Over at Vulture, they’re doing a series with the year’s most acclaimed screenwriters discussing the scenes they found hardest to write. The scene from Emma Donoghue, who adapted her book Room into the screenplay, has completely blown me away. Granted, this won’t be a big deal to anyone who has read the book— and if you haven’t seen the movie, it’s pretty spoilery— but if all you know if the film version, there was apparently a pretty big plot point cut out.
As Donoghue describes it, in the book, the character of Joy (or Ma) was pregnant once before she gave birth to Jack. The girl ended up stillborn, since Joy had no medical care during pregnancy.
In the novel I offset the drama by having it come up in a low-key way, when Jack asks Ma about something he overheard her say to her lawyer. But for the screenplay, I moved the revelation to a more dramatic, visually evocative point: When Ma and Jack return to Old Nick’s (Sean Bridgers) backyard where Room stands, and see the grave from which the police have excavated the baby’s body — which prompts her to finally share the truth with Jack.
That’s one hell of a heavy plot point. And as Donoghue goes on to say, it’s heavy enough in written form, in a novel, where you can undercut things in a different way. In film, something like that is harder to de-emphasize if that’s what you’re going for.
The problem was that when the confession happened at that moment — or anywhere else in the script I tried putting it — the scene became an utter downer. Worse: Whereas a book can meander toward its destination, a film has a forward momentum. The stillbirth story slammed the brakes and yanked us back toward the tragic past. So the scene I sweated over longest ended up cut, and I have to grudgingly admit that the film’s better without it.I can’t think of the last time a movie affected me the way Room did. I’ve probably thought about that movie every day since I saw it, and a big part of that is due to its complicated tone. Seeing a trailer or hearing the plot description for Room, most of us thought we knew what we were walking into: an unrelentingly depressing tearjerker. But while we were all probably expecting a “downer” from start to finish, that word isn’t one I would use to describe the movie. Most of the tears (mine, anyway) don’t come until the relief— until after Joy and Jack are rescued. Yes, the whole movie is incredibly upsetting, but Donoghue (and director Lenny Abrahamson) managed to consistently undercut the sadness with seemingly unending layers of deeper, more engaging nuance.
The existence of another pregnancy is a hell of an addition, and it must have seemed nearly essential to the character Donoghue had created. It’s impressive that she could then recognize it as being superfluous and even damaging in her adaptation.