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REVIEW: Normal People On The Screen

Updated: Jan 25, 2021

There are so many avenues I could go down when reviewing the screen adaptation of Sally Rooney's Normal People. Both the book and the 12-part series pack so much in to them that it's difficult to know where to start - but I am going to try.

For those who don't know (have you been living under a rock?), Normal People presents the complicated relationship between Connell and Marianne as they navigate adolescent life from school until university. If you also don't know, I wasn't a massive fan of the book (see my review). But the adaptation got me rethinking about the entire thing. I absolutely fell in love with it. I have honestly never seen a literary adaptation manage to capture the essence of a book so well. As we know, film adaptations often alter parts, get rid of characters, and sometimes forget entire scenes. But the beautiful thing about watching this adaptation is that it was pretty much all there - I knew what was coming next and I was looking forward to seeing how it played out on screen.

Because Connell and Marianne's story spans so many years, Rooney writes her book almost like a set of short stories, lapsing in time and only having the main characters in common. While I wasn't a huge fan of this in the book, this narrative device made it perfect for the screen. Using a TV series, rather than a film, was exactly the right choice. The series allows their relationship to play out in ways that would just be impossible to capture in a shorter film. Each episode acts like a 'snippet' of their life and their relationship to one another - exactly how Rooney does in her book. This adaptation was what I wanted out of the book, to be able to see the action, rather than read it.

The characters truly came to life. This was thanks to the amazing acting and chemistry between Daisy Edgar-Jones, playing Marianne, and Paul Mescal, playing Connell. When reading the book, I did not root for these characters to be together. Not even for a second (can you believe it? me neither). But the adaptation got me - I was rooting for them both. The chemistry between the two is incredibly believable, you can feel the pull between them when standing in a room together. I still stand by my comment about the sex sometimes being unrealistic (the complete fluidity of their first time - where's the awkwardness????), but the sex scenes are also incredibly raw and show their powerful connection. It was utterly heart-wrenching to watch. For some reason, I had pictured Marianne completely different - blonde, with more of a Skins character look about her. But Edgar-Jones completely brought Marianne to life. Don't get me wrong, Marianne as a character still infuriates me at times, but it was in a more endearing way, I kind of love her because she annoys me. And Connell. Dear lord, how do we even talk about the beauty that is Paul Mescal? Mescal's depiction of Connell jumped off the page and right into this series. His navigation of Connell's emotions, especially in the tougher episodes, brought a tear to my eye. It massively struck a chord with me as he cried about not knowing the direction of his life.

What also struck a chord with me was the depiction of university life. This is my favourite part of the novel, with Rooney really hitting her stride as Marianne does. Like Connell, I study English Literature. Watching the characters go to the library, contribute in seminars, go to parties, and sit in lectures killed me to watch. In the most lovely way. Despite not being able to relate to everything (my student house could never look like Marianne's), other parts portrayed my experience of uni perfectly. Being sat at home, watching, knowing that I will never return - ouch. The characters we are introduced to while they are at Trinity were incredible, from the pretentious men like Jamie who talk about "the male gaze" yet talk over women in a seminar, to Marianne's wonderful friend Joanne, who I would have loved to have seen more of. The scenes at Trinity navigate friendships, relationships, class struggles, and becoming an adult with such precision that it hits almost too-close to home.

Not only did the actors capture the essence of the book, but the entire aesthetic too. Basically everything I imagined things to look like, they did. The colour palettes and shots were mesmerising. For example, let's look at episode 8, set at Marianne's holiday house in Italy. It reminded me of Call Me By Your Name - young love, bikes, Italy, and a gorgeous house. Soft sunlight, quiet streets, gorgeous clothing. Connell Me By Your Name? The only setting of the whole show that I pictured differently was Marianne's house in Ireland. I don't know why, but I'd pictured more of a 'modern', cold look to it - huge and uninviting, as modern houses can be. But it was this beautiful, 'old money', writers-retreat type house (I want to live there, can you tell?). But it didn't matter, the whole thing was perfect anyway.

Many people have talked about the music in the show and I am going to be completely honest - I didn't even notice it, minus a Selena Gomez song at one point. But that isn't a bad thing, that is a testament to how in-tune the music is to the emotions of the scenes. The songs compliment the drama so well that the music feels like part of it, not a separate entity added later. You don't want to be watching something and think 'ooo I love this song!' because it drags you out of the moment, makes you remember you are merely watching a fictional show. I wasn't snapped out of the show until the credits started rolling. What I particularly loved about the sound was the use of silences. The book is all about their (frustrating) inability to communicate. The longing looks, the awkward silences, the big elephants in the room. These were orchestrated perfectly on screen, with long pauses that scream for someone to speak. *chefs kiss*

I've seen a few people who haven't read the book annoyed about the ending. But I actually felt that the adaptation ends on a sweeter note than the book, just through changes in dialogue and where their relationship stands. For me, the ending to the book isn't a 'I'll hold the fort' moment, it is a moment of finality. They come together, they switch power dynamics, and they come apart - Is that not how all modern romances play out? They finally know what they want, and if they are meant to be together, then life will throw them back together. But he has to go, and she has to stay.

One question that I would ask is why the significance of the 2008 setting is completely lost in it. The book is all about being Irish in 2008, after 'the crash'. That's what makes the class disparity between Connell and Marianne so interesting. But the 2020 Selena Gomez playing at a party proved that 2008 wasn't necessarily part of the story any more. Maybe this is on purpose - it makes it more timeless, an encapsulation of modern romances. It makes it about our inability to communicate and our focus on our body before our emotions.

What I have taken out of this adaptation is that I need to reread the book and re-evaluate my opinions. I now like boys who wear necklaces, and I am seriously debating getting a fringe.

See you next time, Kate x

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