Normal People Softens the Edges of Its Tortured Romance

Normal People Softens the Edges of Its Tortured Romance

It can be suffocating even briefly inhabiting the minds of Sally Rooney’s characters. With just two outrageously popular novels to her name, the Irish writer has become famous for writing tortured relationships. Her naive, youthful characters find love in secrecy, slipping past friends and partners to be together. In her second book, Normal People, love does not blossom between its lead characters Connell and Marianne so much as it proliferates like a garden weed, ravaging their young adult lives as they fail to resist each other.

If that doesn’t sound like a romance, it might be because Normal People isn’t a truly romantic story, at least not classically. But that hasn’t stopped BBC Three and Hulu from adapting (very quickly, it should be noted) the story into a TV series. And while faithful to the stifled angst and dialogue of the book, the internal strife and depth of its lead characters can’t be translated on screen seamlessly.

Spoilers ahead.

The show starts, as the book does, with Marianne and Connell on separate ends of the high school popularity spectrum. Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is a privileged, bookish loner who bites back at bullies while working-class Connell (Paul Mescal) is an intelligent, popular bro who hangs out with those who tease her. They begin a sexual relationship in private, depicted in the show in a series of intimate, graphic scenes. Each outwardly denies a desire to be a proper couple, Connell afraid of the judgment of his classmates; Marianne, too proud to articulate it. When they meet again at Trinity College, their social lives have been reversed: Marianne is the intellectual popular girl on campus, and Connell the loner struggling to relate to his preppy peers. They slip into sexual habits, on and off through time, and yet the confines of their respective classes and self-destructive behaviors keep them distant.

Rooney has been hailed as “the first great millennial writer,” and while the title is hyperbolic, the most “millennial” aspect of her writing might be the manufactured coldness of Marianne and Connell even as they quietly long for each other only. Their relationship for too long is the stubborn kind, in which feelings are kept ambiguous and bottled. They seem to be star-crossed on their own accord, not by malicious outside forces. And much of Rooney’s book is extremely introspective, we only really know these characters when we get inside their heads, seeing how Marianne would, as Rooney wrote of her, “lain on the ground and let him walk over her body if he wanted.”

That slippage of honesty between what Connell and Marianne truly feel and think and how they don’t always act on it makes Normal People a difficult text to adapt to the screen. The show’s lead actors do the best they can at translating the silent desires of their characters in absence of a voiceover or the book’s context, and viewers really do spend a lot of time just sitting in the silence of these characters. A scene where Connell silently scans a lavish pool party at the home of a rich friend of Marianne’s gives quiet context to a scene after in which he bursts into tears after failing to ask her if he can stay with her after losing his job. But you’ll have to infer all that from very little. Daisy Edgar-Jones is gifted at transforming Marianne at different stages of young adulthood, flitting between acidic confidence and insecurity. But her and Mescal’s talent comes through the most in the multiple, explicit sex scenes across the show, filtered through what often looks like Instagram-approved presets. These scenes radiate chemistry that makes the intense physical pull of their relationship believable.

But as good as the sex scenes are, they can feel like a replacement for a deeper context to the characters’ relationship, one that may be impossible to translate to a screen in a show that relishes and romanticizes silence and missed connection. We’re told that Connell and Marianne are successful, talented writers, but whereas in the book we’re privy to their emails (Connell’s are “beautiful,” Marianne tells him), texts, and descriptions of Connell’s work, that’s all more or less wiped away in the show. As the characters retreat from high school and college scenes into darker territory, struggling with depression, eating disorders, and S&M tendencies, the show’s timeline becomes jumbled, failing to illustrate the forces behind these shifts. Normal People may be a more commercial, tactile romance on-screen than it is on the page—and certainly steamier—but the cerebral characters who made the book’s generic tensions famous and unique feel softened, just out of focus.

Normal People begins streaming on Hulu April 29.

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