Will Sally Rooney be glued to the screen as the BBC adaptation of her bestseller 'Normal People' makes its terrestrial TV debut this week?
t is possible she will not, in view of her wariness of the hype that has accumulated around her second novel.
This tale of posh Marianne from Sligo and her on-off romance with Connell, a likely-lad GAA star with a hidden introspective streak, has seen Rooney anointed a “voice of her generation”. Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine is a fan. As is Sarah Jessica Parker. And the entirety of Irish Twitter.
Critics love it – and Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation, too. “A small screen triumph,” swooned The Guardian. The Financial Times hailed the series as “beautifully acted, atmospheric and sharply detailed”.
There have been one or two dissenting voices, it’s true. The loudest was from Vanity Fair, which described Abrahamson’s tilt at the material as “featureless erotica”.
Rooney herself comes across slightly gimlet-eyed about the acclaim. The louder the praise, the more pronounced her apparent unease and befuddlement. “When I see my name or a picture of me, I just get this horrible feeling,” she told Vanity Fair.
“I’ve been really lucky in terms of the coverage of the book. But it’s just a sense of horror at my own personhood now being an object of public scrutiny or discourse.”
Her wish for relative anonymity is unlikely to be granted any time soon, with Abrahamson’s ‘Normal People’ about to materialise in a blinding light of hype. It comes to BBC One for a double-bill with RTÉ One following on tomorrow night.
‘Normal People’ certainly has all the makings of a huge hit. It is gorgeously shot on location in Dublin. And the lead performances from Daisy Edgar-Jones (Marianne) and Paul Mescal (Connell) are intense and riveting (though Islington-raised Edgar-Jones’s Irish accent isn’t immune to the occasional wobble).
**Warning: some spoilers ahead**
The story is straightforward enough. At school in Sligo, Marianne is a gawky and introverted, Connell top jock on the block. They have a secret relationship, which falls apart as it becomes clear that Connell is self-conscious about being seen with her. There is also the complication that his mother (Sarah Greene) scrubs the floor for Marianne’s minted mum.
Fast-forward to college, however, and all has changed. At Trinity, Marianne’s bohemian streak and wealthy background prove advantageous while poor, blokey, salt-of-the-earth Connell is the one struggling to fit in.
One of the qualities of ‘Normal People’ that spoke to readers was the way in which it conjured the heightened state of young love. That liminal condition in which every aspect of life, from the sun peeping through the shutters to the rumbling in your guts, can feel freighted with meaning.
It’s a feeling that diminishes with age but that you never forget. Which may be why the book has stayed with readers and why they are counting down to the TV version.
Abrahamson doubles down on that sensibility. Every second of screen time has a gauzy, smeared-in-vaseline quality. There are also lots and lots of love scenes, which are careful to avoid the male gaze (they were shot in conjunction with an intimacy coordinator).
Marianne, however, seems unknowable to Abrahamson, working from a script to which Rooney herself contributed. He has no trouble getting inside Connell’s head. Marianne, alas, initially eludes him and we don’t get as much of her internal life as readers of the book may have hoped for.
There are moments, too, when dialogue flutters rather than soars.
“Do you remember the football match?” Marianne says at one point. “I was watching you play... and honestly you looked so beautiful.”
On the page that line, or a version of it, works – takes flight, in fact – because it articulates the sort of thoughts that spring upon us unbidden. Spoken out loud, however, it flops about slightly.
You have to believe people talk like that in the same you way have to believe characters in musicals burst spontaneously into song.
I’m not suggesting this is a problem. But adjusting to the stylised wordplay is a price of entry. You’ll have to get your head around it in the same way that, with Game of Thrones, you had to get your head around the fact people were taking off their clothes for no reason.
Rooney is hugely insightful on the subtleties of class in Ireland and how college is one of those few places where privilege and the lack of it are in plain view.
Certainly, Connell’s struggling attempt to fit in at Trinity brought me back to my own early weeks studying law at UCC, when I was surrounded by guffawing Pres Boys and the female equivalent (I had never seen so many turned-up collars in one place in my life).
One weird choice is that seemingly the only posh people at Trinity are those with English accents.
The series asks us to believe in a Trinners were nobody has a South Dublin rising intonation with a side-serving of American inflection. ‘Normal People’ will cause you to doubt the existence of OMG.
These are quibbles but when a drama arrives with the sort build-up ‘Normal People’ has received, surely it isn’t unreasonable to point them out?
In other aspects it is riveting. Breadcrumbs about Marianne’s sexual impulses are laid with subtlety, and the bullying boisterousness of Irish male friendships is captured.
Even the football scene feels authentic (though if Connell was such a jock back home, why didn’t he just carry on where he left off and play for Trinity?).
The story is apparently told against the backdrop of the 2008 financial crisis (which, as every millennial on Twitter will tell you, was the first recession to hit Ireland in all of recorded history).
There isn’t much of that in the first four episodes, though it will presumably intrude more explicitly further in (when Hettie MacDonald takes over as director).
For now, Rooney fans can take solace knowing the novel has been faithfully, earnestly transposed to the screen.
Everyone else will have an opportunity to finally discover what all the fuss is about.
‘Normal People’ airs on RTÉ One tomorrow at 10.15pm