A screen adaptation of a literary work is a completely separate entity. I never understood the “movie/series vs. book” debates. You can enjoy both, one or the other, or loathe both. This becomes particularly true today, when IP is king and more studios are inclined to gamble less on work not based on existing successful property.
Normal People was a charmed production, having a critically-acclaimed and commercially successful novel as a forebear, with a rising star author behind it. It was optioned by an Irish production company, whose leader was close friends with an Academy Award-winning Irish film director, who then got the green light from the BBC without any pitching necessary. The series is flying high, breaking BBC3 viewing records, and is rocking a 94% Rotten Tomatoes audience score. To quote Marianne Sheridan, “it’s quite a thing.”
I revisited the novel that I couldn’t get through in 2018, and finally finished it. Having seen the series multiple times before picking the novel back up worked. Knowing the chronological sequence of events, and who said what, helped me overcome the unusual format the Sally Rooney wrote the novel in. Following are some of the things I noted as I read through it.
Perspective matters. Rooney uses a shifting POV, moving between Connell, Marianne and third person fluidly. This is unusual, as authors tend to pick first or third and stick with it. In first person, an effort is usually made to make clear whose POV we’re looking through. On the screen, the director’s POV takes over, and Lenny Abrahamson’s observational style meshes with the gorgeous naturalistic aesthetics of DP Suzy Lavelle to create an intimate, almost voyeuristic aesthetic. This complements the conceit of the book, which is almost completely introspection and dialogue with very little exposition, exposing the reader to the unreliable narrator effect. In the series, we have confidence in what we’re seeing.
A significant part of the characters’ introspection and dialogue in the novel centers on political and economic debates between characters, given that Connell is well-read and Marianne is a history and politics major. The series doesn’t delve that deeply into this aspect. This blurs some characters’ personalities. For example, Marianne is characterized as having no concept of how much anything costs, having never had to pay for anything. Connell and his mum Lorraine get into a discussion of teenage pregnancy, as well as local politics leading up to elections. Connell and Marianne have sex, talk about history and politics, then have more sex. It’s not a great loss given the focus on the relationship of the main characters in the series, but it’s a large chunk of their development left on the floor.
Speaking if Marianne, Daisy Edgar-Jones’s Marianne is decidedly different from novel Marianne, but not in a bad way. She’s just different. Edgar-Jones is physically attractive in every sense of the word, particularly her ultra-expressive eyes. Novel Marianne is beautiful to Connell, but that’s clearly an amalgamation of everything he sees in her and takes many things beyond the physical into account. “In certain photographs she appears not only plain but garishly ugly, baring her crooked teeth for the camera like a piece of vermin.” Other characters pursue her more for her wealth and status, and her sexual proclivities. Edgar-Jones’s Marianne isn’t “garishly ugly” for a microsecond through the whole series, and her teeth are not crooked at all. Which is fine. Novel Marianne, with the help of copious passages of introspection, feels colder, more callous and condescending, clearly emotionally damaged. Edgar-Jones does an admirable job of conveying the inner demons of the character, no small feat, particularly during the coffee date dialogue, her Swedish ordeal, and every interaction with her family. Final note on Marianne. The novel describes her physical deterioration, becoming thinner and thinner, from the time she hooks up with Jamie, all through the time that Connell rescues her from Alan. No one expects Edgar-Jones to do a Machinist Christian Bale since she already has a slender frame, but it’s a notable effect of the novel character’s descent before she’s redeemed by Connell.
The series chose to minimize the screen time of key supporting characters. Helen is the most significant casualty. She was characterized in the novel as Connell’s stable relationship that brought out his best qualities. Marianne was his “wild” relationship, appealing to the parts of him that were broken. He really loved Helen. The series reduces her to the girlfriend that abandons him at his lowest point, after essentially cheating on her emotionally with Marianne. Joanna was likewise a more complete character in the novel. The only remaining friend from the original throng that surrounded her at the beginning of her Trinity years, Joanna corresponded with Marianne almost as much as Connell did. Her partner, Evelyn, was removed from the series. She stood by Marianne when Jamie turned everyone else against her. Joanna could have gotten as much attention as Niall. Lukas was problematic. The novel didn’t expound on his relationship with Marianne any more than them having an “arrangement” to play a “game” where Marianne submitted to him to drive her own self-loathing. It was clear in the novel that Lukas is a pretentious asshole. He cared nothing for Marianne, and she was using him to further her own self-loathing. He ended up enabling it, treating her like crap during sex but still not treating her well out if it. In that vein, he was worse than Jamie, which is saying something. They also changed the trigger that jolts Marianne out of the Lukas arrangement. In the novel, Lukas saying “I love you” to her breaks the spell, since how can anyone who treats her the way he does love her? In the novel, they added the setup where Marianne demands to be treated as someone unworthy of being liked, never mind love. Connell’s email, telling her that just because people treat her badly, it doesn’t mean she deserves to be treated badly, gives her the strength to get out.
So, to the Ending. I’ve said that novel Marianne and series Marianne are different. As such they deserve different endings, and that’s what they get. Because it’s my favorite scene I’ll reference the New Year’s kiss at the bar. In the novel, Connell kisses Marianne, and says “I love you”. She says nothing, and goes though an internal dialogue about Connell redeeming her, and purposely bringing her to the bar for PDA, and not having to wonder about him really loving her any more. This is consistent with novel Marianne, who even at the end of her arc feels far more emotionally damaged than Daisy Marianne. In the series, as I noted before, Marianne tells Connell “I love you too” for the first and only time in the series. I’d call that significant. The bar scene itself is different, with Marianne being received warmly by everyone including Rachel, again consistent with the arc of series Marianne. (Series Marianne also gets the sequence that opens Episode 12, where she tells Joanna that she’s content with her life, and that her first year self wouldn’t believe it. Novel Marianne probably wouldn’t either – this dialogue doesn’t exist in the novel.)
When novel Marianne learns about Connell’s New York MFA offer, she exhibits jealousy when she hears that Sadie told him to apply, including an “are you in love with her?” question, forcing Connell to deny it and defend himself. Series Marianne is surprised, but calls it “brilliant”. She asks the same question, but the series response is changes to “one of my tutors”. When novel Connell again says “I love you” and “I’m never going to feel the same way for someone else” Marianne’s reaction is “okay, he’s telling the truth”. Again, very different from series Marianne. Her response is “I know”, an acknowledgment of her security with Connell. Finally, the novel’s final line is Marianne saying “you should go, I’ll always be here, you know that”. The finale of the series is an exchange, acknowledging that they’re moving forward together, open eyed. Connell going to NY, Marianne staying in Dublin. (Just before that series Marianne also gets an extra line, when asked by Connell why she won’t join him in NY – “I want to stay here, I want to live the life I’m living, it’s quite a thing”.) Marianne also gets the final line here, saying “and we’ll be okay”. Series Marianne has the advantage of Edgar-Jones’s tear-streaked eyes and face saying more than novel Marianne could ever deliver in text. (Nothing in the novel says that Marianne is emotional at all at the end, much less crying. She sounds, still, fairly cold and distant.) And that’s fine. I consider them different characters, for different mediums.
To me those are the major differences. There are a few niggly bits, like changes in names (Rachel Moran to Rachel Moore, Kelleher’s to Brennan’s), non-critical character changes (blond Scandanavian Lukas to black Lukas), even more reduction in supporting characters (Elaine not coming along to the Italian villa, Connell’s first ex Ida) but on the whole it’s a terrific adaptation. Props to Sally Rooney, Alice Birch and Lenny Abrahamson. Every tweak made for the series feels like a positive one.