Normal People: a literary adaption made right

Maud Webster gives a glowing review of Sally Rooney's Normal People.

Maud Webster
1st May 2020
Credit: @NormalPeopleBBC, Twitter
The 12-part adaption of Sally Rooney’s Normal People was released on BBC iPlayer this Sunday, directed by Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie MacDonald, to high critical acclaim, and with a viewership not limited to devoted fans of the 2018 novel.

The sub-two-year turnaround in terms of book publication to series release seems remarkable, and shows its high demand. Initially I queried whether this short period would lead to a rushed series, only produced this quick to try and hop onto the success of the book before it fizzled out (Normal People was listed for a myriad of prizes, including the 2018 Man Booker Prize, the 2019 Women's Prize for Fiction, and winning the 2018 Waterstones’ Book of the Year). This is not the case; Normal People successfully presents the turbulent and intense romance between protagonists Marianne and Connell as they navigate both their personal lives and relationships from high school to college, in part due to a thoughtful script and production and in part due to the magnificent performances of Daisy Edgar-Jones and screen newcomer Paul Mescal.

Credit: @NormalPeopleBBC, Twitter

With such a poignant romantic and sexual relationship at the core of the series, chemistry between the two leads is vital and would’ve ruined the show if absent. Luckily, Edgar-Jones and Mescal strike a perfect balance between believable on-screen chemistry and replicating the awkwardness which come at the start of a relationship. The series contains a lot of sex scenes & a lot of nudity, and at first this may seem somewhat gratuitous. However, it is during these scenes where the confusing entanglement of respect, care and love is most exposed: we see the two characters' vulnerability yet trust in each other. As the series progresses and we see the main characters encounter new people and forge different relationships, sex is another way we see Marianne and Connell discover more how they see and come to terms with both themselves and their connections with others.

There is a lot to pack in, and the show accomplishes the tricky job of translating a novel which spans multiple years and details two complex lives into a neat set of twelve episodes. Though some called for a film to be the more appropriate adaptation of the novel, I feel the format of a series was a perfect fit, as it allowed each episode to concentrate on a central event, and stage in the character’s lives. This decision also meant time could be lent to exploring other relationships in detail, such as between Connell and his mother, and Marianne and her two close female friends, which perhaps a film wouldn’t have been able to squeeze in. The script manages the time jumps well, maintaining a good pace and as the central premise of the series is around this single relationship, it’s quite easy to get grounded in each episode, even if you’re not binging it as if it were a film.

The show successfully explores the question of whether compatibility is dynamic or static

Marianne and Connell’s relationship is the crux of the show, and despite both characters being obviously flawed, you come to root for their relationship as it hits many abrupt hurdles. The show successfully explores the question of whether compatibility is dynamic or static, and to what extent the factors of personality and circumstance lend themselves to the success or downfall of a relationship. To what extent do people change, and consequently, are the impact of these changes on a relationship irreparable? I think this deserves its own article, but Normal People is also successful at realistically depicting the effects of class and wealth disparity between Marianne (considered rich) and Connell (considered poor); despite being an undercurrent throughout their entire relationship, inadvertently damaging their romance at points, Marianne only explicitly addresses this in Italy [episode eight]. The same goes for the sensitive depiction of male depression, and this doesn’t seem pigeonholed in just to tick a box. Overall, despite developing amongst toxic and damaging events the relationship is not presented as inherently toxic (though at points, miscommunication contributes to hurt on both sides of the relationship).  

The series was beautifully shot, but I felt one of the biggest production successes was the use of silence and sound. Diegetic sound drags you into the everyday life of the principle characters, intensifying their feelings of loss, loneliness and, at times, joy and achievement. I particularly feel this use of sound is successful in the scenes when Marianne is in Sweden, at arguably her most lonely time - silences here are painfully reflective. The inclusion of small details such as a lecturer mentioning “blackboard” (which did hurt my heart a little!) shows the depth of research the production team went to - maybe this is a bit gimmicky, but these details do ground the series in an exact time and an exact place.

If you’re looking for an immersive and pretty intense lockdown watch (which may potentially make you cry) stream Normal People on BBC iPlayer now. 

Credit: BBC, YouTube
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AUTHOR: Maud Webster
she/they | third year architecture & urban planning student @ newcastle | co-head of culture for the 21/22 academic year

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