Gentle, moving and a little bit sexy, the BBC and Hulu’s take on Sally Rooney’s book club staple Normal People not only survives adaptation, it thrives, writes Sam Brooks.
If the Unity Books charts are anything to go by, everybody in New Zealand owns about two copies of Sally Rooney’s Normal People. The novel by the relative Irish newcomer took a certain milieu by storm; it told the story of a late teens-early 20s romance between Marianne, a brooding upper-class waif, and Connell, a sensitive jock whose mother works as a housekeeper for Marianne. Throughout, Rooney slowly pulled the pair apart, revealing the trauma brought upon by class differences, long-held insecurities, and emotional inertia. She did so in a way that tugged so gently and persistently on your heartstrings that you didn’t notice until the very end how much she, and the book, had got under your skin. It straddled, near perfectly, the line between taking a young relationship seriously without being utterly ponderous or insisting upon itself. The success was, in short, deserved.
It’s not surprising that someone picked it up to adapt for the screen – more or less any book that’s tipped for this much success ends up getting its screen rights sold as soon as it hits the shelves. What’s more surprising is the form. Rather than a film, which might be more fitting for the book’s fairly short length, it’s been adapted into a 12-part series by the BBC and Hulu, headed up by writers Alice Birch and Mark O’Lowe. It’s an audacious risk to take for a story that is this insular; it’s far more attuned to the internal rhythms of its characters than it is any external plot. The obstacles here are interpersonal, sometimes structural (hey class system!), and not necessarily suited for episodic storytelling. There’s every chance the translation could’ve lost what made the book special by adding unnecessary narrative, say a twist here or a character here, and be another in a long line of adaptations made solely for people who didn’t read the book.
However, Normal People doesn’t just happily survive adaptation, it thrives. Lenny Abrahamson (Room) directs the first six episodes while Hettie McDonald (Beautiful Thing) handles the back half, and both lend the show’s Irish setting an appropriately dour atmosphere. This is the Ireland of The Cranberries, not The Corrs. While the oppression of small-town Carricklea and urban Dublin hovered at the edges of the book, it’s felt acutely here. It’s a wonder that anything can survive in this perpetually cloudy grey, let alone the awkward teen love between class-crossed Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal). The show, thankfully, retains the novel’s delicate but extremely full understanding of the ways in which class, privilege, and abuse interact with our inner insecurities to create understandably flawed human beings.
Much more so than the book, Normal People exists in the wake of every teen film that precedes it. When teen romance is depicted on film, it’s usually done in one of two ways. Firstly, there’s the breezy, well-lit, joke-laden teen comedy where a happy resolution seems like a given and psychological realism is, understandably, put to the side. Then there’s the tragic teen drama where one person is usually ill or disadvantaged by some other circumstance and the goal is more to wring tears out of the viewer rather than, again, provide any psychological insight or emotional depth. While the book never ran the risk of being called young adult fiction (though I’d argue that it wouldn’t be an unsuitable read for young adults), it’s a hurdle that the show has to get over. But other than one soundtrack choice that boldly attempts to reclaim a song back from mid-aughts memedom, it easily clears it.
One of the more difficult things that the show has to thread is the couple’s relationship: sex then love, which is more or less the opposite of every major teen film out there. Marianne and Connell find each other through an awkward friendship at first, but seem to find true connection when they actually have sex which is filmed in the most non-exploitative way I’ve ever seen, especially considering that for a significant part of the series, both characters are in their teens.
Sex is a huge part of Normal People and this is more true of the show than the book. While the pair have to hide their relationship from their schoolmates – a sticking point for both people for different reasons – it’s these scenes where we feel the connection and see them bring their shields down. It’s a credit to both Edgar-Jones and Mescal that these scenes don’t feel plotless or remotely like titillation, but necessary parts of the development of this relationship. Game of Thrones this isn’t.
What’s lost is some of Rooney’s cynicism. While Rooney stayed for the most part inside the heads of her protagonists, effortlessly shifting perspectives without ever tilting the audience’s sympathies hither or thither, the show doesn’t have the benefit of its storyteller; cynicism doesn’t translate well to the screen if your characters aren’t the one expressing it. But what is gained is an increased insularity – we understand how important this relationship is to Marianne and Connell, and the grey-toned oppression of the world around them is emphasised even more here. The show is a gentler beast than the book, which is probably necessary – six hours of cynical observation of this relationship would be punishing. But six hours of being in the world of these lovelorn youths feels transportive, even healing at times.
It’s a relationship that’s doomed, we know that from the start, but being able to watch these people fumble forwards together doesn’t feel like watching a bus heading towards the edge of a cliff. No, it feels like watching a bus going on its journey, with the passengers getting off at different stops. A relationship ended isn’t necessarily a relationship failed, and the beauty of Normal People, in any form, is how profoundly it understands this.
You can watch all 12 episodes of Normal People on TVNZ on Demand right now.