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Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel Normal People has taken the popular and literary world by storm, and what could be better than it being adapted for our small screens? The intense, but ultimately mismatched relationship between Marianne and Connell is something that has fascinated people, and to have it played out on our screens means that we can absorb it like never before.
As with any adaptation of a book, I was skeptical of the series’ faithfulness to the source material: was the series as good as everyone said it was? And was it as good as the book? My answer to both of those questions is a resounding yes.
Part of the strength of the book is that the relationship between Marianne and Connell is intensely specific, but the feelings that are evoked are undeniably felt by everyone who has experienced love. I wondered how this specificity could be captured in a medium that focuses on showing rather than telling – but I need not have worried. Thanks to the combination of cinematography and the perfectly pitched script, we are given the impression that we aren’t far away from being inside the character’s heads like we are in the books. This is compounded by the decision to split the series up into 12 half-hour episodes instead of the more common six: this not only heightens the intensity of the feelings that arise from watching Marianne and Connell but also means that people don’t get overwhelmed – an entirely possible outcome when dealing with the heady feelings of a teen romance.
Yet to call the book – or indeed the television adaptation – a teen romance is somehow undermining its power. If Normal People was a different sort of book, Marianne and Connell would be “soulmates” – destined to be together forever. But neither life nor people work like that, and the actors that bring Marianne and Connell to life convey perfectly just how painful and confusing people can be, whether they mean to be or not. Paul Mescal particularly shines as Connell; his subtle acting conveys the many overlapping layers of Connell’s personality that we as readers are so in tune with. More importantly, we as watchers know why Marianne is so interested and attracted to him, thereby giving us as watchers not only an insight into her character, but also an insight into our responses and opinions. Through Connell and Marianne, we are asked to reflect on how we would handle our relationships, and how far we’d go for the people we love.
Part of the reality of the relationship that forms the basis of the book is that Marianne and Connell are not people we’d naturally put together. She is a quiet, awkward girl at school who invites criticism and speculation in equal terms. Connell is popular, well-liked, and hasn’t really had to think about anything beyond the town in which he’s in. Yet people change us, and we change people. The difference between Marianne at school and Marianne at university is marked, yet Connell is the one who is going on to do “better things.”
It is always risky when adapting a book, particularly a book that has generated so much interest. When Sally Rooney is being revered as “the first great millennial novelist,” you question how good the television adaptation could be, but it is safe to say that it measures up considerably to the book, and in some ways will make reading it (if you haven’t already) a richer and more rewarding experience.