When the BBC announced last year that it would be airing a 12-part adaptation of Normal People – the Booker-nominated, every-prize-winning, roundly adored 2018 novel by the Irish writer Sally Rooney – I can’t confess to having been too enthused. This was mostly because I felt that the pleasure of this story was in its very novel-ness: in the psychological detail of the characters, and in Rooney’s liberal use of free indirect discourse, which lets us in on Connell and Marianne’s thoughts and feelings first hand.
The writing is intimate but deeply matter-of-fact, and the combination means that reading Normal People is often as physical an experience for the reader – holding your breath as your pulse quickens, feeling the feelings along with the characters – as it is for the two figures at its centre. The first time I read it, I don’t think I consciously exhaled for the first 50 pages. It is exhilarating to read. This is largely because it manages to capture something about the various ways we can love a person – to be in love with someone, to love their body, but also to love them beyond all of that, in an almost familial way – and how complex and frustrating that can be. How could television, incapable of the real-time disclosure of emotions that is so integral to the thrill of the story ever recreate the book’s skittishly beating heart?
The answer is that it does so partially. Rooney co-wrote the series alongside Alice Birch and Mark O’Rowe, while directors Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald split the 12 episodes. Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones play Connell and Marianne. Between the writing, the directing and the lead performances, some parts of the book come convincingly to life – and others less so.
The script stays true to the novel's dialogue, frequently lifting lines verbatim. The sense of intimacy is gestured at as characters disclose thoughts which they had in private to each other instead. An observation that Marianne makes when watching Connell play football in the novel, for example – “It occurred to Marianne how much she wanted to see him having sex with someone; it didn’t have to be her, it could be anyone. It would be beautiful just to watch him.” – becomes something that she tells him in an early episode instead.
Similarly, the fifth episode features a long scene in which Marianne and Connell have a conversation about their past together, and the writers once again repurpose thoughts that the characters had in the novel as spoken dialogue – the sort of DMC we only have with the closest people to us. The conversation reinforces the bond between them, enacting a line from the book in fact – “When he talks to Marianne he has a sense of total privacy between them. He could tell her anything about himself, even weird things, and she would never repeat them, he knows that. Being alone with her is like opening a door away from normal life and then closing it behind him.” – helping to colour it for viewers, but fundamentally changing the way that the relationship is articulated.
Near the beginning of the novel, Connell thinks about his relationship to Marianne: “For a few seconds he says nothing, and the intensity of the privacy between them is very severe, pressing in on him with an almost physical pressure on his face and body.” This is to say that so much of what happens between Marianne and Connell is, from the very beginning of their friendship, unspoken. In the book, these feelings are described in plain and uncompromising terms by Rooney’s writing. On TV, it is still wildly enjoyable to watch – the early episodes fizz with the same momentum as the novel – but the angular matter-of-factness with which their story is told dissolves away a little, replaced by the necessary narrative conventions and restrictions of TV. Dreamy pop songs at the end of episodes, for example, and a couple of times, the trademark unrealistic nightclub scenes of any self-respecting contemporary BBC drama.
Of course, all of these gripes are mostly concerned with how Normal People the show works, versus Normal People the book. They will necessarily make up a larger part of the criticism of the programme than they would for most other book-to-TV adaptations because the novel was so popular. But there is a great deal to love about the show. I can’t remember enjoying a romantic drama so much in an extremely long time, and the first half especially details the mouth-chewing come-up of a teenage infatuation beautifully. Abrahamson’s choices create a palpable sense of closeness in Marianne and Connell’s scenes together (unsurprisingly, from the director of the multi award-winning 2015 film Room, about a woman and her son held captive in a single room). Breathing and other ambient noise is loud in the sound mix. In fact, many of the episodes begin with some sort of diegetic sound – like traffic or body movement – which you hear before anything appears onscreen, subsuming you right into the action. The sex scenes – pivotal to the book’s success – are languid and slowly edited.
It’s this physicality that both elevates Normal People's TV adaptation, and ties it to the novel. It takes it beyond the garden-variety young adult romances it is generically aligned with by virtue of its subject matter (and this isn’t to denigrate that genre, which includes many bonafide masterpieces of melodrama; The O.C., for example, actually gets a nod during Normal People via the use of Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek,” which is forever tied to that show), as it attempts to offer something new.
At its best, Normal People achieves this, mostly through its gestures towards realism. Mescal’s vulnerable portrayal of Connell’s mental illness is relayed to us unflinchingly, the camera focusing in on him as he explains the details of his depression to a counsellor, presenting his condition in terms we don’t tend to see much on television. There is the looming ominousness of Marianne’s house (anyone who has experienced violence or abuse in their home will recognise that teetering mood, the constant dull ache of atmosphere, in the Sheridan mansion) compared with the open warmth of Connell’s, and the only-in-movies eroticism of some of the sex scenes is balanced by real starkness in others.
The kicker of Normal People is of course that Connell and Marianne are not normal people at all; they are exceptional in many ways. This can be a frustrating aspect of the novel sometimes, but on TV, it feels like less of a concern: part of the reason we watch television in the first place is to see special people doing special things. What is most magnetic about the adaptation, however, is the bond that Mescal and Edgar-Jones are able to conjure, which is also the most universal aspect of this story. We all love someone, have all had to make difficult decisions about love. Normal People, with the novel at its heart, explores and widens the possibilities of expressing via television how that feels.