The 29-year-old Irish novelist Sally Rooney is having the kind of career bookish young people fantasise about. Her debut novel, Conversations with Friends, was subject to a seven-way bidding war and reviews anointing her as the voice of a generation. Her second, Normal People, sold half a million copies in the UK alone, was translated into 25 languages and won the Costa Book Award, praised by everyone from Oprah to The New Yorker.
Now Rooney has the glacé cherry to top a thickly iced bun: a BBC version of Normal People, directed by the Oscar-nominated Irish director Lenny Abrahamson, with Hettie Macdonald, and written by Rooney and Alice Birch. To judge by the first four episodes, it’s a beautiful, pitch-perfect adaptation that captures all the intensity and longing of the novel and will bring Rooney’s work to the attention of those who don’t know it, all five of them.
Normal People is a love story about Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal), classmates in Sligo who move in and out of each other’s lives through school and university. Connell is popular, sporty and handsome, with an easy manner that disguises his shyness. Marianne is prickly but brilliant, disarmingly frank with teachers and peers but also when telling a boy she likes him. Her family is wealthy; their relationship begins after Connell comes to the family home to pick up his mother, who works as a cleaner for Marianne’s family. The novel’s political background is the 2008 crash, and the effect it had on prospects for young Irish people.
Connell and Marianne are drawn across this divide by academic ability, a private class system in which they are both aristocrats. Though he is devoted to Marianne in private, Connell can’t bear to make their relationship public for fear of what his friends will think. After school he follows Marianne to Trinity College, Dublin, where their dynamic is reversed. She finds a ready-made upper-middle-class peer group, while he is the anxious outsider.
The adaptation would always live or die by the casting of the leads, who are almost never offscreen. Happily, they are unassailable. Edgar-Jones and Mescal inhabit Marianne and Connell so utterly that it is instantly impossible to imagine them being played by anyone else. They both stay the right side of sympathetic without bowing to likability. The sex scenes are awkward but not played for laughs, defying viewers to say this is not how it is. Abrahamson’s direction keeps them both in close-up, with plenty of silence, and space given to the landscape. The soundtrack sets the time without being obtrusive, although bat-eared millennials will spot Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek”, which also played when Marissa shot Trey in The OC.
Where the screenplay has to make decisions with the text, it does so with care to the new possibilities of the format. Take this paragraph in the novel:
“It occurred to Marianne how much she wanted to see him having sex with someone; it didn’t have to be her, it could be anybody. It would be beautiful just to watch him. She knew these were the kind of thoughts that made her different from other people in school, and weirder.”
On screen, this becomes dialogue. We have seen Marianne watching Connell play football (Gaelic). Later, in bed, she turns to him in bed and says, “you know when I was watching you play football, you looked so beautiful, I kept thinking how much I wanted to watch you have sex, I mean, not even with me, with anybody, how good it would feel. Is that really weird?”
“Yeah,” he says, “that’s really weird, Marianne, but I think I understand it.”
It’s a deft bit of adaptation, which contextualises an earlier scene, the football match, that had been dynamic but wordless, retains the sexual frankness of the novel, and introduces another point of connection between the leads.
The title is mischievous. Clearly, these are not normal people. They might have recognisable outer lives, of lessons and proms and parties, but their thoughts proceed with a quiet poetry, in economical language that does justice to the intensity of young love affairs while staying circumspect enough not to overindulge it. Their grand romance proceeds by tiny gestures. It’s an impressive feat in writing, even more so in adaptation. Normal People was one of the final series to wrap before lockdown, so it could be the last piece of new programming for a while. We’re lucky it’s so unusually good.
‘Normal People’ arrives on BBC iPlayer in its entirety on Sunday 26 April
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