For all of lockdown I’ve wished tears would come, the kind of good cry that relieves tension, but there was a drought. That was until I watched new BBC Three adaptation of the novel Normal People by Sally Rooney, which tipped me over the edge. I had my moment of catharsis, watching the drama unfold in the small hours, crumpling a wet tissue.
I often avoid adaptations of books. I’ve worried about watching the TV version of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan series, because I have so strongly imagined its world. Perhaps lockdown will drive me to it, after I’ve worked through BBC iplayer’s archive documentaries, having already seen everything I want to on Netflix.
The reader’s fear is that an adaptation will be done badly, polluting the intimate relationship they have with the book, which depends on personal interpretation and in the books we love most, hits just right. And from a writer’s point of view, Ferrante herself said, as noted in her book Frantumaglia among mixed reflections on the films made from her early books, that “words have a concreteness different from images, the words and figures they evoke seem to us precise and instead are malleable”.
It is often said that a book belongs to the reader once the author has put down their pen. Not to be possessive about it, but poor dramatisations can pollute the picture the reader holds in their mind, rendering what seems poignant, sentimental, and the vivid, brash. Unsurprisingly, I have a real aversion to movie tie-in book covers, born of commercial perspective, but rarely an aesthetic one. But sometimes it works.
So I hadn’t anticipated watching Normal People, but when early reviews were so positive I couldn’t resist. I’m so glad I gave in. It is television at its most beautiful.
Story comes alight on screen
Youth is valorised in art, when it really shouldn’t be. Artists evolve and can begin their journeys at any age – and often later in life. But Rooney had a remarkable career in her early years of writing, leading to both over-the-top hype and jealous attempts to tear her down. I enjoyed Normal People, but it is in the TV screenplay Rooney has written, alongside Alice Birch, where the story has truly come alight.
Marianne and Connell go to school together and later to Trinity College, where their emerging relationship is shaped by adolescent struggles to communicate. The opposing social tribes they belong to is a classic coming-of-age story in the mould of Romeo and Juliet, and yet, for a story that is essentially a very old one, in Rooney’s hands the characters’ vulnerabilities are drawn with subtlety and intimacy, provoking aching familiarity. It’s a nostalgic watch for anyone who went through the agonies of youth, and because self-actualisation is a timeless battle, the story sits comfortably in the contemporary world.
This is first love under siege by internal pains and external pressures to fit in, weighed down by all the elementary mistakes of young relationships. And of course, there is the gorgeously directed magnetism between the pair that brings them together again and again.
Marianne is isolated within her moneyed, distant family. At school, defensive and brittle, she faces incessant bullying. Sad girls have long been a passe trope; but this is more than mopey posturing. Rooney reveals the neglect and deep loneliness that later leads Marianne to abusive relationships, passively accepting bad behaviour in the absence of love. Her emotional vulnerability is brought to motion in the expressive, wide-open eyes of actress Daisy Edgar-Jones.
Small moments like grace notes
She is matched in talent by Paul Mescal, who in his first TV role lets a subtle smile play around the mouth of character Connell, a young man of few words who is athletic and popular. His brilliant no-nonsense mother works as a cleaner at Marianne’s house. He is a good lad, but struggles to balance the compassionate instincts instilled by his mum with the pressure of his peers, as cruel as teenagers are wont to be.
Central to story is class difference and how it shapes the pair throughout their lives. They swap places in the popularity rankings; upper-class Marianne is outcast at school, but at university hits just the right note of breezy sophistication. Connell, meanwhile, once a high school football star, struggles to find his voice as those around him, groomed to greater confidence, bluster through. He works two jobs to rent half a room in a busy house, reading coursework at night. Marianne, meanwhile, has the leisure that money brings.
I appreciate how their differences are illuminated without stereotype. Connell’s comparatively humble home – a normal working-class household – doesn’t veer into the poverty-porn territory as depictions of class so often can. His background isn’t sensationalised. It is allowed just to be. And, crucially, there is no assumed audience, one way or the other.
Sometimes depictions of working-class backgrounds are aimed at the middle classes, offered up for their gaze as an oddity, an outlier. Here, neither is held up as the default mode. And still, it manages to show how differently young people are equipped to venture out into the world, by showing, rather than telling. The sound is glorious; there are many quiet, small moments like grace notes. When they speak to each other we can hear their breathing, like we are in the room with them. It’s the sound of two people making space for one another, genuinely curious about the other, and letting themselves open up together. It’s the same when they have sex, which they do often. There’s something about the light too that feels melancholy, lyrical and Irish; the warm glow of kitchens and pubs, the wildness of skies that could turn at any moment.
For all the beauty on screen, and the bittersweetness of youth, most piercing is the central drama. Ultimately Normal People is about how pain is excavated over time, and how two people, moving beyond trauma, grow to know themselves and see each other.
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