With Conversations with Friends and Normal People topping the book charts in the UK and worldwide, transferring Sally Rooney’s work to the small screen seems particularly demanding. In 2019, the young Irish author’s second novel won a top prize at the British Book Awards and having now circulated across the globe in 25 languages, has recently been adapted into the twelve episode long TV series by BBC and Hulu.
This successful re-appropriation of a novel for the screen wasn’t achieved solely by measuring up to the gripping storytelling and poignant psychological portraits, both highlighting Rooney’s prose. The nagging question for any avid fan of the book is perhaps how to render the intimacy and emotions that made the worlds of Marianne and Connell feel so utterly lifelike in the first place. With Ed Guiney among the executive producers and Rooney collaborating with Alice Birch on the script, it comes as no surprise that the story of a young couple and their complicated love compels again. The BBC/Hulu adaptation preserves subtlety of Rooney’s insight into young people’s feelings and illuminates their connection without indulging in an all too well known tone of a soppy love story.
Normal People focuses on the dynamics of first love shaped by inchoate feelings and challenges of communication that Marianne and Connell confront as they come of age. The young pair begin a secret relationship during the last year of secondary school, drawn together by a rare sense of affinity whilst also intimidated by the prospect of being teased in class. The secrecy is, more or less, advantageous only for Connell. He befriends well-liked schoolmate Rob Hegarty (Eanna Hardwicke) and, at least initially, doesn’t want to lose the recognition of his clique by showing up with Marianne, whom they ridicule. Their clandestine love thrives upon the intimacy of rendezvous, but inevitably becomes fraught with sacrifices made to maintain the inner boundaries.
Hulu and BBC’s co-production remains faithful to the novel and its timeframe progressing from the couple’s teenage days in provincial Sligo, West Ireland, to a period of study at Trinity College Dublin and abroad. Focusing on family relations and secondary school in-crowds, the early episodes encapsulate a series of dichotomies, contrasting Marianne’s affluence and social isolation with Connell’s working-class background and effortless popularity at school.
Following them from Sligo to Dublin, we watch their relationship loosen and fall apart multiple times, while the inner attachment to one another remains intact. Handling the continually evolving nature of this up-and-down bond is what directors Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald are to be praised for. The Hulu and BBC’s series covers four years of an on-off relationship alongside a vortex of vulnerability and desire, an authenticity the romance film often misses.
While films about young couples’ relations seem innumerable, there’s still a freshness to the series’ take on the interactions between Marianne and Connell. Ita O’Brien’s contribution as an intimacy coordinator resulted in a number of disarmingly frank scenes exploring sexual relations with a vigilant eye for communication and consent. The recurring portrayals of physical affinity are slow-paced and tender to the extent that the viewer feels intrusive at times. But at some point, one begins to understand their inherence to the story. After all, Normal People tells us there are only few people we can expose our true selves to. The sense of voyeurism that accompanies our watching Marianne and Connell somehow attests to this rare and life-changing discovery taking place onscreen.
The intertwining of physical closeness and dialogues that constitute Marianne and Connell’s connection creates just enough room for their bond to appear both sublime and real. Using long takes as well as still and enjoyably slow-paced scenes, the series captures immaculately the affinity, comfort and communication that make Marianne and Connell’s relationship feel so uniquely intimate. On par with the excellent visuals, the acting of Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal radiates with an emotional depth at all times. The heartfelt performances of these young actors capture the beauty of recognizing a soul mate in someone we love with an equal attention to the pain that often goes hand in hand with affection.
The series is undoubtedly tense with recurrent sorrow, misunderstandings, and pain, but these are handled too profoundly to be dismissed as overexposure. In the end, Normal People is a celebration of genuine, life-changing connections and as such, leaves us with a feeling of warmth and invigorating buoyancy.
Edited by Juliette Howard, Deputy Film Editor