How do you make sure a Man Booker longlist nominee, winner of a Costa book award, that offers so much on paper, is translated to the screen without losing the essence that makes it a bestseller now and a probable future classic later? You hire the novelist to write the screenplay for you.
Written for the screen by Sally Rooney, along with Alice Birch (Lady Macbeth) and playwright Mark O’Rowe, and directed in part by The Room director Lenny Abrahamson, and in part by Hettie McDonald (Howard’s End), the TV adaptation of Normal People stays true to the work of the author while somehow managing to be fresh and exciting. The BBC Three production brings the heartache, the confusion, doubts and the intense passion from the book to the screen with adeptness, offering much relief to ardent book loyalists and TV enthusiasts alike.
Normal People is not a regular rom-com. The two protagonists are young school (and then university) students, but this is not a regular teenage love story. It is a searing heartbreaking story of attraction, intimacy, control, class, pride, peer pressure, mental health, and abuse built around the achingly real love story of Marianne Sheridan (Daisy-Edgar Jones) and Connell Waldron (Paul Mescal).
Marianne is the school misfit, too smart, complex, and reasonably richer than the rest of the students in her school. Connell, who is popular at school, is the son of a working-class single mum who works as a cleaner at the Sheridan house. The two form a secret relationship, which they both believe to be strictly physical – but it is all too clear to readers, and now to viewers, that it is anything but that.
The two meet again in University and now the tables are turned considerably – with Marianne finding her people, her tribe and her confidence, and Connell struggling to keep up in the big city. Through multiple cities, relationships and situations, the two are brought together and torn apart, losing themselves, failing at finding peace and true happiness away from each other.
Normal People is a story specific to Marianne and Connell – their many deep-seated, unexpressed insecurities, their class differences, their weaknesses and strengths, pasts and presents, the places they come from – the places they believe they can go. Yet the story remains universal in its relatability – a complex, compelling connection, a complicated relationship and the internal and external forces that bind and break even the most ardent lovers.
What can be more “normal” in a love story, more true than the undefined power struggles, ego tussles, fears and doubts? Not everyone can fight an epic battle for love. But surviving the banal, mundane everyday living is what makes Normal People both a love story fitting for these times, yet unlike most love stories that find their way to print, to the top of the bestselling list, and, now, to the screen as a record-breaking TV event.
The story, to a great extent, takes place inside the minds of the two lead characters. Normal People relies heavily on their internal dilemmas and internal monologues. More is miscommunicated than communicated – even between two people as intrinsically bound to each other as Marianne and Connell are. The TV series successfully translates the book’s raw, pointed, intimate gaze at this relationship into a riveting, deeply sensitive and sensual modern love story.
The success of the adaptation is also a result of perfect casting. Edgar Jones and Mescal faithfully portray the passion, pain and predicaments of Marianne and Connell as their characters develop, are built up and dismantled as the many crazy tides of life and love wash over them.
The internal conflict is relayed on to the screen with the help of close-ups, zoomed-in and lingering shots. The two characters let gestures lay bare what they won’t say - fidgety hands, broken empty gazes, restless pacing, deep sighs are the tools used by the directors and by Edgar-Jones and Mescal to ensure the emotional agony of the story is not lost in translation.
Unlike the book, the screenplay follows a linear timeline, trailing the two lead characters as they fumble in and out of love – from their quaint hometown Sligo, to the bustling Trinity College in Dublin. It remains mostly loyal to the text and the slight changes made for the sake of the medium do not essentially take a very dramatic detour from the story.
Some things that are implied over pages are now vocalised, and some edits are made to ensure it is as effective in this format of 12 episodes of under-30 minutes. The format allows the story and the people within to rush through spaces – internal and external and travel through time – racing through months and years to help the audience build an intimate understanding of these characters and the lives they live.
The end has been changed, too – and is the better for it. The two characters, dependent on each other, both arrive at a better place and a better understanding of the self. They are now equal, and maybe even free.
Normal People is not a new story. Yet it takes the “opposites attract” trope and does something remarkably new and beautiful with it. The two opposites fit like missing pieces, but also find within themselves the individuality and self-worth they were both lacking and needed.
It is a must-read, as much as it is now a must-watch – but whether you meet Normal People through the pages or the screen, it would be wise to be warned of the heartbreaking capabilities of this stunning story.