Normal People

The TV serialisation of Sally Rooney’s novel arrives.

I read the source novel last year, and was utterly blown away by it.

The TV adaptation has to do things slightly differently. The novel deals with things in a series of recent flashbacks, usually commenting on and picking apart the last encounters of the protagonists, generally feeling like internal monologues, even if the writing is not strictly done in the first person. Here of course, in such a directly visual medium, that’s not possible without introducing voice overs and adding complication, so what we get is mostly just the events, and a chance for the actors to try and convey more outwardly what’s going on inside the protagonists’ heads. That they do a pretty good job of that is a tribute to their skill, as well as a good script (for which Rooney herself is at least partly responsible) and sensitive direction.

The story begins in 2001, in rural Sligo. Connell Waldron is the only child of Lorraine, a single mum, whle Marianne Sheridan is the daughter of a widowed solicior. While both are in their year at same school they only really speak when Connell shows up to pick up his mother, who cleans for the Sheridans. It’s at this point they begin a clandestine relationship. This relationship is clandestine because while Connell is popular at school, Marianne is treated with suspicion and disdain (though she perversely seems to take some pleasure in playing up to it on occasion). Both of them apply to Trinity College in Dublin, with Connell deciding to choose to read English at Marianne’s instigation. However, before the end of the school year, the relationship ends badly, with Marianne so humiliated by the experience that she doesn’t return to school before the exams.

Both of them are successful in their efforts to get into Trinity, and meet again by chance when it turns out that a classmate of Connell’s is seeing Marianne. Over the course of their student years they continue an on-off mix of friendship and relationship of sometimes searing emotional intensity, with a constantly shifting dynamic, taking in other partners, and their often fragile mental and emotional states.

It’s not always an easy watch, and like the book is emotionally quite raw. Unlike the book, which sometimes has an slight undertow of laconic black humour amidst the introspection, the TV adaptation is probably more straightforwardly dramatic.

Both leads are quite, quite wonderful, and I had no trouble at all picturing them as the Connell and Marianne I knew from the novel. Both of them manage to bring a sesne of light and shade to characters without the benefit of our knowing what some of their thought processes are in the written form. Given that the novel is essentially episodic, splitting the series into twelve the way it has been here is a good move, as it corresponds better with single incidents or moments in the story. Fewer, longer episodes would have diluted the focus of each of these, and lessened their impact.

It is a beautiful piece of work. I don’t like it quite as much as the book, but that’s hardly a criticism given what I think of that. But I do like this adaptation an awful lot.

A northern man

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