Fans of Sally Rooney's novel Normal People are devoted types. They tend to hold the book's mismatched-but-also-kind-of-perfect-together couple, Marianne and Connell, close to their hearts. So adapting the book for TV came with risks.
“It was a big leap of faith,” Rooney says about casting the show, “that we were going to find people who would just get it, and would know exactly how to communicate that friction between the inner life and the outer world.”
Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal have received widespread acclaim for their performances in the 12-part series on RTÉ, the BBC and the American streaming service Hulu. Some of the praise for the show comes from James Poniewozik, the New York Times's chief television critic, who calls it a "gorgeous, melancholy series" starring leads who "have so much chemistry you may need lab goggles".
Here, Poniewozik joins three New York Times book critics, Dwight Garner, Parul Sehgal and Jennifer Szalai, for a discussion about the show, the novel, the art of adaptation and more.
Angelina Chapin recently wrote on the Cut that Marianne on TV is "too normal", too beautiful, and that an "element of physical repulsiveness is whitewashed from the show". Do you agree? And if you do, did it affect how you viewed and felt the story?
Dwight Garner Well, let me start by saying that my heart gives this series 14 out of a possible 10 stars. I was very moved by it; I consumed the whole thing in two sittings. The series washed over me and only later did the "too beautiful" issue come to my mind. I was reminded of The Kreutzer Sonata, in which Tolstoy says: "It's really quite remarkable how complete the illusion is that beauty is the same as goodness." It is in show business, at any rate.
James Poniewozik I wasn't bothered. Maybe I should have been. I tend to accept that print characters get a TV upgrade. (Compare Peter Dinklage with the description of Tyrion in the book A Game of Thrones.) Also, I may be an unperceptive reader and unreliable at recalling details, but what I retained from the novel was that Marianne was not so much objectively unattractive as perceived that way in school. For instance: "She is considered an object of disgust. She wears ugly thick-soled flat shoes and doesn't put makeup on her face. People have said she doesn't shave her legs or anything." In other words, her appearance is at least partly a construct, an artefact of what her classmates think and say about her. Connell sees her differently, and that's how the camera shows her to us. That said, I agree with Chapin that the series could do more to root her issues of self-worth in that early treatment. But it wasn't enough to break the spell for me.
Jennifer Szalai My reaction to Marianne was similar to yours, James. When reading the novel, I registered that she was "considered" repulsive by her high school classmates, but what did they know? They seemed small-minded and cruel from Rooney's depictions of them, and not exactly trustworthy.
Parul Sehgal I agree that Marianne isn't meant to be "repulsive," but she feels herself to be. (Certainly, she's treated that way at home and at school.) What did feel whitewashed is her strangeness. In the novel, she's understood to be awkward, off-putting, thorny, superior, sometimes callously blunt. In the show, her friends refer to her delight at "annihilation," but I found Daisy Edgar-Jones altogether too elegant and sweet. She's been totally domesticated.
Other thoughts about the casting? Did you find Marianne and Connell recognisable from the novel (or not) in other physical, emotional or psychological ways?
Szalai Because Rooney's novel is so interior, so much of the performance rests on how the actors manage silences, minute changes in expression, furtive looks — all of that was incredibly well done on the part of Edgar-Jones and Mescal. Connell's irresistible appeal to Marianne in the show was more perplexing to me (in a way that it wasn't in the book). I still found Edgar-Jones' Marianne to be palpably charismatic and strange and interesting, while he's so shy and self-effacing that the contours of his personality are hard to make out.
Poniewozik There are a lot of good-looking young people on TV, but not so many who can get across the complicated relation these characters have to their physicality. Mescal plays Connell like his body is an attractive but uncomfortable suit he wishes he could take off sometimes. Whereas Edgar-Jones both embraces her sexual growth like she's discovering a superpower — and yet at the same time, wants to be hurt and demeaned. That discomfort — with everyone except each other — recalled the book's characters as much as any physical resemblance.
Garner To the extent that in the book Marianne is aloof as an orchid, a prickly pear, I thought it was very good casting. The sense of them being made for each other, chaotically, destructively, put me in mind of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Connell has that brooding-poet vibe and that Easter Island visage.
Sehgal Mescal's performance is what kept me watching (that and this assignment!). There's a moment in the third episode that hooked me. Connell and Marianne have started sleeping together, but he refuses to publicly acknowledge her. As they pass each other in the school hallway, he shoots her this look — so quick and yet so charged with complicity, wariness, desire. It's followed by another moment, when they're speaking very frankly to each other in his bedroom and Mescal starts picking at his skin, as if he wished he could be rid of it. These moments embody Connell for me — that sense, as James puts it, that he is wearing his body and identity with confusion and pain. With Edgar-Jones, I never lost the feeling that she was reciting her lines. It's not just her performance. It's the way she's shot, frequently from above, giving her face the proportions of a child. Her vulnerability is constantly telegraphed at the expense, it can seem, of her other characteristics — that vaunted intelligence we keep hearing about, her argumentativeness and unconventionality.
Much has been said about the sex scenes in the series, which are pretty explicit and maybe even more vulnerable than they are explicit. James, you wrote in your review that the scenes are about “something more than lust,” about “a way of experimenting with your identity, with your relation to other people, with power and powerlessness.” What did those scenes give the story for all of you? Something different from the novel?
Garner I kept thinking, This is like On Chesil Beach, only with great sex.
Szalai There's so much sex in the show that I started to call it Horny People – only that makes it sound potentially funnier and earthier than it actually is. Rooney writes exceptionally well about sex, and in the novel it's depicted in terms of its effect on Connell and Marianne, how each of them experiences what's happening. The sex in the show is gorgeous and luminous — and I couldn't quite square it with the characters who were having it. Marianne thinks of herself as irredeemably unlovable, yet her very first experiences are sensual and hot and not awkward at all?
Sehgal I didn't feel that there was too much sex, or that it was especially explicit. I find Jen's point about the lack of awkwardness very intriguing; I actually liked that their first encounter was so easy and unforced. In sex with each other, they finally feel authentic. They finally feel like "normal people."
Poniewozik Is it weird that it didn't seem like a lot of sex to me as I watched it? I was struck by the explicitness (and the equal-opportunity nudity), but not so much the amount. The series is very conscious of sex as an expression of character, so it never felt like sex for sex' sake. (Also, not for nothing, but their scenes were unusual for TV as examples of consent and permission during sex — teen-show characters are not always that great about talking sex, Sex Education excepted.)
James, you also wrote that the series is “warmer, dreamier, more tactile” than the novel. Do you think that’s primarily because of the visual medium or a conscious change in emphasis/tone? And the rest of you, do you agree that the series feels more that way than the novel?
Poniewozik It's not just the medium, it's a choice. (One I obviously approved of.) You can choose to treat love and sex clinically or dispassionately onscreen — two TV examples, which I liked for different reasons, were Starz's The Girlfriend Experience and HBO's Tell Me You Love Me. Here, the camera wants to make us fall in love, rather than walk us through the thought process of two people falling in love.
Garner I agree with James (in his terrific review). There's such a briskness to Rooney's prose, it's so dry and confident. It's as if she is julienning vegetables. The series is dreamier, for sure, though I'm not sure I'd want to complain about it.
Szalai I wasn't crazy about the show for this very reason. The book is cool and light, and pleasurable to read, while the show's dreaminess felt heavy and lugubrious to me. But this might also be because I found the ending of the novel so weak, which probably coloured how I took in the (admittedly impressive) aesthetics of the show.
Sehgal It's such a pretty show, but I think the beauty brings a change in tone. It almost felt like a much older person's evocation of youth — so glamorous and heightened. The novel is very arid by comparison, the prose practically anaesthetised. There's a real feeling of high school: the flatness, repetition, claustrophobia, the endless waiting for real life to begin.
Apparently, the TV production had a mantra on set about the adaptation: “The book is the Bible.” Do you see any heresies (other than any we may have already discussed)? Or is this as loyal an adaptation as you think it could be?
Poniewozik Ooh, you touched a nerve for me there. I don't think screen adaptations owe any loyalty to books. If anything, they owe them a certain amount of treachery. The book exists; if I want to read it, I can; and if I love it, nothing can take that away. I don't want a TV series to be a videobook. I want it to create a visual correlative to what the book made me feel, or to take the book as inspiration and go somewhere else entirely. (This is becoming a bigger and bigger issue as it sometimes seems that 90 per cent of TV is based on preexisting intellectual property.) Honestly, it's rare for me to love a series this much when it so directly follows its source — and that was mostly because of how the more emotive rendering set it apart.
Sehgal I don't think the show owes any fealty to the novel. That said, I found the moments of departure interesting because they trend in the same direction. In the show, Marianne is offered a line of cocaine. She refuses. But in the book, she accepts. In the show, Marianne has a short sadomasochistic relationship with a photographer that she ends because she can't abide his violence. In the novel, she walks out because he expresses tenderness. In the show, Marianne tells Connell she doesn't feel the need to play her usual power and sexual games because what they share feels real. There's no such suggestion in the novel. The character has been cleaned up. She's such a good girl now, and so legible, whereas in the book she is much more complicated and confusing, even to herself. Connell isn't spared either; the show omits what was for me the most charged moment in the novel: when he contemplates Marianne's submissiveness toward him and feels revulsion, and a terrifying urge to hurt her.
Szalai I'm happy for a show to abandon the book that inspired it; the main thing is that each one should work on its own terms. Normal People is a weird case. The show is mostly faithful to the novel in terms of dialogue and plot, but the lush visuals felt like overkill for the source material, as if the Dardenne brothers had decided to make a teen romance. And it's not as if the show delves too deeply into the class issues threaded through Rooney's novel; if anything, they're even more lightly worn, almost to the point of weightlessness. It's an odd combination.
There are a lot of musical cues in the show, both in its score and its use of popular music. Did you find that powerful? Distracting? Both?
Szalai Like the sex, the music struck me as almost too impeccable. Especially all the songs in the early episodes, when they're still in Sligo. In the book, Rooney has the kids dancing at a school fundraiser to a "pounding Destiny's Child remix"; in the show, it's a remix of a track by London Grammar. Maybe a lot of the music has to do with permissions issues, but the sad-indie-rock curation made everything feel even more self-serious.
Poniewozik As other critics have noted, the music supervision went a little deep on the greatest hits of The OC et al — producers can only use Mazzy Star's Into Dust so many times before it starts to sound like Emotion Helper.
Garner The song that slayed me, for demographic reasons, was Only You, by Yazoo.
Sehgal The bathetic, plinky piano music during the BDSM scenes will haunt me forever.
This is a good excuse to ask you all more generally about Sally Rooney, who has a devoted following and also inspires heated discussions — rare for a literary author these days. What do you think it is about her work that elicits such strong reactions in people? Or is it even about the work — is her success just an excuse for inter- and intra-generational squabbling?
Szalai I preferred Conversations with Friends, which has more of a snap to it than this one. Still, as much as I've enjoyed Rooney's books, I confess that neither novel so far has moved me in the way that they've clearly moved so many readers. They left me charmed, admiring and mildly surprised by the strong reactions to her work — not just the rapturous plaudits but the backlash, too.
Poniewozik I felt lucky to be seemingly one of the few people in the world who read the novel (liked it) and watched the series (loved it) with no preexisting opinion about or investment in Rooney. (No doubt in part because I'm a Gen X man — no one's assuming her works are speaking for me or my generation.) As a TV critic and outsider to the frontlash and backlash, it feels a bit like trying to discuss Girls back in the day without everything becoming about people's briefs for or against Lena Dunham.
Garner Sally Rooney's novels are like trains running on well-made track. I sense she is only just getting started.
Sehgal So many takes! The Millennial Novelist; The Marxist Novelist; The Insufficiently Marxist Novelist. I hope she's not reading any of them and is off writing another novel. As for me, like Jen, I preferred Conversations with Friends. The characters in Normal People felt a bit thinly realised; there's that line of Connell's: "We see the world the same way" — which way is that? I couldn't tell you. But I love the pacing in her novels, and she writes about sex, status and conformity uncommonly well. – New York Times