Our featured image for Season 1 of Hulu's Normal People.

Normal People

Dept. of Love's Labours


I’m not here to tell you that television and literature are different beasts. Or that the series and the book are different things that should be enjoyed in different ways. I’m here to tell you that Normal People, the TV show, is better than the book. There, I said it.

Hear me out.

Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal star in Hulu's adaptation of Sally Rooney's Normal People.

Normal People is, at its heart, a love story. Albeit a broken one. It’s the story of two people, soulmates, who fall in and out one another’s lives, loving and hurting each other in equal measure, before finally coming to the realisation that they would always be connected. Despite time and space. Despite other people.

I love Sally Rooney’s book. It is a frustratingly brilliant work of understated genius that chronicles the everyday lives of ordinary people. It is, as its title implies, stoic and unruffled. It is melancholy. It is moving. Never, ever tripping into the melodramatic. Never, ever using the quiet trauma of its characters to manipulate how you feel. Or how you saw the world. It is a masterpiece of literature.

Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal star in Hulu's adaptation of Sally Rooney's Normal People.

The problem with the novel, however, was that I could always see the author’s hand. I was very conscious that the thing before me carried the force of what I understood to be literary fiction. Admittedly, a lot of that had to do with the way the novel had been defined, marketed, and sold to me. Even so, I found it impossible to extricate that arbitrary classification from my experience reading it.

It was a feeling altogether absent as I watched the series. From the moment it begins, when we meet Marianne and Connell at their school lockers, surrounded by their chattering classmates, furtively stealing glances at one another, I found myself pulled into their unpretentious lives. Director Lenny Abrahamson creates a mood in that first episode – with the colour palette, with Stephen Rennicks’ still score, with a script so sparse that it practically defines “show, don’t tell.” He identifies the perfect tone for the story. One that is as much a reaction to Sally Rooney’s book as it is a reflection of the real County Sligo.

And then there’s Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, both of whom give us pristine performances as Marianne and Connell. Graceful. Balletic. Every movement, every look, every expression of theirs is there for a reason. Watching them play off each other was like watching Louis and Ella. A glorious duet, in perfect harmony.

Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal star in Hulu's adaptation of Sally Rooney's Normal People.

But the thing that elevates Normal People beyond its source material is just how Sally Rooney, and co-writers Alice Birch and Mark O’Rowe, have streamlined her novel. They’ve taken a second pass at it, killed her darlings, distilled it, as William Goldman once did with S. Morgenstern, and given us the “good bits version.”

Over the course of 12 meandering (in the best possible way) and desolate (ditto) episodes, Rooney, Birch, and O’Rowe never lose sight of the novel’s core idea.

Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal star in Hulu's adaptation of Sally Rooney's Normal People.

Where Normal People succeeds is in how it overcomes that perennial problem of trying to translate a book’s inner monologue to the screen. Not by using a narrative voice over. But by relying almost entirely on the strength of its two leads.

This is the story of two individuals who are simply unable to communicate how they feel. In the novel, we know everything they mean to express because we are privy to their innermost thoughts. What the series does is translate these thoughts into post-coital conversations. It is an incredibly clever conceit. Because it makes complete sense that the one time Marianne and Connell would be able to talk about their feelings is when they’re at their most vulnerable. At that moment after intercourse when they’ve let go of so many of their inhibitions.

What it also does is consciously eliminate every last bit of unnecessary dialogue. A look, a smile, a sharp exhalation of breath, is all it takes to convey meaning. This is brilliantly exemplified late in the series, around the lunch table at Marianne’s family house in Italy, when no one is saying what they mean, where every retort drips with passive aggression, causing friction, and creating tension. The chemistry between Marianne and Connell is so palpable that neither of them need to say anything for you to know exactly what’s going through their minds.

Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal star in Hulu's adaptation of Sally Rooney's Normal People.

It is hardly ever the case that an adaptation meets, and even exceeds, the brilliance of its source material. (Jaws, Fight Club, American Gods, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Jurassic Park, The Shawshank Redemption, HBO’s Watchmen, and possibly even I Know This Much Is True, to name a few.) Normal People, by being faithful but not slavish, by carefully picking and choosing its moments, along with its attention to detail, is one of those rarities.

Normal People is magnificent. It is the standard by which all other adaptations should be judged.

Normal People
Hulu/BBC Three, Season 1, 12 episodes
Directors:  Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald
Writers:  Sally Rooney, Alice Birch, and Mark O’Rowe
Cast: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Paul Mescal, Sarah Greene, Aislín McGuckin, Eanna Hardwicke, Frank Blake, Eliot Salt, India Mullen, and Desmond Eastwood

Normal People is now streaming on Hulu

Uma has been reviewing things for most of his life: movies, television shows, books, video games, his mum's cooking, Bahir's fashion sense. He is a firm believer that the answer to most questions can be found within the cinematic canon. In fact, most of what he knows about life he learned from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. He still hasn't forgiven Christopher Nolan for the travesties that are Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises.

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