Normal People on TV: I’m eating my words

Tuscan villas on a hillside, in the sunshine
Photo by Rowan Heuvel on Unsplash

First off, it’s important to emphasise how much I loved Normal People, the book. It was Sally Rooney’s second book and I’d so adored Conversations with Friends (those eagerly awaited late night emails! the extramarital tension on both sides! Frances’ sense of not knowing who she is without the ability to see herself through Nick’s eyes! that languid yet stressful French holiday!) that I’d pre-ordered Normal People in hardback and I devoured it as soon as it arrived. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s got its haters, I know, but I’m Team Rooney all the way. I thought it was genius. I instantly loved the pared-back, passive style and the lack of quote marks and the way the story is almost told despite itself. I also loved, as I had with Conversations with Friends, the descriptions of Dublin and specifically of Trinity. We visited Dublin soon after I read the book, and I realised how accurate the portrayals had been. I ambled along the Liffey with my headphones in, pretending in my head that I was half the age I actually was and that I might imminently encounter Connell on any given corner. It definitely added something.

Dublin on a grey, rainy day — looking along the Liffey

Dublin is extraordinarily beautiful to her in wet weather, the way grey stone darkens to black, and rain moves over the grass and whispers on slick roof tiles…Rain silver as loose change in the glare of traffic.

- Normal People, Sally Rooney

Imagine my fear and horror, then, when I heard Normal People was going to be made into a TV series. Arrogantly, I thought there was absolutely no way that any TV adaptation could possibly match the way I’d already imagined the characters in my head. By which I mean, I definitely thought that my Connell and Marianne were the best Connell and Marianne, and anyone trying to show me their version was a) wrong b) very unwelcome and c) should promptly reconsider. I had baaaaaad memories of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife — a book I’d truly adored in my youth, and which I thought was sensitive and well-written and so much more than its time travel element, but which was then made into a trite and turgid film which managed irritatingly to interfere with all my best memories of the book, too, and turn it all into a muddy congealed mess in my mind. (I also had bad memories of the Sweet Valley High tv adapation, but I’ll grudgingly concede that the bar set by those particular books mightn’t have been that high). I basically set out with the clear notion that Normal People on TV would disappoint me.

Of course it didn’t. Along with everyone else who turned straight to it as a lockdown treat, firing up the iPlayer after stirring their sourdough starters and manouvring out of Downward Dog, I fucking loved every minute of it. And for probably the first time in my life, I began to see that it was possible for a TV or film adaptation to transcend or to improve on a book. I actually do think the TV series of Normal People has the edge over the book for me, now, and here is why:

  1. The colours. I go on about these all the time to anyone who’ll listen, but seriously — that PALETTE! The muted greys and greens of the countryside, and the tired shopfronts in Sligo; the old grey stone, sad white skies and “slick roof tiles” in Dublin; the umber and bronze and shimmering gold in Italy; the white snow in Finland, stark and cold as Marianne’s bewildered heart. The colours were perfect and they told a story all of their own.
  2. The clothes. I mean, I’d have always been a fan of an oversized cable knit maroon jumper or a bit of corduroy — who isn’t?! — but the clothes were just perfect at every stage. Marianne in the book did not seem to me like someone who would wear quite so many fit-and-flare sundresses, particularly broderie anglaise ones, but when I saw her in them they made perfect sense to me. It became so clear that in her university incarnation she gave clothes a lot more thought than the book had suggested, and this somehow made perfect sense. (I also loved the fact that the wardrobe was so timelessly “student”. Even Connell’s famous neckchain could’ve been worn by any rugby boy at any university in perhaps 1997 or 2003 or 2015. Nothing about the clothes really told us anything about the era we know the characters are living in, and yet it told us everything).
  3. The silences. The unspoken communication is one of the things I worried would be lost in translation to TV, but that didn’t happen. The prose is famously stark in the book, so an amount of silence is implied, but on screen (in the hands of the really bloody talented actors) it becomes so much more obvious, and weighty and important. The gaps between the words came to mean as much as the words themselves, and I think this is a rare and clever trick , as well as being huge testament to the skilled chemistry between Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal.

Yeah, so anyway, I am really sad it’s over and I can’t wait for the upcoming adaptation of Conversations with Friends and I have had my mind changed about the possibility of doing justice to beloved books on screen. (Still a bit arrogant and possessive about how I see my favourite characters in all of my favourite books, tbh, but that’s a mark of a good read isn’t it?!). And I have a strong feeling that we’ll all be in broderie anglaise fit-and-flare sundresses once we’re actually allowed to have dinners with friends in Tuscan villas, or, you know, in the back garden of our own houses in the UK ‘burbs. I’m steering well clear of a Marianne-style fringe though, I still have some knowledge of my limits.

Originally published at on May 12, 2020.



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Em Unravelling

Em Unravelling

Lover of words, books, hiking, nature and big skies. Running is my favourite thing (after the words & the books). As feisty as I need to be.