It will make you love the TV adaptation even more
Reading Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel Normal People feels like beautiful madness, and I’ve been nervous to see how that madness could translate to the screen. Fans have received the novel’s adaptation, produced by Hulu and BBC Three, no differently. Most young people I know made short work of the 12-episode miniseries, which premiered Wednesday, April 29. By Friday, a friend from college had texted me, enraptured, “I stayed up last night and watched the whole thing.”
Reactions online were no different. “I am playing a drinking game when I watch Normal People, but it’s crying, so every time they kiss or have sex I cry,” tweeted chef Alison Roman just before getting into her Internet beef with Chrissy Tiegen.
“Normal People feels like the writers wrapped up every romantic frustration I’ve ever had, crystallized the emotions I never fully allowed myself to confront, and forced me to watch two brilliant actors play it out,” says Netflix’s Jarett Wieselman in a tweet. “This show is so fucking good. I also hate it.10/10 recommend.”
Despite all this well-earned fervor, let me offer this advice: Please read Normal People before watching the TV adaptation. In general, the by-the-book purists miss the point of an adaptation, but there is something so striking, so gutting, so spookily satisfying about the way Rooney writes Marianne and Connell. Naturally, the adaptation loses some of that interiority.
Normal People is a story you obsess over, focus on with tunnel vision, race to get through but simultaneously try to linger over. When I would stop reading the novel to, you know, go to work or buy my groceries, I pined for it, reenacting scenes I’d just read or dropping the story’s characters into my own life. I’d lie around and turn the novel around in my head, the way I might have spent my time longing over young love when I was in school. When it was finished, I was emotionally hungover, still very caught up in the romance of a story rendered with such nuance of feeling and thought. In the two years since, there are still moments I turn over– those first pages of expectation after their first kiss, Connell driving Marianne home after the debs fundraiser and again after her brother breaks her nose, their reuniting in Dublin during a college party.
“It’s classic me,” says Marianne, a social pariah in high school, in one of my favorite lines. “Came to college and got pretty.”
The book and the series tell the story of Marianne, a high school outcast-turned hip college intellectual, and Connell, the jock that decides to go to Trinity to write short stories, and their connection. Less than ten pages in, the two have secretly kissed and a clandestine relationship begins, with Connell continuing to ignore her in school and the following her to college. Between page one and 200, readers get the full sweep of the relationship between Marianne and Connell, the way each has shaped the other in their decade or so together. It all emerges in vivid detail: The infuriating miscommunications, the things left unsaid for fear of being rejected, both characters’ deep desire to be loved and fear of being unlovable.
There’s a vulnerability at the heart of all Rooney’s writing, including her debut novel Conversations with Friends. Her work asks a lot of her characters in ways that are often devastating, but the payoffs in the end are worth it. Normal People is a novel about a once-in-a-lifetime romantic connection, expressed in the book through our lovers’ inner monologues and extremely intimate sex scenes, that the adaptation chiefly renders through sex.
In the book, a fear of extreme intimacy and vulnerability, which shows up in the young protagonists’ confusing actions against their own interests, accompanies that intense connection. It’s a story that pushes you to ask: Why don’t we just say what’s on our minds and hearts all the time? Why are we afraid of vulnerability?
A good example comes about halfway through the novel. Connell and Marianne are both studying at Trinity, and have again taken up their secret romance. Marianne tells her friends they’re having sex, nothing more, and Connell struggles to show Marianne affection in public, a relic of their high school days, where he was the popular Gaelic football player from a single-parent home and she was rich, abrasive and repulsive-looking. When Connell loses his job, he’s too embarrassed to ask Marianne if he can stay with her for the summer. That would mean dependence, possible rejection and recognizing their economic differences. So they break up. Neither is necessarily sure who broke up with whom.
Back In Sligo
Back in Sligo, they run into each other in the grocery store, and Connell drives Marianne home:
“Connell comes around the corner, of course he does…And he looks at her. He’s been in the supermarket the whole time; maybe he even saw her in the freezer aisle and walked past quickly to avoid making eye contact. Maybe he heard her talking on the phone. […] Marianne hasn’t seen him since May. He moved home after the exams and she stayed in Dublin. He said he wanted to see other people and she said: Okay. Now, because she was never really his girlfriend, she’s not even his ex-girlfriend. She’s nothing. They all get in the car together […] It’s a short drive from Connell’s house to Marianne’s. He takes a left out of the estate, towards the roundabout. Only a few months ago he and Marianne used to stay up all night together talking and having sex. He used to pull the blankets off her in the morning and get on top of her with this little smiling expression like: Oh hey, hello. They were best friends. He told her that, when she asked him who his best friend was. You, he said. Then at the end of May he told her he was moving home for the summer.”
Let’s look at the action of this scene: Marianne sees Connell in the hometown grocery store, feels awkward about it, and gets a somewhat painful ride home. And on screen, thanks to the outstanding performances of Normal People’s leads, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, you get a little more than that: viewers see the pain and pride between the two, and know there’s volumes of what isn’t being said. But you miss so much of what Rooney jam packs into her prose–memory, nostalgia, pain, embarrassment and confusion.
I’ve lingered on Marianne’s “Okay,” for hours with all its frustrating acceptance. In this context, “So I guess you want to see other people?” for Connell was giving Marianne an out, opening up the door for rejection himself so that it doesn’t sting so much as a surprise. But Marianne takes it as an assertion that he wants to see other people and doesn’t put up a fight. But neither wanted to see other people, and neither put up much of a fight.
Rooney’s writing is precise, her images sparse but powerful, her sentences very short. Her work seems like it was designed in a lab so that every single word is preternaturally satisfying. But when it comes to sex, that parsed down style at first felt off. I first noticed it during the first 20-or-so pages of the novel, during one of the first times Connell and Marianne have sex:
“Her breath sounded ragged then. He pulled her hips back against his body and then released her slightly. She made a noise like she was choking. He did it again and she told him she was going to come. That’s good, he said. He said this like nothing could be more ordinary to him. His decision to drive to Marianne’s house that afternoon suddenly seemed very correct and intelligent, maybe the only intelligent thing he had ever done in his life.
After they were finished he asked her what he should do with the condom.”
It sounds like how a robot would write sex, like she’s only using the bare minimum of words. But it soothes the brain for the lack of details and probably is closer to how a human brain actually narrates their lives, instead of the sweeping, metaphor-ridden internal monologues we’d like to write for ourselves. Those scenes work and, not only that, they’re hot. In a novel full of tough emotions, her style lets readers project whatever kind of emotional landscape we want onto it.
A Modern “Millennial” Romance
The TV show is gorgeous and an incredible adaptation of the book. Edgar-Jones and Mescal have insane chemistry, it’s often visually stunning, and Rooney’s writing still packs a punch. A lot of her intensity and interiority is there. Full of rich depictions of touch–physical and otherwise–it’s the perfect show for quarantine, and offers such a visceral reminder of intense teenage feeling.
From the sprawling Italian landscapes of episode eight to semi-constant softcore porn of their sex scenes, the show definitely highlights some of the soapier aspects of Rooney’s novel. But I can forgive all the over-the-top soapier moments. This story looks true to life, but at its heart, Normal People is a romance. A modern, millennial one, but a romance nonetheless. No one worries how our romcom heroine can afford her New York apartment, because we want to be immersed, transformed ourselves, offered the chance to work out our emotional baggage using these characters and their often-failed love. Especially now, when our present realities have changed so much so quickly, a transporting story about connection can be a balm.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the silver chain Connell wears throughout the show, which now a whole Instagram account dedicated to its appearances. I grew up in an extremely Irish Catholic community outside of Philadelphia and, unfortunately, deeply understand the appeal of a brooding white boy in a chain.
So much about this adaptation is absolutely brilliant: Connell’s monologue in therapy about not feeling like he belongs at home or in Dublin, ending episode nine on an beautiful and bleak Swedish sunset, their reunion in episode five, the way Connell pays such attention to Marianne’s nonsexual body parts, biking through picturesque Italian landscapes like this is Call Me By Your Name, and Imogen Heap as the soundtrack to a montage of their high school relationship. For years to come, I’ll return to the show’s bleak and beautiful Irish beaches when I need a good cry.
A Story about Vulnerability
After they break up in college, the ensuing four episodes are a series of each’s highs and lows, affirming their identities and desires while bringing our lovers closer together or farther apart, emotionally and physically. Marianne has a year abroad in Sweden, and Connell’s best friend from home dies by suicide. I cried a thousand ugly tears as they slept with Skype connected throughout the night, both because of the impossibly beautiful cinematography and their clear Internet connection.
And in the penultimate episode, when it seems like the pair might finally be reuniting, Marianne and Connell nearly buzz with anticipation. And I did too. Because I know these two. I’ve been through the madness of reading and rehashing Normal People the novel, so I know how much this means, and my viewing was so much richer for it. Edgar-Jones and Mescal have such great chemistry and so deeply understand their characters that I bet you’d still feel something too if you hadn’t read Rooney’s work. But I wouldn’t deny anyone the experience of torturing yourself over Rooney’s prose, rich in all the agonizing details of their secret love.
In the novel, Rooney’s sparseness, that cutting down to the absolute essential makes sense in the theme of the novel. Normal People is a story of intimacy, of touch, of vulnerability between two people and the sheer terror of allowing for that. The author is a Marxist, and the novel definitely drives home the novel’s political messages more than the show. But at its heart is the idea of a collective, of relying on and being shaped by the people in your life, and not being afraid of the inherent vulnerability in that. Our characters need to learn how to be vulnerable with each other and how to communicate. While the details of that growth play out on screen in the show’s plot, the payoff is so much richer in the novel.
“How strange to feel herself so completely under the control of another person, but also how ordinary,” Rooney writes of Marianne. “No one can be independent of other people completely, so why not give up the attempt, she thought, go running in the other direction, depend on people for everything, allow them to depend on you, why not.”