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Emma Donoghue on avoiding voyeurism in much-hyped kidnapping drama, Room

Bestselling writer whose renowned literary critic father Denis grew up in Warrenpoint, and director Lenny Abrahamson tell Keeley Bolger about drama Room

Published 08/01/2016

Dramatic tale: Author Emma Donoghue
Dramatic tale: Author Emma Donoghue
Locked up: Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay as Ma and Jack in Room
Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay as Ma and her son Jack in the film adaption of the bestselling novel Room
Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay as Ma and her son Jack in the film adaption of the bestselling novel Room
Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay as Ma and her son Jack in the film adaption of the bestselling novel Room
Novel ideas: director Lenny Abrahamson

Emma Donoghue had a clear idea of what she didn't want in the film adaptation of her bestselling novel, Room. A hit when it was published in 2010 - gifting book clubs, including Donoghue's own group, with lively discussions about the moving story of a mother and son who are held captive in a windowless room for years - she was insistent that the movie didn't veer into morbid sensationalism.

"There's nothing remotely original about telling the story of kidnapped white girl," explains the award-winning writer. "Our culture is obsessed with the idea and I really wanted to do something that the other stories weren't doing."

Instead, she was adamant that Room explored the changing relationship between five-year-old Jack, who was born in the room, and his Ma, who'd been kidnapped some years before.

Fortunately, the director Lenny Abrahamson -who was so keen to adapt the story that he sent the writer a 10-page letter explaining exactly how he would bring it to the cinema - agreed with her.

"I was so convinced when I read Room that I knew how to make it," recalls Abrahamson, whose previous credits include 2014's Frank, starring Michael Fassbender. "I was so captivated by the novel and what Emma had done with it."

And now, with three Golden Globe nominations, for best drama, actress (for newcomer Brie Larson who plays Ma) and screenplay for Donoghue, clearly their approach has paid off.

Dublin-born Donoghue, who now lives in Canada with her female partner Chris and two young children, is the daughter of literary critic Denis Donoghue, who although born in Co Carlow, was brought up in Warrenpoint, Co Down where his father was sergeant-in-charge of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The academic, who married Frances Rutledge, attended the Irish Christian Brothers in Newry before studying Latin and English at University College Dublin, followed by a stint at University of Cambridge before becoming a professor at UCD then at New York University.

Emma, who is one of eight children, also studied at her father's alma mater UCD, writing her novel Room in 2010 which was a finalist for the Man Brooker prize and an international bestseller.

Before the film opens in cinemas later this month, Donoghue and Abrahamson discuss the story, the challenges they faced making the movie and the resulting hype.

Keen not to just be another crime drama, Room is told from Jack's perspective, who is played by child actor Jacob Tremblay. And as well as showing their domestic lives inside the room, it also avoids poring over the crime.

"I wanted to focus very much on the amazing way Ma has turned her situation around by being a great mother," says Donoghue (46). "She defines herself as Jack's Ma, rather than as the one who is raped every night.

"I really wanted to reject the kidnapper's terms and not let him have control of the narrative. It was really important for me to let this be Ma and Jack's story."

The writer believes it would have been "facile" to finish the story with Ma and Jack's escape. Instead, she wanted to delve into the way they adjust after being reunited with the outside world.

"I think that would have implied that modern society is just fine, and the only problem is that you're locked up and you want to get out into the world," Donoghue explains. "I couldn't resist the opportunity to have Jack see our world; I think that's far more interesting, and also for us to see what our world would do to Jack and Ma."

Both Abrahamson and Donoghue were intrigued by the reaction to the real story of Austrian woman Elisabeth Fritzl, who was imprisoned by her abusive father in a basement for 24 years.

In a similar way, Ma and Jack are greeted and cheered by strangers when they're eventually released and move to Ma's parents' house, and given presents and hounded for interviews.

"How did they not think, 'This is terrible?'" asks Abrahamson. "I mean the people who have been held captive just need to be left in peace more than anybody else."

As such, adapting the story prompted some deep discussion. "You do have to ask yourself the question as a film-maker, 'Well then, why am I making the story?' And I think it's clear from the film and the novel that there are very good and decent reasons for telling it," says Abrahamson.

"Ma agrees to do one TV interview and the interviewer represents that false concern, which is, in fact, desire to be titillated by the awfulness of somebody else's experience. I would never want to tell that story."

One of the breakout performances in the film comes from nine-year-old Tremblay. But how do you explain such a terrifying concept to a child?

"The great thing about children is that they understand that there are baddies," says the Irish director, whose own young son and daughter played with Tremblay when they made occasional visits to the set. "So many fairy stories have a theme of good people being held captive by bad people, so that part of the story was easy for him to understand."

Looking back, the experience of working with the Canadian child star has been unlike anything else Abrahamson has done in his career. "It's definitely both the most rewarding and the most challenging task I've ever had as a director," he says. "It's a monumental performance and he was seven when we started. It was intense but great fun as well, because he's such a lovely boy."

With three Golden Globe nominations and more than 30 wins so far at various international film ceremonies, there is sizeable hype surrounding Room.

"I try not to get caught up in speculation, but I have to say that in the case of this film, it's hugely helpful," admits Donoghue. "It draws people's attention to the film quickly and also makes them feel vaguely positive things about it, especially with the dark, scary storyline.

"If people tell them that Brie Larson is astonishingly good, it induces them to go and see it. And for film with as dark a premise as Room, it's been massively helpful."

Room is released in cinemas next Friday

Belfast Telegraph

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