How does a filmmaker translate the intimate thoughts and emotions of a literary character to the screen? Interiority has proved an obstacle for many an adaptation, and Sally Rooney’s Normal People presents a special challenge. Hulu’s new 12-episode series found a solution by having Rooney co-write the first six episodes, and the result is that much of the series remains extremely faithful to her book, leaving in even minor details in scenes like the awkward teen fundraiser at the local nightclub or a part where Marianne takes off her shirt in the school bathroom to wash off a stain. The motto on set, according to the Los Angeles Times, was “the book is the Bible.”
The show does also manage to capture the inner lives of the characters by maintaining a serious tone, casting actors who are both “steely and vulnerable,” and including just the right number of long, lingering silences. Still, there are a few departures from the original text that we noticed. We’ve rounded those up, below. (Needless to say, there are spoilers ahead.)
Marianne at school
In the book, Connell keeps his friendship and physical relationship with Marianne secret at secondary school because he’s popular and she’s not. Here’s how Connell describes Marianne’s reputation: “She exercises an open contempt for people in school. She has no friends and spends her lunchtimes alone reading novels. A lot of people really hate her.”
This remains true in the TV adaptation, although viewers now get to see a lot more of Marianne’s (Daisy Edgar-Jones) miserable school experience, notably how she is verbally bullied by some of her classmates, including people in Connell’s (Paul Mescal) group of friends. They try to provoke her, call her ugly, and mimic her aggressions. She does show an “open contempt” in her sighing retorts and by fearlessly talking back to teachers, a defiance that helps flesh out her characterization as an outcast in a small town like Carricklea.
The abuse Marianne suffers is a key part of both the book and show, with one significant difference: In the novel, Marianne states that her late father hit both her and her mother. In the show, she tells Connell that her father did not do anything to her. Marianne’s brother, Alan, remains the main abuser in her present life, though the show decides that he does not physically lay hands on her, perhaps, as the New York Times piece suggests, to avoid pathologizing her sexual tastes. Alan, as played by Frank Blake, is still a stern, skulking, menacing figure, and Marianne still clearly carries emotional trauma from interacting with him.
Marianne and Lukas
Marianne goes to Sweden for a year, where she meets and begins a relationship with a photographer named Lukas. In the show, we see Marianne and Lukas meet at a party, and they begin to have a BDSM relationship, but unlike in the book, where Lukas’ photographs of Marianne in sexually submissive positions garner some gossip from people back at Trinity, we only see one session where he photographs her on the show.
The nature of their relationship and breakup is also different from the book. In Rooney’s text, Marianne stops both a photo session and the relationship when Lukas tells her he loves her, insisting he untie her or she’ll call the police. In the Hulu adaptation, the relationship ends after an uncomfortable session in which Marianne—who seemed at first to consent to being tied up and photographed—clearly wants to stop, followed by a wordless montage in which we see her put her clothes back on and leave the studio.
Connell and Helen
After Connell and Marianne break up the summer he decides to move home, Connell begins a serious relationship with a medical student named Helen. They seem pretty good together, and she remains a presence in Connell’s life and emails to Marianne while she’s in Sweden. The breaking point in the relationship with Helen in both the novel and show is Rob’s funeral back in Carricklea. In both cases, Helen feels uncomfortable at the funeral services, deriding Connell for not introducing her to his friends and accusing him of acting strangely around Marianne.
In the book, there’s just a simple line to end it: “Two weeks later it was over, they broke up.” But in the show, we see this breakup firsthand. Connell has clearly been grieving and dealing with deep depression following the funeral. In this scene, he’s gloomily laid out on his bed as Helen tearfully admits that she doesn’t know if their relationship fully worked before, but that “all this” was exacerbating their problems. Connell barely musters any emotion or movement as he dejectedly apologizes.