned to do just that.

The letter was from Lenny Abrahamson, best known for the award-winning psychological drama What Richard Did and more recently, the disarming, rock-and-roll-themed comedy Frank. His raw, economical style might, at first glance, have seemed a mismatch with Room, but it turned out to be anything but.

Donoghue recalls: “Lenny’s letter was full of specifics – he even quoted Plato– and I thought this man gets it. I felt Lenny was coming to this as a father, as someone passionate about understanding parenthood. When we first started working on the screenplay, each of us was throwing in things that happened with our own children. Talking about the parent-child bond became a strong point of connection the whole way.”

Among other things, Abrahamson wrote: “Room is Jack’s universe as it is Ma’s prison, a fantastically rich, story-filled and ritualized space.”

SaysDonoghue: “Lenny understood that a film didn’t have to shut the viewer into a claustrophobic space. He already saw Room as a microcosmic universe the camera might explore. He understood that where Ma sees danger there is a whole cosmos of love and safety to Jack.”

For Abrahamson the letter was worth a shot given his feelings for Room. He’d come across it while he and his long-time producing partner and good friend, Ed Guiney of Dublin-based Element Pictures (Frank, The Guard), were scanning the world’s literary lists for a book that stood out. “Room kept popping up everywhere,” recalls Guiney. “As soon as Lenny read it, he said this is something special.”

Abrahamson instantly sparked to the book, but not only because it was becoming a sensation. He found it stirringly perceptive – about people; about childrearing; about the whole, wide world. “I’d been struck by the book in a very visceral way, as a filmmaker, as a parent and even as a former child,” he comments. “I had a very strong, immediate feeling for the film that might come from it – so much so that I found myself having conversations with Emma in my head long before I met her. I was already mentally attending the film and boiling over with indignation that I hadn’t yet made it.”

He continues: “So I felt I should send a letter because at least I might express what I had to say cleanly, completely and passionately. Once I sat down and started writing, it expanded into a pretty comprehensive analysis of the book and all the pitfalls I felt might await a filmmaker and how you might avoid them. The one thing I felt I had in my favor is that I’m quite analytical as a filmmaker and I was ready to explain to Emma exactly how her book could work on screen. I was banking on her being open to talking more about that.”

Donoghue was indeed charmed but told Abrahamson she hadn’t yet made up her mind. He patiently waited. “The good news was that as Emma began fielding interest from other filmmakers, hearing their ideas, she kept thinking more and more about the specifics in my letter. And at that same time I was getting better known as a filmmaker, which didn’t hurt,” he laughs.

“We were very understanding of Emma’s hesitation,” adds Guiney. “Here she had written the most important book of her career and getting global attention – so why should she make a movie with two blokes from her home town? But I think we made a very compelling argument that an independent European company would allow her be a real part of the creative team making the film.”


As Abrahamson and Element Pictures wooed Donoghue, all the pieces of the puzzle began aligning. The UK’s Film4 (Twelve Years A Slave, Slumdog Millionaire) and the Irish Film Board joined as development financiers.

Rena Ronson at UTA worked with Element to bring on leading international sales company FilmNation Entertainment along with A24 as U.S. distributor. As production neared, the Canadian production company No Trace Camping completed the enthusiastic lineup of supporters.

Abrahamson was gratified by the combo of freedom and collaboration the team gave him. “We were able to develop the film in a protected space with people who understand the creative process. It was a very, very supportive environment, and that’s the only way to make a film like this,” he says.

So what ultimately won Donoghue over? Abrahamson says it was all about acknowledging what film can observe that writing can’t … and vice versa.

“The biggest question for myself and Emma was how to adapt such an internalized book. In a way, I think I had a sense of the answer from the first time I read the novel. As I imagined the events described in the little boy’s voice I could feel his presence in the pictures, in the sequences. Film does point of view very powerfully, it just does it differently, less directly, in a way much more flexibly, than literature. There were times when I doubted it would work, but I knew that whatever happened I would pursue that vision and would use no obviously stylizing techniques, no overtly subjective camera style. That would just kill the believability and distance us from the boy,” he says.

“So to do a direct stylistic translation from the first-person voice of the book to the film would lose precisely that intimacy with the boy that makes the book so special. I did add back in some voice-over and Emma was very open to this,but really a minimal amount. And, of course, the boy is at the center of the story still – in terms of all the obvious choices – we stick with him, we don’t have scenes where he’s not present. The deeper choices are about how he’s shown, how his face is studied, what lines he pays attention to in the adult conversation around him. Books can tell you things directly in a way that film can’t (and should never attempt to), but film has the modulation of time, and a whole grammar of tone – its own expressive means. And it has faces. The child’s face, observed closely as he plays or listens or thinks, as he tries to make sense of the dramas and dangers around him – this is powerful stuff – especially when we have the simultaneous experience of our own adult understanding.”

One thing the director knew straight out of the gate is that he was not going to get tricksy or whimsical. On the contrary, he wanted to strip away any artifice that might stand between the audience and their experience of Jack and Ma’s two worlds, in and out of Room.

“I suppose I trusted my instinct, and I trusted the story of these people and didn’t hedge, didn’t resort to any tricks, I just tried to track them with maximum sensitivity to the details of what they are feeling, what is at stake for them, as well as capturing the broader ironies, tragedies, social, psychological and familial insights of their story. I tried to make it feel real while at the same time subtly underscoring the more allegorical aspects of Emma’s amazing book in relation to parenting, moving from the safe fuzziness of the childhood cosmology to the danger and uncertainty of the adult world. These things are more powerful because an audience is allowed to sense them, discover them without loud prompts,” says the director.

“It would be quite easy to approach this story in a very stylized way, with animation and all kinds of suggestive camera styles as a way of supposedly rendering Jack’s subjectivity, but I felt that would have been wrong,” Abrahamson notes. “As soon as you lose the naturalism, that sense that these events are really happening to Ma and Jack, you lose the essential power of the story.”

Ironically, restraint lent Donoghue’s story the expansive human scope she and Abrahamson were after onscreen. “As a filmmaker I’ve always believed that once you have constructed the world, peopled it and shaped the action, there is great power to be got from just standing back and watching as openly and honestly as you can… In the case of ROOM, I knew that audiences would become deeply involved in Jack and Ma’s world, would see its wider implications, only if it feels fundamentally true,” says Abrahamson. “ROOM has big resonances outside the specifics of the story, it has the allegorical power of a great fairy tale, but to place this front and center would kill the film. Those bigger ideas are so much more powerful if they are discovered by an audience, felt as being there in the world rather than shouted by the filmmaker.”

Like Donoghue, Abrahamson felt that the second half of the film had to be a total reset. “It’s an interesting thing to say to an audience, ‘You thought the story was over but now just take a breath,’” the director points out. “Just because you’re out of Room, the problem–the real problem–is not solved. Jack and Ma are not free and it will take the rest of the story to free them. In the first half, the singular problem Ma and Jack have is Old Nick. But in the second half the problem for Ma and Jack is the greater problem we all have or have had: how do you deal with bad things and still live in the world? How do you leave the cozy simplicities of childhood and deal with the messiness of adult life? As a parent, how do you remake the relationship with your child as you both change?”

For Guiney, Abrahamson’s approach to Room is at once something new for the director yet also true to his voice. “Lenny is undoubtedly one of the most gifted filmmakers working today but has until now been a bit more under the radar. He knew going into this film that there were going to be an awful lot of expectations, which has made the making of this film a different experience for him,” observes the producer. “I think Lenny’s greatest skill is that his storytelling is utterly truthful – you completely buy the emotional reality of this family and you get caught up in their lives in an incredibly direct, intimate and powerful way. Room is both his most accessible and his most emotional film.”