“How do you be the nice girl, but also the fierce heroine?”

Novelist Emma Donoghue on adapting her bestselling novel, Room, the problem with niceness and enforcing your “womanly will”

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By Anna James on

The night before I was due to interview Emma Donoghue about the film of her bestselling novel, Room, I went to see her in conversation with director Lenny Abrahamson. The final question, directed at Donoghue, was about how she managed to write such traumatic scenes. Donoghue laughed and said that she *enjoyed* writing them; it was writing badly that upset her. 

The question - and her answer - stayed with me overnight, and was still nagging at me as we sat down to chat the next morning. Was this something that came up a lot? Would anyone ask a male author or screenwriter how they coped with writing the “nasty” bits?

Donoghue burst out laughing. “I’ve never thought of this, that’s a good question. You never hear anyone say, “Ooh Ian McEwan tell us of your tragedy!” But really instead of feeling sheepish that I wasn’t crying my way through the writing of Room I should be like, yeah, I did what I needed to do! I’ll notice it all the time now!”

This response is typical of Donoghue; forthright, warm, and unapologetic; as she can afford to be, backed up by countless weeks at the top of international bestseller lists, not to mention Golden Globe, BAFTA and Oscar nominations for her screenplay. [Sadly Donoghue didn’t walk away with a Globe, Brie Larson’s astonishingly powerful performance as Ma deservedly did.]

Donoghue and Larson


How did you come to adapt the screenplay yourself?

I just didn’t ask anyone else! It’s not so much that I thought I was the only one who could do it, more that I thought it would be really interesting as a task. Once I started working with Lenny, he was really happy to start with my script and to help me make it better.

The film works so beautifully because it manages to capture the same emotions as the book, how did you pull that off?

By not sticking literally to the book. We’ve all seen films where you can’t name a single difference and yet somehow the magic’s gone. You have to approach it in a roundabout way, so you speed through some things and then really slow down and take it moment by moment with other things. 

A particularly powerful moment in the film is where Ma says to her mother that maybe if she’d been told less to be “nice” she wouldn’t have been kidnapped. Were you trying to explore anything specific about women and power?

I think some of that feminist commentary came out of the research I was doing about the lives of kidnap victims who were held in this kind of long term, almost domestic, kidnapping situation. I got really interested in the texts being produced; like message boards about Elizabeth Fritzl where total strangers would one minute be describing her like a saint and the next minute they’d be criticising her. We set these women up on pedestals and then we start snipping and sniping and saying that they could have got away a little earlier. I got very interested in the idea of how do you be the nice girl but also the fierce heroine. 

What were you trying to explore in terms of ideas about parenthood?

As parents there are always those moments when you’re trying to do your best for your kid and you suddenly think oh no I’ve made the wrong decision. These judgment calls are painful and you often end the day as a parent feeling like you made a lot of bad decisions. Lenny and I were always trying to capture the universal even in this bizarre and extreme situation, it’s never just focused on the trappings of a crime drama. 

Room managed to gain both critical and commercial success, which is rare for a novel. Particularly novels by or about women. Do you think this applies to films too?

It’s not like everyone loved Room! I got plenty of bad reviews too! But there’s definitely a sneering at what women like. I saw a couple of nasty blogs saying the film was only doing so well because of women and feminised film critics. I love the idea that we’ve created a race of Stepford film critics who will do our womanly will. I wish! But it’s certainly true that films focused on women don’t tend to be seen as the important films of the year, the idea of stuff focused on women being a minority interest film. 

Do you find that you’re categorised as a “female writer” rather than a “writer”?

Not that often, actually. I find that If you’re tense about any of your identity labels they will haunt you because the media will constantly ask you over and over again, probing the wound. Whereas if you say, yes, I’m happy to talk about being Irish, about being a lesbian, about being a woman, then it’s not a big issue. So I think the best approach is not to have any sore subjects. 

Room is in cinemas nationwide from Friday 15 January


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women in film

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