Normal People is a passionate deep dive into the emotional upheaval of young adulthood and the throbbing ache of a love felt deeply but often left unsaid. The 2018 smash hit by Irish writer Sally Rooney and its 2020 TV adaptation follow the protagonists, Marianne Sheridan (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell Waldron (Paul Mescal) through their formative years. Thrown into this mix is an all-consuming on-off romance reminiscent of Gen-Z dating. Their vulnerability is startling and familiar–sometimes uncomfortably so. The book itself is a masterclass in direct, raw, and piercing prose that scrapes at the very core of its protagonists as well as the reader.
Rooney’s Normal People derives its brilliance from spools of internal monologues – a characteristic that would naturally make it difficult to be adapted to screen. Most battles that Connell and Marianne fight lie within; any external struggles that come by are just their outward expression. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson & Hettie MacDonald and co-written by Rooney, the TV series delivers on most counts, such as Marianne and Connell’s dynamic and faithfulness to the text’s sometimes awkward but always real atmosphere.
The book itself is a masterclass in direct, raw, and piercing prose that scrapes at the very core of its protagonists as well as the reader.
One of its merits is how it translates the pauses in the book where the characters do mundane things while engaging in heavy duty dialogue, both external and internal. These moments give Rooney’s incisive writing time to cut through and seep into your consciousness. The show turns them into silent sequences where the characters go about their day while the action marinates in your head. Another achievement is its casting. Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal are Marianne and Connell personified. They deliver sensitive and perceptive performances that leave little room for criticism.
These achievements are due to the creators’ mantra of “the book is the Bible”. The absence of invectives by disgruntled fans is testimony to their loyalty to the source material. Still, there are certain sequences that would have benefited from the front row seats that we, as readers, have to the inner workings of the protagonists’ minds. However, it’s down more to the limitations that a screen adaptation encounters in fully translating internal dialogue. In this case, it led to the simplification and even elimination of certain character insights.
One of its merits is how it translates the pauses in the book where the characters do mundane things while engaging in heavy duty dialogue, both external and internal.
For instance, Connell comes off much nicer on the show. His characterisation seems incomplete without the book’s inner monologues that lay out his phobia of abnormalcy more explicitly. He displays a deep contempt for Marianne because she is a reminder of his own abnormalcy. His mistreatment of her isn’t just down to her unpopularity in school; he actually fears who he is around her. This inability to accept his own self is why long after school is over, he still finds it difficult to acknowledge a romantic relationship with Marianne in public.
This is part of Connell’s larger quest to figure out who he is; whether he is actually as “nice” as others believe he is. He grapples with the power he has over Marianne; the knowledge that she will never say no to him. It’s a darker side to Connell that we don’t see much on screen. Yes, he is a confused young man but there is also the Connell who likes having Marianne in control. While some of the internal thought processes have been converted to dialogue and voice overs, others, like this particular character arc, lose out. The showmakers have also left in a few scenes which require knowledge of the characters’ thoughts to make sense. These little moments don’t make sense without the internal dialogue.
It’s a darker side to Connell that we don’t see much on screen
Another casualty is the dynamic between Connell and one of his girlfriends, Helen. It is simplified to the classic “third wheel in the love story” trope but Helen, in the book, is so much more. She represents Connell’s excessive desire to be normal. Initially, Connell is determined that they “belong together” but only because he sees her as his gateway to normalcy. The idea of Helen is more appealing than Helen herself. Helen v/s Marianne in the book is about the constant tussle in Connell’s head between who he wants to be and who he is.
Without Connell’s candid reflections, Helen is reduced to a rudimentary romantic rival. These plot points are integral in the book as they prompt us to question the idea of normalcy. Who is a normal person? Is being normal the same as being good? Why should one strive to be normal at all? The show deliberately spotlights Connell and Marianne’s relationship in the interest of effective storytelling. It delves into these questions too, just in less detail than the book.
The show deliberately spotlights Connell and Marianne’s relationship in the interest of effective storytelling.
Marianne, on the other hand, is the more tragic character of the two. An abusive family has tainted her self-image and shattered her sense of personal boundaries. Her mother, Denise, is unbelievably uncaring in the book, not displaying even a shred of love for her daughter. Show Denise, while complicit in the abuse doled out to Marianne by Alan, her brother, has a few maternal (though barely) interactions with her.
Since the change has no effect on the storyline, it makes you wonder why it was made in the first place. Another modification is the breakup between Marianne and her Swedish boyfriend Lukas, who also abuses her. It is triggered by him saying he loves her during one such episode. It’s a pivotal moment for Marianne because she actively acknowledges that there is no love in violence. The show replaces it with a wordless montage, again, a simplification that misses an opportunity to verbalise Marianne’s attempt at feeling worthy of love.
While these additions would have further enriched the show, they don’t really affect the viewing experience.
While these additions would have further enriched the show, they don’t really affect the viewing experience. It has done a fabulous job of animating Connell and Marianne’s story and deserves praise for it. What matters is that both the book and the show make you feel the longing, the loneliness and the love in Marianne and Connell’s story. My advice? Read and watch.