‘Normal People’ Doesn’t Try To Be A Cultural Event. It Just Is One.
In an era when prestige and event television is aggressively pointed towards 'saying something' as if purely to generate hot takes, 'Normal People' invests in creating two painfully real, pedestrian characters.
The TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel Normal People met a wall of scepticism as soon as it was announced last year, with fans worried it would be impossible to translate. It was completely unwarranted.
Normal People is, in lots of ways, an unassuming book (albeit one with a beautiful cover). Two high schoolers, Marianne and Connell, from a small Irish town begin a relationship, which changes forms again and again as the two attend Trinity College in Dublin. And between it and debut Conversations With Friends, which will also be adapted by the BBC, Rooney has been bandished as ‘a voice of a generation’.
The New Yorker calls the 29-year-old “the first great millennial novelist for her stories of love and late capitalism”; The Guardian ranked Normal People the 25th best novel of the 21st century, celebrating how she captures the “uncertainty of millennial life” with “universally appealing prose”. The sales are astronomical, too. Normal People is the rare literary zeitgeist novel, like A Little Life or Freedom before it.
Rooney’s attracted the kind of glowing praise her own characters, mostly sardonic liberal university students, would scoff at on principle. And they’re not alone — social-media critics and contrarians call Rooney’s two novels boring, plotless love stories about insufferable privileged white 20somethings.
Like the most vocal critics of Girls, those who laugh its popularity off are likely uncomfortably close to its target, though it’s true that no thesis point announces itself in Normal People. Rooney is a Marxist, but her novels quietly show, not tell, how class infects our lives and shapes our understanding of the world.
The novel is granular, built off each Connell and Marianne’s interiors and balancing the two with equal empathy even as they inevitably hurt one another. It’s as much a romance as it is a double-bildungsroman, a story about two people coming-of-age with and because of each other.
Hence the scepticism: how do you capture that on TV, without giving way to melodrama or sappiness? Yet over its 12 half-hour episodes, Normal People avoids the overwrought — even when it features Imogen Heap’s ‘Hide And Seek’, a song so integral to The OC‘s pop-culture legacy that its inclusion almost overwhelms the episode.
Understated and nuanced, Normal People‘s adaptation is anything but ordinary. In an era when prestige and event television is aggressively pointed towards ‘saying something’ as if purely to generate hot takes, Normal People invests in creating two painfully real, pedestrian characters.
‘You Certainly Have Gone All Out, Marianne’
Casting was always going to make or break Normal People.
Largely unknown actors Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones might not look like the Connell or Marianne they imagined (both are far prettier, for starters), but they embody the characters in such a way it’s difficult, after watching the series, to conjure up any other image.
Connell is a bright, popular footballer who feels a distance from his friends; Marianne is a bookish loner, bullied for her ‘snobbish’ attitude, bad looks, and wealth. Connell’s mum is Marianne’s housekeeper, which is how the two first start sleeping together in secret, for Connell’s fear of his friends — a cruel pact that overhangs their relationship in the coming years.
Later, at college, it’s Marianne who fits in. Connell finds his wealthy peers pretentious, struggling to keep up with social cues and conventions he wasn’t trained in. But Marianne doesn’t wield her new social power in retaliation for their high school tryst, and the two reconnect as her friends struggle to understand why.
Mescal gives Connell the tenderness Rooney creates in paragraphs with just a few stares, and Edgar-Jones teases out Marianne’s shielded naivety and eagerness to be liked (or just known on campus) in a character who, in lesser hands, would be insufferable. Most importantly, their chemistry is a joy to watch whether its simmering, bubbling over, or burnt out.
Connell and Marianne are driven by a lust that’s as physical as it is intellectual, though there is a lot of sex in Normal People. But it never lands as gratuitous, or sex for sex’s sake. Rooney, who co-wrote the adaptation alongside Alice Burch (Succession), has said she approached writing sex scenes in the novel as if they were a conversation.
“What do these characters want to say to each other?,” she said. “I won’t just write a scene where two characters say words to each other randomly. Similarly, sex scenes have to actually play some dramatic role.”
For the TV show, the actors worked with an intimacy coordinator to rehearse their movements and work out what the characters were saying. And just as their long conversations have this familiar rhythm, so too does their sex — not to say it lacks passion. Over the years, both admit “it’s not like this” with other people, but in the show, the viewer already sees the difference as soon as they’re in the same room. The connection is almost involuntary.
Both Connell and Marianne posture their way through social situations. Connell goes quiet and agreeable, while Marianne is razor-sharp and coldly charming. But they rest in each other’s company — the equal footing is clear in the show’s nudity, too, with Mescal’s body on full-frontal display as much as Edgar-Jones’.
Over the show’s four-year span, Connell and Marianne continually echo each other. They often say, feel and experience the same things, if not years apart. But their contexts aren’t the same, and neither are the timelines — common for first love and college years, when a person evolves from moment to moment as they try and find who they are, often with failed starts.
Naturally, they can’t always translate their inner thoughts as they move along. Or they don’t dare to try, fearing they discover the limits to their shared language. Normal People‘s skill is that it balances all three voices — Connell, Marianne, theirs — at once. We feel the distance and the closeness all at once.
Lenny Abrahamson (Room) and Hettie Macdonald, who split the show’s directing duties, create a beautifully cinematic world that, like Rooney’s novel, doesn’t overstate itself. Shots linger but rarely dawdle. It’s impressive that the 12-part show barely lags, despite the relative lack of plot. It’s a testament to how enjoyable it is to spend time with Connell and Marianne, to be within their own rhythms.
‘Will You Tell Me I Belong To You?’
Rooney’s novel was celebrated as capturing something specific about millennial ennui and uncertainty, which is, ironically, hard to pin-point in any one moment. It’s clearer in the TV show.
Both Connell and Marianne, like most 20somethings, are constantly concerned about being ‘normal’. In high school, Marianne is proudly different, if not lonely, but is happy to find her space in college. Connell finds himself at home back in Sligo, and challenged at college: his comfort is in his English degree, not his surroundings.
Normal People‘s skill is that it balances all three voices — Connell, Marianne, theirs — at once. We feel the distance and the closeness all at once.
Marianne’s troubled home life leaves her feeling broken at her core, and mental health issues plague Connell, too. The show’s gaze doesn’t heighten these Important Issues with dramatics — scenes involving violence don’t even necessarily push along the show’s pace. They just happen, which, if anything, might be the most distinctly ‘millennial’ thing about Normal People: the awareness that so much of our lives are out of our control.
If anything, Normal People is led by Connell and Marianne’s anxieties. Across 12 episodes and four years of their lives, both are most scared and informed by the idea that the other will reject them — that Connell will decide Marianne is broken, or that Marianne will listen to her friends and get bored of Connell.
These short pains are the show’s most heart-wrenching moments, pulling upon the fear that the person who knows you best finds you bizarre, unknowable. But neither Connell or Marianne leverage the ability to police each other’s habits or erode oddities to align with their own. It’s as sweet as it is strange. No wonder we love it.
Normal People is streaming on Stan.
Jared Richards is Junkee’s Night Editor. This article is part of Take Time, his column on pop culture. Follow him on Twitter.