I adored Sally Rooney’s second novel when it first shot to the top of bestseller lists in 2019, long before talks of film and television rights had begun. The prose was something very special: spare, terse, even, dare I say, plain; yet intense, potent, shrewd. It caught you off guard, masquerading as if it was something so unadorned. The focus on millennial love, emotion, power and class worked so well in this unassuming form. Anything millennial runs the risk of being trivialised; according to the media, we are a generation of snowflakes. However, in Rooney’s world the trivial subjects, concerns and lives of these millennials became things ruthlessly analysed, considered, and acerbically evaluated. We were let into the private minds of two endlessly thoughtful characters, and their words, penned so wonderfully by Rooney, formed a powerful, palpably painful story. I even loved the book’s cover illustration – a man and a woman curled into one another, inside an open sardine can – so much so that I got a tattoo on my upper left arm to match.
Yet, on screen in the 12-part series now available to binge on BBC iPlayer, much of the palpable pain and emotional intensity of the novel is lost in translation. In the book, Connell and Marianne certainly have their issues (mostly incredibly poor communication with another – being largely unable to ever truly, freely articulate themselves), but these issues become a point of interest. Their backstories are brought to bear on their current troubles, and Rooney delivers all this to the reader in the form of, as Camilla Long aptly phrases it: ‘labyrinthine discussions and anxious emotional self-examinations’. Visually, these discussions and the many reasons behind Connell and Marianne’s issues are difficult to show in any depth. As a result, the adaptation offers up two characters scarcely deserving of sympathy, given that their painful inner anxieties are unable to be articulated to the audience. Instead, Connell and Marianne’s relationship appears merely frustrating: their persistent inability to talk with each other, trust each other, and be there for one another has no justification, given that we are not treated to the same psychological and emotional assessment the words on the page reveal to us. It is, at times, hard to understand why the pair are in love at all, given how badly they treat each other. The endless sex scenes do nothing to repair this. The intimacy feels false, almost unbelievable, for we are not made to understand, truly, what it is built upon.
At the start of their on-again, off-again romance, the relationship struggles the pair come up against can be dismissed as the fault of teenage naivete and inexperience, but as the episodes continue, and the couple gain life experience, tackling university and the bigger world of Dublin away from their hometown, the same issues prevail. Reading their issues and understanding the complex web of context from which their behaviour emerges, intersecting with power, class and gender, makes them interesting. Watching them, viewers see only two very difficult, far from normal people, troubled, but with no obvious reason as to why, who seem to do nothing but have a lot of breathy sex. Class is not explored in the same way, and there is very little in the television adaptation about power and its effect on the dynamics of their relationship. Combined with a cringe-worthy soundtrack with lyrics that always seem to match the tone or focus of the scene too well, reminiscent of daytime television classic ‘Homes Under the Hammer’ and its love of matching songs to dialogue, I am not in the camp of those that seem to adore ‘Normal People’ with the same fervour as the book. For me, the magic will always lie with the Connell and Marianne that exist on the page, rather than the pair of imposters that fail to capture their essence on-screen.