Why You Should Watch the BBC’s New Adaption of Sally Rooney’s ‘Normal People’

The stakes were high to honour the intricacies of the much-loved book and fortunately, the series goes above and beyond. 

Instead of a glossy 90-minute film, Sally Rooney’s love story has been adapted into 12 episodes that last just 30-minutes. Each one has been crafted with beautiful cinematography that heightens those all-important moments in the book.

Rooney’s story follows Marianne and Connell over four years, from sixth form to university. It begins in their sleepy hometown of Sligo in Northern Ireland. In school, he’s a quiet and popular sporting legend, while she’s a strong-minded outcast. Despite their differences, something brings them together, but only in secret. This way, Connell is able to protect his golden reputation, something we later realise he is hugely dependent upon. Outside of school, away from the gruelling social landscape of the teenage world, they’re able to explore a raw human connection that neither have experienced before. 

The pair continue to move in and out of each other’s lives during University after they secure a place at Trinity in Dublin. It’s here that things are turned on their head. Their social statuses are reversed after being plunged into an elite world of debating and fine wine. Marianne blends in effortlessly, while Connell shies away, conscious of his working class background.

Although the majority of viewers will have background knowledge from the book, the story itself is so accessible and the adaption is so accurate that most will find it just as gripping. Not only was it loyal to the book, but it also elevated key scenes thanks to the profound talent of Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal. Both actors had exclaimed their fondness of the book before auditioning. This, combined with a co-written script by Sally Rooney herself and award-winning screenwriter Alice Birch has resulted in a project that spares no details.

In the book, Rooney gives us just as much weight to the character’s individual experiences as the electric moments they spend together. We get get a glimpse into Marianne’s abusive family environment and at Connell’s discomfort around his peers at university. It’s this structure that makes the bite-sized episodes work so well, because these character-building years are fundamental in understanding why they find such such solace in each other’s company.

By translating this into a series rather than a film, it enables every moment to be captured as intently as is described in the book. After all, a film would skip a good few hours of the narrative. As a result, it helps both first-timers and loyal fans experience a shared frustration at the near-misses in their on-and-off relationship – the result is a journey that feels far more relatable than most.

There was scope for a voiceover narration by the two protagonists, but it simply wasn’t needed. The production team managed to capture every emotional detail on-screen, whether it be a longing stare, anxiety-ridden nail-picking or the slight touch of a hand. To avoid missing key details, Rooney and Birch have translated a few of the pair’s internal thoughts in the book into dialogue on-screen.

Even the sex scenes were unlike anything else on TV and honestly, they were refreshing. Full of fumbling and with an equal balance of nudity, it felt completely natural compared to those in Hollywood films. But most importantly, both Connell and Marianne normalised consent. Hallelujah! The production team employed ‘intimacy coordinator’ Ita O’Brien to guide the actors while filming these scenes. In doing so, she carefully crafted every affectionate gesture. As you can imagine, being able to see these scenes onscreen meant that the intimacies of the story could be captured in a way that the book couldn’t. It certainly doesn’t leave much to the imagination.

Something else that has undoubtedly helped the series earn its rave reviews is the cinematography. Soft-focus foreground blurs and dreamy colour palettes – it’s a visual art fanatic’s dream. Each shot sets the mood perfectly, from the grey hues in Connell’s lonely library sessions to the crisp snow-covered streets during Marianne’s fresh start in Sweden. It’s easy to see why there are so many beautiful stills cropping up all over social media. 

A personal highlight was Episode 8, where Connell and his housemate Niall join Marianne and her friends in Italy. Set in her family’s villa in the countryside, it’s an episode full of wide shots packed with lush Mediterranean greenery, as well as Wes Anderson-style symmetry when the pair visit the supermarket in the nearby town. It also brought some of Rooney’s most vivid descriptions to life. The scene where Connell sees Marianne for the first time in months always stood out to me – he spots her in the garden where she’s hanging out the washing. She’s wearing a white dress and her skin looks tanned, which ultimately makes him feel self-conscious in his hot and sticky interrailing clothes.

It’s rare to find such a faithful adaption to a chart-topping book and especially when there’s so much potential for endless money-making gimmicks. The collaborative approach by not only the author and directors, but also the cast has clearly paid off. Virtually every media platform has sung its praises and rightly so.

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