Hey normal people, you’ll like watching Normal People
Written by Jane Etheridge, Vita O’Brien
So good, we asked two writers to share their thoughts on the worldwide obsession that is Normal People.
When I was 17, someone once turned to me and said, “you will never love anyone as much as you love your first love. You will never feel this way again”. To me, it was such a strange assessment, and something I’ve thought about often. They were quick to reassure me, “you will love more, but you will never love as hard.” I brushed it aside at the time, but the words always gave me an uneasy sense of sadness, and I learned to grieve something I had not yet lost. I think, probably as most young girls, a subconscious is never far from planting doubts that it’s highly likely you and your first boyfriend won’t make it through the game of life intact. But there’s nothing that can deny being hurled heart-first into the treacherous seas of virgin love for a first time is equally the most unexpectedly exhilarating and painful experience teenagers, or mere children, as I was at 17, will go through.
And, so it is, that two weeks ago the BBC released all 12 episodes of the highly anticipated Normal People, based on the best-selling novel by Irish author Sally Rooney. The story follows the lives of Marianne and Connell, teenagers at the same high school in Sligo, a coastal town in the northwest of Ireland, about a two-and-half hour train journey from Dublin. The shy, handsome and well-liked Connell is a budding sports star at their school who tries to hide his love of English and of writing, while the ethereal, strange but fiercely intelligent Marianne is on the receiving end of her peers’ jaunts and jokes, rendering her friendless and desperately lonely. The two know of each other, but in secret — Connell’s mother cleans for Marianne’s affluent mother in their house. They slowly spark up a relationship, and the plot follows the way in which their lives continuously intertwine and unravel from their final year in high school to their final year at university. There’s a reason the book encaptured so many globally, as what may seem from the outside as perhaps just another coming of age love story, is one told with such a delicate appreciation and description of thought, of hesitations and of the implied but the unsaid, it was inevitable it would become a bestseller.
“The weight with which these seemingly banal interactions as teenagers press upon their shoulders into adulthood to shape their characters is something I believe felt by many, and made me wonder just how many of us still carry this burden and those memories for the rest of our lives.”
But how often can we say a film or TV adaption ever meets, yet alone surpasses, the love and emotion we endure in a novel? It probably helps that Rooney, herself, co-wrote the script. She says the process of adaptation from book to screen began with her “trying to actually read my book and figure out what happened in it. When I wrote Normal People, I wrote countless scenes that never ended up in the novel, so it was a process of willowing out and trying to decide what’s relevant enough to include. The TV show was almost like a replication of that experience in a new way, trying to decide what really were the moments when something significant shifted, and then the secondary question of how then do we get that moment across on screen in a way that tried to retain the impact of how I tried to / as a novel.”
Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald direct six episodes each, and the result is an innate representation of the trials endured as a young adult and the repercussions felt for years. Somehow, the directors manage to capture Marianne and Connell’s persistent pain and shame with how they were once perceived and acted, respectively, at high school. Marianne never can quite shake the memory of Connell’s refusal to acknowledge her in school, still hiding her scars from his dismissal. Connell can never quite forgive himself for the way he once treated her, letting the guilt simmer somewhere far away and using it as his own way of believing he isn’t worthy of Marrianne. The weight with which these seemingly banal interactions as teenagers press upon their shoulders into adulthood to shape their characters is something I believe felt by many, and made me wonder just how many of us still carry this burden and those memories for the rest of our lives.
Other praises sung for the show are its realistic depictions of sex, and one of the few screen adaptions to accurately portray what a consentual relationship is, or should, be. Producers enlisted intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien, who gave agency to the actors, and designed her work to allow actors to “think of it as a piece of choreography, a piece of dance, almost”. The result, a positive and honest representation between two consenting young adults, something we’re not exactly used to seeing. “I think, what’s radical about Normal People is that it goes right back to this idea that falling in love with somebody and being with them for the first time intimately can be an extraordinary and positive and incredibly, life-enhancing and life-transforming experience” says co-director Abrahamson. “And, so, to present truthfully, candidly, intimately and positively that aspect of a young person’s life, I think it is in the current context quite radical.”
But, most importantly, and what sets the show apart from so many coming-of-age stories, is the honesty with which it depicts the life of these two characters. Without ever a whiff of condescension, it gives each moment in the lives of the two characters the attention and the worth they deserve. By exploring themes of self-hate, sexuality, depression and abuse, among a plethora of others, it paves the way for both more realistic stories of our youth on paper and on screen. As if our own experiences at high-school and of first loves aren’t enough, Marianne and Connell will drag you into theirs with such intensity, with such rawness and sensitivity, you can’t help but finish each episode with a lump in your throat and a lost breath to reclaim. Because when it comes down to it, as we watch our protagonists in what may be their final moment together, as we assess every intricacy, every hidden meaning and every parallel, we realise that Marrianne and Connell are, after all, just like you and me. Just normal people.
You will love more, but you will never love as hard.
By Vita O’Brien
In just two short books, Sally Rooney has become one of those authors that everyone has on their bookshelves, whether or not they’ve read her work. The adaptation of her second, Normal People, has taken the world by storm but how does it compare to the book it is based on?
We all know Rooney is a great writer, her books are that wonderful combination of clever and fun and gut wrenching, but good writing doesn’t always equal a good adaptation. There are often so many factors that can ruin what should have been a happy transition to the screen; I’m sure we can all think of a book we loved and were excited to watch come to life, only to be disappointed. For anyone out there that has put off watching Normal People for that reason, I think it’s safe to say that those fears are unfounded.
Often, part of the fear of an adaptation is that we will lose the closeness you can get from a novel, and while it can be hard to replicate this on screen, they do an excellent effort with Normal People. Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal carry the story with real care for their characters and each other, as Marianne and Connell bumble their way through growing pains, class imbalances, mental health and young love. Alongside Edgar-Jones and Mescal’s chemistry, the way the series is shot with so many soft close-ups of Marianne and Connell as they move through their life, brings you right into every moment of tension, unease and learning that they experience while we are with them. The visual elements that TV gives are certainly not wasted in setting or costume either, and do some heavy lifting to highlight the issues of class and power imbalance until Marianne and Connell finally talk about it together in Episode 8.
“…the way Connell and Marianne are naked with each other becomes a metaphor for the shifts and pulls of their relationship.”
The series has also done something very fresh with nudity. This is, after all, a modern love story in which the two come to know each other sexually before emotionally, but it never feels like the sex scenes are just there because that’s what is done nowadays. Instead, the way Connell and Marianne are naked with each other becomes a metaphor for the shifts and pulls of their relationship. It makes you appreciate what it can mean to be comfortably naked with someone because, although we see them each have sex with other people, it is only them as a pair that we see be openly naked and relaxed together after the fact. This is just one of the ways that the show manages to keep up with what gave the book’s author the title of next great millennial author. They don’t shy away from those moments that reek of the 21st century, moving between social media etiquette in the face of death and the softness of falling asleep over video calls with an ease that feels real to how young people are actually experiencing the intersections of technology and reality right now.
All this said, it is hard for me to say which is better — book or show? Truthfully, I have to say neither. Instead, the show does what any good adaptation does — it acts as a companion, giving us another way of looking at the story, of thinking about the people in it and I am glad it did. The ambiguity of the book bothered me when I first read it, for example. Rather than two people giving up, the ending to me is now a celebration of loving someone enough to want the best for them, of being secure enough in your orbit of each other to let go for a while. Adaptations are tricky territory but, when done well, they can add new layers of appreciation onto the original text while holding their own as genuine efforts of good storytelling, and Normal People has done just that.
PS. Some good news: Conversations with Friends is being worked into a TV series as we speak, so hopefully we won’t have to wait too long before more Rooney goodness graces our screens.
You can watch Normal People on TVNZ OnDemand: here