“Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel gets a crushingly intimate adaptation with two excellent performances at its center.” –Variety
“This excellent Hulu series adapting Sally Rooney’s acclaimed novel presents a millennial love story for the ages.” -Rolling Stone
“The Hulu adaptation of Sally Rooney’s hit novel ushers an addictive, messily human portrayal of young love to the small screen.” – The Atlantic
After devouring both the novel and series, I am largely in agreement with the critic’s assessment of Hulu’s adaptation of Irish author Sally Rooney’s Normal People. It is indeed something worth savoring. This exploration of love and human connection told through a modern love story unfolded very true to the book both in detail and spirit. And after binge watching both seasons of writer Lisa McGee’s Derry Girls for a second time, I guess you could say that I was on a wee bit of an Irish kick.
Normal People is the story of two teenagers, Marianne (played by Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (played by Paul Mescal), who meet in their hometown of Sligo, West Ireland and spend the next few years falling deeper in love despite the many circumstances pulling them apart. At its core, this is a beautiful, tragic, and addictive love story. And anyone who knows me knows that love stories aren’t typically my jam. But this one came highly recommended so I bought the book in a charming independent book store in Mystic, CT while on a weekend getaway with my mother and three sisters, finished it a few days later, and started watching the series immediately.
After the first episode, I was hooked. But I also had to talk myself into accepting Edgar-Jones and Mescal’s depiction of the main characters. I felt as if Mescal’s Connell was too into Edgar-Jones’ Marianne from the jump. Every frame of Edgar-Jones was too beautiful and I knew it would be hard for me to see the more divisive character I had in my head while reading. Edgar-Jones’ Marianne played too powerful, not vulnerable enough, and I struggled with this until I read an interview with Mescal where he admitted to knowing that Edgar-Jones was going to play Marianne as soon as they did their “chemistry test.” It all made more sense as I could feel the natural chemistry between these two gushing from the screen. So, needless to say, I made peace with the fact that although Rooney had written Marianne to be a bit more “prickly,” I would instead get lost in Edgar-Jones’ phenomenal acting.
I was really happy to hear that Rooney was heavily involved in the show’s development and wrote the first six episodes alongside award winning playwright, Alice Birch. I noted throughout the series that a lot of Rooney’s most powerful prose were turned into dialogue and both Mescal and Edgar-Jones claim to have read the book approximately fifteen times over the course of filming using it as their compass. I was most impressed with the fact that the dialogue remained sparse.
Despite being an avid reader, I’m in the business of visuals so I was pretty obsessed with the cinematography. Directors Lenny Abrahamson (first 6 eps) and Hettie MacDonald (final 6 eps) worked with Cinematographer, Suzie Lavelle, in making this masterpiece. There are few films that stick with me like Abrahamson’s Room and that ability to craft compelling storytelling between two isolated characters is paramount. He nailed it once again.
And speaking of room, I have to admit that I didn’t think a lot about the scenery while reading as I was completely engrossed in the relationship between the two. The story was so incredibly intimate that it could have taken place in one room and still have been as riveting. However, on screen, each location played an equal role in reinforcing the isolation these characters felt when away from each other and how alive things felt when they were content. The filming took place almost entirely in Ireland (save the scenes in Italy and Sweden) where the backdrops were pretty, but not too pretty. Perfectly natural and raw which anchored the story in a more modern feeling Ireland.
That was an intentional choice of Lavelle who pulled on the work of photographer Nan Goldin for inspiration, citing the way her scenes appeared candid; equal parts raw and stylized. The cinematic language definitely advanced the story down to the most minute detail. The way she chose intense close ups and positioned the characters in a way which made it hard for the viewer to often see their expressions gave it an almost wildlife documentary feel. Like we could get close, but never have complete control or unlimited access. And like everything I love about The Handmaid’s Tale, the use of extreme close ups, so close that one eye is in focus while the other is not, for the non verbal acting was a thing of beauty in building tension.
She filmed with the Arri Alexa Mini and chose vintage K35 Canon rehoused Prime lenses from the 1970’s. Being light and small, they allowed her to get very close to the actors, which was crucial in communicating their mental turmoil and internal struggles. This also helped in giving us the same intimacy with the characters on screen as Rooney gave her readers on the page. K35’s are vintage so they have a lot of aberrations and organic reactions to light, which she used to show life as it is and not as we want it to be. The incredible truthfulness of the cinematography only further reinforced the power of this story.
I was a total fan of the color grade and appreciated that each location and point in time had its own world. In school, it was all about the blues and grays of their uniforms. When Marianne and Connell were away at Trinity, the palette evolved much like they did and the colors got richer with browns and warmer hues of red and orange. All in all, the grade enhanced the existing raw beauty captured and never got in the way of the story.
So, my friends, I leave you with this. The final scene was my favorite as it’s the one time I felt the adaptation was stronger than the novel. It was by far the healthiest and most honest conversation between Connell and Marianne and it felt more powerful than I remembered. While reading it, the scene I had in my head was sad, the room dingy and Marianne once again jealous and insecure. But what I saw in the adaptation were two beloved characters finally at a place where they felt healthy, maybe confident enough to tell each other the truth. They had spent years trying not to hurt each other while inadvertently deeply hurting each other, and there was finally a sense of peace I had not felt from the book. I was swept away in both their performances and the hazed out beauty of the scene.
The last line of the book reads, “You should go, she says. I’ll always be here. You know that.”
However, the last sequence of dialogue from the series is this, and it makes all the difference.
Connell: “You know I love you. And I’m never going to feel the same way for anyone else.”
Marianne: “I know.”
Connell: “I’ll go.”
Marianne: “And I’ll stay. And we’ll be okay.”
The show’s ending creates more equality between them. No matter where they go next, they will be there for each other. It’s clear that their lives are forever intertwined. They will always belong to each other.