The Latest Sally Rooney Adaptation is a Bust

‘Conversations with Friends’ and the conversation around on-screen sex

Is it even really a pandemic spring without a Sally Rooney romance to keep you company? After the mega success of Normal People in 2020, Hulu released Conversations with Friends, an adaptation of Rooney’s debut about two college students and former lovers who become entangled in a married couple’s relationship. Girls’ Jemima Kirke, obviously, plays the cool wife. The series tracks the same ground as Normal People—waifish brunette protagonists-doubling-as-Rooney-analogues fall for pretty men, lots of graphic sex and socialist monologues without sacrificing the romcom tropey big houses and expensive vacations—but with less success.

“‘Conversations With Friends’ follows the ‘Normal People’ pattern so closely that it often feels more like a faded impression rather than its own series,” writes Caroline Framke in Variety. Literary twitter largely agreed with her:

I read the novel right before COVID-19 reached the US, around February 2020, and my only standout memory was of the main characters exchanging way more emails than I ever have in my life—a detail the show largely leaves out, to its demise. (Rooney’s latest, Beautiful World, Where Are You, does the email thing again, but much more beautifully and purposely than in her debut, though both are worth reading.)

In the novel, Frances, the Rooney character, is consumed by her relationship with Nick, an older, married man and successful, hot actor. The two are kind of awkward intellectuals with deeply personal creative pursuits—acting and slam poetry (ugh)—who aren’t that fun at parties. But together, in their emails and, eventually, their IRL romance, the two find their voices and grow into confident and vulnerable lovers.

Yet, on screen, viewers get none of that. The awkward, bad-at-parties vibe is there for sure, especially with Frances’ and Nick’s partners as their vivacious foil characters. For what it’s worth, Kirke and Sasha Lane are incredible in the series, and their energy and nuance stand in stark contrast to the protagonists, who barely share a full sentence before falling in love. The intensity of their connection and attraction, and the home they feel when together, was just not there for me.

As a big romance reader, this is a chronic problem for me: good romance hinges on the couple’s internal conflict, which is hard to represent on screen. However, that doesn’t mean that adaptations aren’t worthwhile. Around the same time that Conversations with Friends dropped, The Discourse shifted to the necessity of on-screen sex:

Despite the big hit romances like Bridgerton we’ve seen lately, according to writer Kate Hagen, there is way less sex in mainstream movies now than at any point in the last 50 years. Hollywood is super sex-less. Online, some folks would probably support that, bringing up issues of consent and coercion in its depiction on-screen. Others, myself, included, worry that the idea that a sex scene in a film or TV show needs to be productive aligns with contemporary sociopolitical issues around sex, reproductive and abortion. I bristle at the idea that any art requires necessity at all; you can just enjoy and create media for pleasure’s sake.

The Discourse continues on, while many romance fans, and Rooney toons, like me, remain thirsty.

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Katie Smith

Katie Smith is a Philadelphia-based writer. Find her on Instagram @saddy_yankee for cat pics.

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