The central question surrounding all literary adaptations, but particularly those where the source material has a fervent fan base, is how faithful should you be?
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If you hew too close to the original text then you can risk squeezing the life out of a work, rendering it lifeless and raising questions about what was gained by moving from page to screen. Yet deviate too much and the question becomes: why adapt it at all? Why not simply create something of your own, rather than play fast and loose with someone else’s story? However the BBC and Hulu’s smart and emotional adaptation of Sally Rooney’s best-selling Normal People, about the twisting relationship between two Irish teenagers through their university years into the beginning of young adulthood, proves that there is a third way.
Intimately directed by Lenny Abrahamson, who sets the tone with the first six episodes before handing over to Hettie McDonald for the final six, this is an adaptation that manages to feel true to Rooney’s work – the script was written by the author herself, alongside Alice Birch, who wrote Lady Macbeth, and Irish playwright Mark O’Rowe. Yet it also allows audiences to see the work reborn in fresh and exciting ways.
By keeping the camera tight, director Lenny Abrahamson allows us to see every emotion, perfectly capturing the intensity of youthful love
In part that’s down to the superb casting: both Daisy Edgar-Jones (Marianne) and Paul Mescal (Connell) look exactly as Rooney first imagined, with Mescal particularly good at capturing the easy-going popularity of a small-town sports hero who’s far brighter and more complicated than he lets on. And in part it’s because of the bold decision to split it into 12 half-hour episodes, rather than the more customary six hour-long ones. When that decision was first made, I was among the sceptical. While Rooney’s tale packs a great deal of emotion into its slim pages, 12 episodes seemed like overload and I couldn’t help worrying that the story would be crushed under the weight of expectations. Instead it’s a masterstroke with the shorter half-hour format producing an intimacy that, almost counter-intuitively, allows the audience to feel that they really know these characters.
An honest romance
Abrahamson shoots with a lovely loose naturalism that allows you to imagine that you too are wandering the corridors of a secondary school in the town of Sligo on Ireland’s north-west coast, and later the lecture halls of Trinity College, Dublin, with Marianne and Connell. By keeping the camera tight on the two of them, he allows us to see every emotion, perfectly capturing the intensity of youthful love. He also doesn’t soften the book’s edges. When Marianne and Connell have sex, it isn’t glamorous or even particularly romantic. It’s passionate but awkward and sometimes ugly and, above all, feels true.
You are drawn in because the story Rooney tells is one that rings true to anyone, regardless of age, who has ever experienced the thrill of making a connection with someone
Most of all, Abrahamson (unfortunately McDonald’s episodes were not made available to review) understands the honesty at the heart of Rooney’s work. For, amid all the media kerfuffle that has surrounded Rooney, with the anointing of her as the voice of her generation, and the subsequent comparison of every book about twenty-something young women to her work, what gets forgotten is that the author herself has never made any grand claims for her writing. Instead her stories work not because they are universal but because of their specificity.
Her gaze is intimate, honest and raw, and, in the case of Normal People, you are drawn in because the story she tells is one that rings true to anyone, regardless of age, who has ever experienced the thrill of making a connection with someone – and the harsh awakening when that connection is tested both by those involved and by outside forces.
Normal People, both as novel and TV show, lays bare not simply the thrill of first love, of finding someone who actually sees you, but, more interestingly, how the way in which others see you can affect the way you act. It is as much a study of power and class and notions of ‘cool’ as it is of love, and its passion burns through every page.
Opposites who attract
Thus when we first meet Marianne and Connell at school in Sligo (and that setting is important – Rooney has an eye for the small-town morality of rural Ireland, the way in which those who wish to leave can be seen as having ‘notions’), she is the awkward girl from the ‘big house’, spiky, ‘difficult’, disliked by her classmates as much for her refusal to play by their rules as for the intelligence she refuses to hide. Yet she does conceal from them the sadnesses of her family, in the shape of an absent, never-talked of father, a near-silent, apparently disinterested mother and a bully of a brother, who is determined to crush her spirit.
Connell, meanwhile, is a sporting hero: star of the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) team, an easy-going, laid-back lad, effortlessly popular, and someone who, on the surface, has never had to try. Yet – and this understanding that no one is entirely as they present on the surface is one of the smartest things about Rooney’s novel – he has hinterlands too.
It is in the university scenes that the decision to delve deep into this story really pays off – characters who flit in and out of Rooney’s pages are shaded in with more depth on screen
In one of the best early scenes in the series, Connell arrives to pick up Rachel, his partner to Debs – the traditional Irish end of school dance – from her family home, and the conversation turns to his desire to read English at Dublin’s prestigious Trinity College. “So… you’re going to be a teacher then?” says Rachel’s bemused father, the notion of reading literature for love clearly beyond his understanding. It’s a smart little scene because it serves to highlight how much of Connell’s relationship with Marianne stems from the fact that they are the two people in their school year who can see beyond the confines of the small town in which they’re living.
Yet that relationship is also complicated by the fact that Connell’s mother, Lorraine, cleans Marianne’s family home – and understands far more than she lets on to her son about the dark undercurrents lurking there. The scene when she confronts her son about his heedless treatment of Marianne is another small gem with Sarah Greene, who plays Lorraine, allowing her disappointment with the son she has raised alone to flit silently across her face.
It’s a key moment because for Normal People to work, both as a book and as a TV series, you have to remember how it feels to be young and insecure. To understand why Connell might hang Marianne to dry in the most painful, public way and, why, later on, when the tables are turned at university, Marianne might delight in pointing out that she, the perennial outsider, is the one who holds the cards in this very different world, by dint not only of intelligence but also of a certain type of self-assurance that comes from being higher up the class ladder.
A rare intimacy
Where Connell, for all his passionate responses to the books he reads, struggles to explain his thoughts to the more confident middle-class students in his university, Marianne can bluff with the best of them. She has learnt to wield her differences as a weapon and doesn’t care (or rather gives a very good impression of not caring) when others raise an eyebrow or try to talk over and down to her.
It is in the university scenes that the decision to delve deep into this story for TV really pays off. Characters who flit in and out of Rooney’s pages are shaded in with more depth on screen, including the fantastically smug Gareth (Sebastian de Souza), Marianne’s posh, free-speech obsessed boyfriend.
Similarly the attention given to the central story, the way in which the camera lingers on Marianne and Connell as they let slip secrets and commit small acts of omission and betrayal, provides a level of intimacy that’s rare on TV.
It’s unusual too to find an adaptation that not only tells a story faithfully, but also builds on that story, making you want to turn back to the original source material and read it with these new images in mind. Normal People manages it triumphantly. Honest, tender, beautiful and heartfelt, it is surely one of the dramas of the year.
Normal People premieres on BBC iPlayer on 26 April in the UK and on Hulu on 29 April in the US.
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