“The book is good enough on its own,” is a phrase often expressed by frustrated readers when they learn their favorite story is being adapted for film. This was certainly my reaction when I learned Sally Rooney’s 2018 best-selling novel Normal People—beloved for its depth and realism—was released this past April as a short television series for the BBC and Hulu.
But, then, I began to wonder if the reasons I love the book are exactly why it should be adapted for television; perhaps the profound subtlety and relatability of the book’s plot and characters are precisely why mainstream television—an industry that often dramatizes and romanticizes teenage life—should be making it into a series.
Normal People follows the on-again-off-again relationship between the rich, eccentric and deeply troubled Marianne and the working class, popular and equally troubled Connell, starting from their high school days through their college years. Though it is a love story, that label doesn’t feel right: the novel is too nuanced and layered to be branded by such a simple description, one often associated with upbeat and cheesy rom-coms—which isn’t what this story is at all.
We follow Connell and Marianne throughout several years, watching how they grow and change as people and how their individual experiences and evolutions simultaneously complicate and deepen their relationship. There isn’t one huge, climactic event; the story is essentially a patchwork of smaller events—everyday conversations and ordinary experiences—that are woven together, stitched one after another just as in life.
The story feels incredibly real and intimate. Connell and Marianne understand each other in a way that others don’t. But they are awkward. Sometimes it feels like they share too much with one another; other times they struggle to communicate enough. They both suffer from trauma and mental illness. Not only are they flawed, but their relationship is flawed. And the ending of the book isn’t some grandiose finale.
But could the realness that makes Connell and Marianne’s story so heartbreakingly beautiful be preserved on screen?
It seems so. The series artfully captures the novel’s essence. This is likely because Sally Rooney actually helped write the show—taking much of the dialogue straight from the book—and offered her guidance and input to ensure it would stay true to the novel.
The show, much like the book, is subtle and raw and doesn’t feel dramatized for television. Connell and Marianne aren’t made more likable to appeal to viewers. The characters remain flawed, and their interactions keep their quotidian simplicity. Their first time having sex, for example, is kept as awkward and anticlimactic in the show as it is in the book; Connell and Marianne awkwardly and tenderly fumble to get each other’s clothes off, laughing from nerves and giddiness.
And since much of the novel is an account of their respective thoughts, there are a lot of quiet moments and silences in the show, both comfortable and awkward. The camera often zooms in on the actor’s faces to tell us what they are thinking rather than have the characters verbalize their thoughts, helping the show evoke the intimacy of the novel.
Seeing a television show like this on a mainstream network like Hulu is refreshing. It feels like many shows geared towards an audience filled with young adults abide by the rule: “be as dramatic and gripping as possible.” That isn’t to say these shows aren’t fun to watch; I’ve definitely had my Gossip Girl and One Tree Hill obsessions. But these shows are popular and addictive because they are idealized and exaggerated forms of reality, offering an escape from the mundanity of everyday life.
Normal People as a television show is masterful, not because it is particularly riveting or suspenseful, but because it is subtle and relatable. It is a show that portrays love and life on television in a way that is realistic rather than dramatic. There is something tremendously comforting about watching a series like this, one that normalizes mediocrity and imperfection among teens in a culture with tremendous pressure to make ourselves and every aspect of our lives exciting and extraordinary.