Normal People, the sexy, moody BBC/RTE/Hulu adaptation of Sally Rooney’s book, which was the literary sensation of 2018, drops today on Hulu like the clothing off two randy teenagers. From the press coverage it’s clear that this series — co-written by the author herself — has ginned up an extraordinary amount of interest.
And why not? Lots of first novels get reviewers’ attention, but Normal People was the rare second novel that seemed to bowl everybody over. “For a while there, Normal People was the only book that people who talk about books seemed willing to talk about,” Constance Grady wrote last year in Vox.
Inevitably, though, such excitement leads to reviews of TV shows that read more like reviews of novels. And in the case of Normal People that is a great disservice. Even assuming that every copy of Rooney’s book was handed around to at least two other people — back when we still did such things — that would have added up to maybe a quarter million people familiar with the storyline of Normal People. And Hulu reaches how many millions of millennials, to say nothing of their parents?
More to the point, it’s a disservice because TV is not prose, and in adapting her book to the screen Rooney had to take into consideration the demands of this medium — which she has done rather thoughtfully.
Normal People is about a boy and a girl who (a) occupy different social strata in life, (b) occupy different social strata in the Irish high school they both attend, (c) hook up anyway, but decide to keep their super-intense affair a secret, and (d) over the course of the novel/series, grow up.
And here’s the part that complicates things. In a drama that's trying to describe things with as much psychological and emotional honesty as possible, there’s only so much you can get done with dialogue. So that leaves: acting, scene changes, and sex. And in all three departments Rooney and the team that produced Normal People for Hulu have done their best to make sure that those of you who didn’t pick up her novel understand what all the hubbub was about.
Let’s talk about the acting. Not surprisingly, the leads are two young-adult actors portraying teenagers, but it works because of superior casting. Daisy Edgar-Jones, whose delightfully British name may not quite betray her Scotch-Irish heritage (Northern Irish, that is), plays Marianne, the upper-class loner who falls for Connell, a popular jock played by Paul Mescal, the pride of County Kildare and himself a former rugby standout. Both Edgar-Jones and Mescal are triple threats, having distinguished themselves in stage, film and television.
It's funny — the book felt very talky because Rooney was giving us all this exposition about Marianne’s and Connell’s interior lives whilst they fell for each other. Thus it was actually surprising to start watching the series and hear so much … silence. And so much ambient noise (car sounds, feet shuffling, utensils clanking on dishes etc).
Rooney decided on a spartan script, one that is filled — I must say — with a lot of pretty unremarkable exchanges. As anyone of a certain age will attest, to be around young adults for any length of time is to recall how inarticulate we all once were. It’s amazing we made any good relationship choices at that age. Compounding the problem, Marianne and Connell are each being raised by single moms in situations that don’t exactly allow for emotional growth. The central drama of Normal People is how they achieve much of their growth while loving — and hurting — each other.
Rather than lose the authenticity of that drama in order to make a standard-issue young-adult TV show, Rooney and principal co-writer Alice Birch kept the talking to a minimum. They trusted the show’s talent to say with their eyes and bodies what they couldn’t with their mouths.
And boy do they. Edgar-Jones and Mescal are utterly convincing as two brainy kids who know instantly that they have a special bond, yet are clueless how to express it. And then — first through sex, then through talking, then through life and more sex and more talking — they become not quite as clueless. It seems funny to say about a TV series where so much is unspoken, but this adaptation definitely has its own voice.
Normal People is told in twelve parts, but that’s not as intimidating a watch as it may sound. The total run time is about six hours and (pro tip) you can speed things up if you fast-forward through the sex scenes. These scenes have been getting quite a lot of attention in the pre-show publicity, though heaven knows why. For a boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, rinse-repeat story, surprisingly little in Normal People feels like a TV or film cliche, except for the sex.
Given how minimalist the dialogue is, the sex scenes do serve a purpose. Body language is a thing. That said, there is apparently only one way to film a sex scene for television, and after decades of watching that scene over and over, I find them booo-ring. On one level they’re sexy, but of course they’re sexy — they’re two gorgeous actors barely into their 20s with all their clothes off.
Those scenes, however, were really the only times my attention flagged watching Normal People. For a story that was written for a particular audience, Rooney has turned her novel into something far more accessible. It is a story about getting older, wiser, and more articulate. It is a pleasure to watch, just as the book was a pleasure to read — except different. It’s brilliantly acted and has a rhythm and flow that is utterly unlike the book, to which I will stop comparing it… now.
All twelve episodes of Normal People drop on Hulu today.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.