‘Normal People’ and adaptation to the small screen

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Major spoilers ahead.

When Hulu first announced that it would be bringing Sally Rooney’s global literary phenomenon “Normal People” to the television screen, I was skeptical. The novel didn’t feel suited for such a media transference because it was so heavily internalized a story.

The narrative follows two characters, Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron, as they navigate their teen and young adult lives in Ireland apart but ever connected as the years go by. We swiftly transition between both characters’ points of view in alternating chapters, reading both the said and the unsaid. That’s what books allow us to do, after all — read people’s deepest, darkest, most disconsolate thoughts. While Connell says one thing to Marianne out loud, the text allows us to see his thought process in uttering those words and, more importantly in this novel of heartbreaking miscommunication, the words he holds back. How would visual storytelling on the screen achieve that kind of interiority that one could grasp only by reading the internal conflict?

Well, the answer is, quite brilliantly, close-ups. Whereas textual proximity brings us into the characters’ thoughts in the novel, visual proximity presents the illusion of being in their heads on the screen. These close-ups render the dialogue somehow both with the other people and with themselves. Now, some might feel a bit uncomfortable and even jarred by the strangeness of these shaky headshots at first, but they create a necessary narrative proximity. I do think, however, that a lot of internal dialogue we get in the novel is still left out in the show, which slightly lessens the depth of their relationship on screen.

This is one of those shows that has a weak beginning but a very strong end. Perhaps because they were trying to stay too close to the dialogue in the novel at first, a lot of the dialogue in the first half of the show felt grossly unrealistic. While big words and fancy grammar read well, they don’t sound natural at all out loud, and so Marianne and Connell’s classroom personas felt uncomfortably artificial. I adored the prose of the novel, but I don’t think it has a place in a television adaptation. One of the challenges of an on-screen adaptation is what to keep and what to leave out, and I stand by the fact that novels allow for more internal characterization while shows and films can only really rely on dialogue and action. So, perhaps it would be a bit unrealistic to expect the words you read to appear as they are on the screen. Some of the prose, though, was salvaged in the Italy scenes, as we “read” the emails Connell and Marianne sent to each other via voiceovers. Though again, I do think the monologues here were a bit awkward to hear read aloud, as they were more elevated than regular speech. 

I would also add that one of the unfortunate and ineffective things the show heavily employs, and that is a pitfall of visual storytelling, is telling rather than showing. Because we have no real sense of how much time passes between each episode (which in the novel is denoted by chapter titles), Marianne and Connell’s relationship doesn’t feel as though it develops as deeply as it is supposed to. Connell constantly tells Marianne she is his best friend, but we don’t see any of this development playing out; we must simply accept this. As a result, it was initially hard to empathize with the characters.

Perhaps it is at this point that I should mention I’ve read the novel twice. And perhaps you, reading this, are here because you want to see how close the adaptation has stayed with the novel you so adored. I went into this show with the mindset that the on-screen portrayal should accurately mirror the story in the novel; after all, how would people watching the show know the story of the novel otherwise?

Although, I’ve started to think that this show might really appeal to those who have read the novel — even though these are usually the loudest critics and dissidents of on-screen adaptations. To be honest, the show had a larger emotional impact on me only because I knew the struggle and inner thoughts of both Marianne and Connell that I’d read in the book (though not necessarily conveyed on screen).

But with that being said, the show struck a chord with me because I could see the emotion I expected to feel in reading the internal dialogues. In many ways, the on-screen adaptations supplement the novel, because they achieve a visual component (the facials, background music, movement) that text simply cannot. For example, perhaps one of the most intense scenes the screen brought to life is Marianne’s brother Alan’s violence toward her in the end. The novel describes Alan slamming the door right into Marianne’s face as “the sound of a crack of wood against bone,” and it rings ever horrifically as we see it visually and audibly play out on the screen. This was one of the best scenes adapted from the novel, and I felt my heart racing throughout the entire three-minute sequence. The novel internalized the experience of violence, whereas the show externalized it in our witnessing of the events as observers outside of, rather than inside of, Marianne’s head. 

Further, the final scene of the show — Marianne and Connell’s goodbye — also holds so much palpable emotion that supplements the text, heavily due to the background soundtrack and the tearful delivery of the dialogue. While it departs significantly from the last line that concludes the novel, I absolutely love the way it went about concluding. The last thing Marianne says to Connell in the book is, “I’ll always be right here.” In the TV show, though, her last line is instead, “We’ll be okay.” This was such an emotionally charged scene that tied the show together. Marianne expresses more agency in the adaptation, while the relationship in the novel feels unconditionally deeper; in the show, the end feels more like an inevitable breakup, whereas in the novel it feels simply inconclusive. Both versions elicited an emotional response from me, even though they went about it in two different directions. While visual storytelling may have its blind spots, I do think it compensates for the loss of beautiful prose with significant contribution to an emotional, rather than just an intellectual, understanding of the narrative. 

After finishing the final episode of the show — the best episode in the series by far, leaving me in a pool of tears (maybe a bit dramatic) — I started to rethink my philosophy of on-screen adaptations of literary works. While the adaptation has a responsibility to accurately tell the tale it borrows from, this does not necessarily mean it must do so by literally copying every line of the text onto the visual screen. Rather, it is a matter of extracting the characters, narratives, and themes of the text and refitting them for the screen. As they supplement the text, adaptations are really interpretations of the text; this television adaptation of “Normal People” is simply one director’s interpretation of the novel, and it could never be an accurate substitute for the actual text. 

I feel this is why the second half of the show came across better than the first — the first six episodes felt as if they were conforming too much to the text in the novel (with verbatim dialogue), whereas the latter six took on more of an interpretation of the text while still addressing the novel’s key themes of loneliness and miscommunication. Rather than comparing the two forms of the same story, we must rather examine what the adaptation has brought out of the novel; in many ways, this realization explains precisely why people seek to make on-screen adaptations in the first place: to bring the story to life. Just as Greta Gerwig spun a brilliant film adaptation of “Little Women” by extracting one of many themes of female agency and independence and scripting the narrative from there, adaptations should aim to uphold the essence of the story and not necessarily always the page-by-page of it. After all, the adaptation will obviously depart from the original story in some way; there are losses and gains to visual storytelling. The key, however, is whether the adaptation has maintained the essence of the novel we so love.

“Normal People” is a story about loving and unloving and reloving. It’s about learning to feel the physical and the emotional. It’s about the pitfalls of miscommunication and the tragedy of the things unsaid. There is a painful sense of nostalgia, angst, and sublime hopelessness in this story of two lovers that grow in two drastically different directions. Connell laments in their final goodbye that perhaps he and Marianne have “misunderstood each other,” it seems what hurts the most in love is the things we regret not saying.

Contact Angelina Hue at ahue ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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Angelina Hue is a staff writer for Arts & Life’s Film beat. She likes to poke and prod films as it is, so she’s happy she can write those thoughts down here. One of her favorite things to examine is how visual storytelling synthesizes art and narrative. She enjoys all things film, television, and books. Contact her at ahue ‘at’ stanford.edu, or find her on Twitter: @anjialina.