When Lenny Abrahamson read Emma Donoghue’s New York Times bestselling novel “Room,” he knew he was the right director to turn it into a movie.
“I thought, ‘I have to make it. Somebody else is going to make a mess of it,” Abrahamson told Indiewire back in October. The problem was that, in early 2011, Abrahamson had only directed two small and little-seen feature films set in Ireland, and had not yet started working on the 2014 Sundance hit (and Michael Fassbender-starrer) “Frank.” Meanwhile, “Room” was a very hot property and Donoghue was being approached by a number of A-list directors.
For months now, Abrahamson has been telling reporters that he got his foot in the door with Donoghue by writing her a carefully crafted letter that detailed not only his deep appreciation for her book, but also how he would propose adapting it into a film. Indiewire asked the now-Oscar-nominated director if we could see the letter, and he not only shared it with us, but gave Indiewire permission to publish it. The letter is a fascinating insight into “Room,” but it is also an important lesson in how successful directors must be able to share their vision for a movie before they start making it.
You can read Abrahamson’s full five page letter to Donoghue at the bottom of this page.
The first two pages of Abrahamson letter are a deep analysis of the book that highlight his understanding, especially as a parent himself, of the mother-son relationship between Ma (Brie Larson) and Jack (Jacob Tremblay). Abrahamson writes:
“It’s one of the strengths of ‘Room’ that the relationship of mother and son is not shown in any idealized way. Ma’s occasionally intense frustration with Jack – desire to be away from him, not to have his needs, his demands constantly tugging at her – is something any parent will recognize. One of the brilliant insights of the novel is that, while inside room, where she is under the most intense pressure and can have no space of her own (except by psychologically shutting down) Ma is better able to control this reaction than when she is on the outside.”
Once establishing his nuanced understanding of the book’s text, Abrahamson tackles how he would adapt the book’s point of view and emotional core:
“The territory explored in ‘Room’ should have made for a relentlessly bleak novel. The author’s brilliant choice of Jack as narrator is what prevents this. Jack shields us from a too raw encounter with the terrible facts of room which might otherwise reduce the expressive range of the novel to a single note of horror. Thinking about this, the main challenge which arises for me in imagining a film adaptation is how to achieve something similar without a first person narrator. In the end, it won’t be any single stylistic choice which will answer this question. There will be many things that will make this Jack’s film. At the most basic, physical level, we should always be with Jack, never seeing or hearing anything he wouldn’t be able to see or hear; when he’s in the wardrobe, we’re in the wardrobe with him, when he’s wrapped in the rug playing dead we’ll be with him, on his face, or seeing what little he can see, and not relieving the claustrophobic closeness with a wide shot until he frees himself and is assailed by a vast and overwhelming outside world.”
As Abrahamson explained to Indiewire, one of the more brilliant aspects of the letter is that in describing to Donoghue how he would protect her voice, he subtly undercuts other approaches — and in essence, other director’s pitches — to adapting “Room”:
“Of course, something which could also be used to make this very definitely Jack’s story is voice-over; Jack’s inner voice speaking directly to us as it does in the novel. My feeling is that perhaps this could be made to work, but it would need to be handled with a lot of care. Voice-over in film does something very different to first person prose narrative. In prose there must always be a voice – the voice is the medium. In film, on the other hand, a voice speaking directly to the viewer runs in parallel with the much more immediate flow of sound and image; film voice-over will always feel like a device and the effects of this would have to be taken into account very carefully.”
One of the challenges of adapting “Room” into a movie is the fact that the two main characters, Ma and Jack, are trapped in a small backyard shed. Abrahamson’s solution to this is to embrace the essence of the book, and he warns Donoghue against directors who will try to solve this problem with a robust use of their camera:
“Visually, shooting such a large proportion of a film inside a single, small room might seem like a problem – after all, don’t films rely on scale, movement, shifting locations and so on? In the case of ‘Room’ I have no worries. Room is small in dimension, but in meaning it is a fantastically rich, story filled and ritualized space. Every object has its history and is marked by multiple stories from Jack and Ma’s past. And room is full of different locations – under the table where Jack sees mouse, inside wardrobe, bed, bath… each for Jack, is a separate world. And room can be transformed for Phys Ed, for washing, for cleaning. Scale is not absolute in film any more than in any other visual medium. Room is a small place but it has been painted in fascinating detail on a big canvas. And there are so many brilliant images from the time inside room – doing ‘corpse’ as part of daily exercises, singing rain songs when skylight shows wet, washing their clothes together in the bath.
Any film version of ‘Room,’ which imposes an over-energized camera style, or any other self-conscious visual device, in the mistaken belief that the physical constraint of location need to be somehow compensated for, will fail because it will lose the taste of reality on which the power of the novel depends. In general, the tone of the film – across the entire story – should be low-key and natural; shifts in emphasis, moments of suspense, pathos, horror, catharsis have to achieved without the viewers’ attention being drawn to the mechanics. Any appropriation of easy genre techniques has to be avoided… Narrative simplicity and integrity of voice are two of the great strengths of the novel; moments of significance are seamlessly embedded into the unfolding story without any showy stylistic fanfare. The same must be true of the film.”
Without even mentioning his Hollywood competition, Abrahamson does a brilliant job of making the case that Donoghue must protect against the compromise of going the “safe” route:
“Serious films can reach big audiences – there’s ample precedent for this over the last few years – but only when they are made boldly and without nervy compromise. My determination would be to stick honestly to the audacious structure, and brilliant content of the book. This is why having a company like Film4 on board is so important. They have a track record of making films of scale and impact without hobbling the material in the belief that it’s somehow a safer bet to make a more conventional film. They will allow me to keep ‘Room’ safe from harm.
I love this book, I feel I understand how it works, and I believe I have the skill and sensitivity to do it justice on film.”
Abrahamson’s full letter can be read below: