Emma Donoghue's 2010 bestselling novel Room is told from the point of view of 5-year-old Jack, who's spent his entire life in a 10-by-10-ft. garden shed where he and his kidnapped mother have been trapped for all of his life and seven years of hers. Yet that doesn't mean the book—or its well-received film adaptation, which is generating Oscar buzz for star Brie Larson—is all darkness.
"This is not a horrifying film," says Donoghue, who also wrote the screenplay. "The story we’re telling is about the extraordinary power of parent-child love."
Donoghue talked to TIME about working on the film—in theaters now and nationwide November 6— with actors Larson and Jacob Tremblay, what she took from set and how her readers feel about the adaptation.
TIME: Many authors have voiced frustration about their novels becoming movies. How was the experience for you?
Emma Donoghue: I had a good feeling the story was cinematic. I thought, well, I'll draft a screenplay so that when I choose a filmmaker, I can be very honest and show them my draft. I kept waiting for something to happen that would make me feel betrayed and alienated in the traditional way that writers often report their encounters with the film industry, but it never happened. On set, I was a fascinated observer. The writer pours everything she can into the script and communicates it to the director. You really are handing the story on for all these people to tell.
How did you feel when you found Brie to play Ma?
The director said to me, 'We have to find someone warm and kind.' I think Short Term 12 really was an outstanding performance. [Brie's] kind of generosity and naturalness with the young actors in that film, even though they're teenagers rather than children, unearthed that fact that she was the right person for this job.
Did she play a motherly role to Jacob on set?
She and Jacob deserve some credit for each other's performance. She's said that he was a huge stress relief to her when she would film very, very intense scenes. If the camera stopped rolling, he'd be joking with her. I saw her do a lot of gentle coaching with him. Not so much about emotions, but just saying 'Oh, let's tuck that curl behind your ear!' or 'Straighten your back!' Jacob did astonishing work, but it's partly because of the low-key and generous direction he got from Lenny [Abrahamson], who's a father of two small children, and the direction he got from Brie.
How have your fans reacted to the adaptation so far?
The audience wasn't quite like the crazed fans of Twilight or The Hunger Games. But I did have a lot of people who the story had meant a great deal to, and I certainly felt like I wanted to get it right for them. In particular, I think they wanted more Ma because many had emailed me asking for a prequel or a parallel narrative. I did think that the film version would be a great opportunity to let Ma step forward.
Are you excited for some people to find the film without having read the book?
The thing about every suspenseful storyline is that it’s an advantage not to have read the book. Some people go into the film and for the first ten minutes they think that the mother is just agoraphobic or something. It’s fun to think there are lots of audience members who will be experiencing, along with Jack, the gradual shock of 'Where are we?' There are things fiction does better—like, there are lots of Jack’s thoughts in the book. The film does a different thing and it gives the characters their bodies. It’s just wonderful to see a child so expressive. Like Jacob's little feet. There are a number of shots in the film where his feet are touching new surfaces and almost tasting them.
Why do you think audiences are so fascinated by the idea of living life in Room?
I have a theory that it’s because our lives are so busy and connected. We are perversely fascinated by the notion of a life lived in one room because there’s a combination of a nightmare and then, on the other hand, it’s kind of a dream for many people of a monastic retreat, getting away from it all, being quiet. People are strangely drawn to the idea of what if you could somehow turn your prison cell into a happy place? How could it be simultaneously a bit of a heaven, as well as in some ways, a hell?
Did you take anything from the set?
They gave me one copy of the awful rotten tooth. It’s remarkably ugly. I didn’t put it on a silver chain because it’s really too ugly a thing to wear around your neck. I’ve kept it hidden away. It sort of makes me smile every time I see it.