It almost sounds blasphemous to say that an adaptation is better than the novel it was based upon, especially when the source material is as beloved as Sally Rooney’s Normal People. First published in 2018, it follows Connell and Marianne’s relationship over a period of years. As most of the story happens inside the characters’ minds, many wondered if and how the book could actually be adapted. Yet, the adaptation rights were secured before its publication, and the homonymous series, directed by Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald, premiered in April 2020. The result? It is even better than the novel. This brief essay will comparatively analyze the book and the TV show, firstly focusing on their structure, style, and format, the adaptation of the dialogue. It will also look at how Normal People can be read as a novel of manners. Following that, I’ll conduct an analysis of the most prominent mise-en-scène elements of the miniseries – highlighting the importance of the choice of actors and camera work to its success. Lastly, there will be a confrontation between the differences in their last scenes. By further elaborating on those aspects, I will argue that Normal People is one of those rare instances where the adaptation triumphs over the original material.
The story of Normal People is one of the bonds between two human beings, a connection, unlike anything they share with anyone else. As the years pass and Connell and Marianne’s situations change, their dynamic alters and their ties bend but never break. Feelings are the main driving force of the novel, whose structure mimics how a person remembers their life – accentuating the significance of certain moments and forgetting the rest. This episodic nature of the plot was prime for a series adaptation. Rooney’s over-200-page novel turned into 12 half-an-hour episodes, which granted the viewer almost as much time with the characters as they would have, were they reading the book. (In point of fact, the Normal People audiobook lasts seven and a half hours, while the show runs for a total of five and a half hours). Furthermore, the short duration of the episodes, combined with the move towards a chronological storytelling timeline in the show, makes the material easily digestible for the audience, without any loss of intensity or poignancy.
Moreover, what is most compelling about the novel (and made even more prominent in the show due to the viewer’s lack of access to Connell and Marianne’s thoughts) is that what is not said is equally, or more, important than what is. Although occasionally, it seems like they can read each other’s minds, their communication difficulties come back to haunt them many times. As miscommunication is another of the central themes of Normal People, the fact that the dialogue is adapted for the series almost exactly word-for-word means that the original dynamics are maintained. Because despite their profound connection and the depth of their feelings, Connell and Marianne continually misread each other. At its heart, this is a story about seeing and being seen by another person; it is about vulnerability. Connell and Marianne understand each other like no one else can, yet they still misunderstand the simplest things about one another. Often, what they believe to be obvious, is not. This resonates with the audience: after all, who has never misunderstood someone or been misunderstood? Who has never thought that their feelings were clear when that was not the case? Normal People seems to be, inherently, a 21st century novel of manners. In the same manner that the works of Jane Austen reveal much about 19th-century British society, so does Rooney’s reveal about the culture and youth of today. It discloses how this generation deals with relationships, with intimacy (physical and emotional), and with the pressures of adulthood.
Additionally, Rooney’s sparse, minimalistic prose style was only enriched by the series’ mise-en-scène. Whilst in a book the narrator can dip in and out of the characters’ heads, in a TV series, their inner lives are significantly more difficult to convey. However, the age-old adage of “show, don’t tell” develops better in a visual work than in a literary one. Abrahamson and Macdonald opted against the use of a narrator in the show, therefore enhancing the relevance of the mise-en-scène to portray Connell and Marianne’s inner-worlds. Particularly important was the choice of actors – not only because Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones become human avatars for the characters, but also because the chemistry between them is ultimately what keeps the viewer invested in the story. Connell and Marianne are not perfect characters. They are flawed and can, at times, be downright infuriating – even unlikeable. But Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones do a beautiful job interpreting their vulnerabilities, the sizzling allure, and the complexities and struggles of their relationship. The viewer cannot help but be enthralled by them.
Furthermore, camera work is fundamental to Normal People’s success. Through framing and the use of depth of focus, directors expose the details of Connell and Marianne’s inner lives and the subtleties of their relationship(s). These underlying messages may not even be consciously deciphered by the majority of viewers, but they reveal a great deal. An example of that is how, in many scenes, the camera shoots Connell and Marianne from behind. This causes the viewer to immediately identify and empathize with them, for it puts the audience in the character’s shoes – the audience walks with them, sees what they see. Often, the two meet within that framing, exchanging meaningful looks as they pass by one another or walking side by side, as the viewer follows them from behind. In opposition to that, if they engage with other characters, the camera angle changes for the duration of the interaction and returns to its position behind them afterward, which illustrates that their connection is not shared with other people. Concerning depth of focus, a shallow one is used in the majority of scenes where Connell and Marianne interact with one another. Compounded with close-angled shots, this augments the sense of intimacy between them and excludes the rest of the world. Contrastingly, the directors tend to use wider, sharp-focused, shots when they interact with other people, exposing the distance and detachment between them. Additionally, when they talk to each other, a shot-reverse-shot approach is used, generally offering alternates between shots of Connell and Marianne’s faces, enhancing the back and forth of their dynamic. But when they talk to other people, the camera tends to focus solely on the protagonists’ faces, as the dialogue washes over them.
Lastly, it is worth remarking upon the differences between the last scene of the novel and the TV show. This scene is the one that has been most extensively rewritten for the adaptation, and the resulting alterations make it significantly more satisfying to watch. Its essence remains the same – Connell and Marianne break up due to his impending move to New York to take an MFA in writing. While she is initially upset because he had not told her he had applied, Marianne ultimately encourages Connell to go. “You should go, she says. I’ll always be here. You know that.” This is where the novel abruptly ends. In the miniseries, on the other hand, they revisit the topic a few days later. The dialogue that ensues is rather longer and though the ending remains open, it is much more fulfilling, if bittersweet, to watch. Connell and Marianne’s last conversation in the show reveals how much they’ve matured as individuals and as a couple. They clearly love each other and share a beautiful bond, but they have also learned to acknowledge their own worth and needs and to seek their individual happiness as much as they wish it for the other person. Connell invites Marianne to go to New York with him, but she refuses because she is finally enjoying the life she is leading in Dublin. It is particularly gratifying to witness Marianne make this decision for herself. In the book, her character is less developed than Connell’s – while he is further explored when he goes into therapy and as he masters his craft, Marianne’s development tends to center more around her relationships – and this decision showed her character’s growth. In this last scene of the series, the two of them are turning into fully functioning adults. They are on an equal footing with each other and their relationship is no longer one of co-dependence, but a healthy one.
Abrahamson and Macdonald’s adaptation of Normal People is extremely faithful to Rooney’s original work. Though the novel’s quality must be acknowledged and praised, especially considering the author’s age and the fact that this is merely her second book, the TV series simply elevates it to another level. It maintains the impact of Rooney’s characters and story, but the format is more suited to relay its subtleties and significance. While the novel, at times, can be a bit repetitive regarding its source of conflict (that is, communication problems) and overtly explanatory descriptions of the characters’ inner thoughts, the series is benefited by the Mescal and Edgar-Jones phenomenal acting, the long silences and ingenious mise-en-scène. The show manages to turn some of the book’s flaws into successes with sophistication and skill. Through their choice of actors and camera work, the directors artfully portray the richness of Connell and Marianne’s relationship and inner lives in a delicate, beautiful manner. Simply put, watching their romance unfold on the screen is more satisfying than reading about it. And the (inevitable) changes that do occur, only make the show more pleasurable to watch, most notably in the case of the final scene.
- Rooney, S. (2018). Normal People. London: Faber & Faber.
- Abrahamson, L. & Macdonald, H. (Directors). (2020). Normal People [TV mini-series]. BBC3 and Hulu.
- Skip Intro. (2020, May 29). The Intimate Camera & Why You Should Watch NORMAL PEOPLE: [No Spoilers]. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KLeGKPKSCbk