Television

Normal People Is a Swoony Adaption of Sally Rooney’s Hit Novel

Hulu’s version makes the unseen seen, which means the characters have less interior lives and way more sex.

Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones walk along a windy beach while embracing.
Normal People. Hulu

If someone had asked me while I was reading Sally Rooney’s Normal People if there was a lot of sex in it, I would have said yes. The novel traces the pained stop-and-start romance between Irish teenagers Marianne and Connell, who begin a passionate and plaintive secret affair that becomes a total entanglement, the two growing together like a stake and a vine, in the shape of each other. Throughout the book, which covers four years of their lives in bursts of cool, lucid, emotionally pointillist prose, they attract and repel, attract and repel like libidinous magnets. And yet upon watching the TV adaptation of Normal People, I couldn’t help but feel that my previous answer about the quantities of fornication contained within this work was somehow insufficient. Can I take it back, to restate with emphasis? It’s not that there’s a lot of sex in Normal People. It’s that there’s a lot of sex. It was there all along, but now you can see it.

The 12-episode adaptation that begins streaming in its entirety on Hulu on Wednesday, a co-production with the BBC, is so faithful to the letter of the novel (Rooney co-wrote the first six scripts) that it winds up being different in spirit—swoonier, not that swoony is a bad thing. Despite the care and attendance to just about every scene, beat, and glance in the 266-page novel, it has become a proper knee-buckling romance, the sort of show that lodges in one’s mind as if it were filmed in soft focus. (It was not.) Like the novel, it starts in high school, when the brilliant, rich, social outcast Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) begins an affair with her schoolmate Connell (Paul Mescal), whose mother is her family’s housekeeper. Connell is brilliant, too, but he’s also popular, athletic, beloved, shy. They start having sex in a perfect bubble of privacy, enmeshing and imprinting upon each other even as Connell insists that their relationship remain a secret.

In Rooney’s novel, Marianne and Connell’s sex is mind-altering but not described in great physical detail. It often recedes into the background, like ambient music playing while the characters’ minds wander. Here’s the second time Connell and Marianne have sex.

He seemed to fit perfectly inside of her. Physically it just felt right, and he understood why people did insane things for sexual reasons then. In fact he understood a lot of things about the adult world that had previously seemed mysterious. By why Marianne? It wasn’t like she was so attractive. Some people thought she was the ugliest girl in school. What kind of person would want to do this with her? And yet he was there, whatever kind of person he was, doing it. She asked him if it felt good and he pretended he didn’t hear her. She was on her hands and knees …

The novel foregrounds what’s happening in the characters’ minds, but cameras show what’s happening to their bodies. When the point of view swivels from inside to out , as it does in all adaptations, certain mechanical realities have to be addressed, and then become hard to ignore. The novel doesn’t have to get Marianne onto her hands and knees. But on camera, these sort of details don’t easily fade into the background. The sex in the show, however faithfully extracted from the book, emphasizes limbs and skin over brains, sacrificing psychological clarity for a kind of dreamy visual fecundity. Marianne and Connell only ever have serious, intense, tremulous sex, and they have it over and over again. They don’t do quickies or distraction, but they also don’t do lightness and laughter. It’s weepie cheesecake delivered in guilt-reducing, aesthetically heightened packaging: long bouts of what can only be termed lovemaking, overseen by an intimacy coordinator, rendered with tasteful mutual nudity, filmed by a gently realist camera, and enacted by excellent, fresh-faced young actors. Like I said: swoony but, despite the volume, not quite sexy.

The show—directed by Room’s Lenny Abrahamson for the first half and Hettie MacDonald for the second—occupies an uncommon position for an adaptation: It’s imaginable that a significant number of its viewers will have read the source material. Normal People has sold more than 1.5 million copies around the world, becoming an “it” book and a hot property so scorching it was turned into a TV show in a lightning-quick 24 months. (Shiv Roy was spotted reading Rooney’s first book, Conversations With Friends.) It is a delicious and nutritious rarity, a literary page-turner. It might keep you up all night, but you feel virtuous in the morning. It’s also a kind of implicit rejoinder to certain ideas about how you make a propulsive romance. Forget ginned-up stakes, hurdles, or premises: Rooney made clear two people are complicated enough.

Connell, for example, in insisting that Marianne keep silent about their relationship because she’s a social pariah, places himself inside some twisted variation of a teen movie like Can’t Buy Me Love. (He’s not the only one: I recently saw the first episode of Netflix’s forthcoming fizzy Never Have I Ever, in which an unpopular teen girl successfully propositions a jocky hunk. It’s exactly what Marianne does, though when she does it, it’s not meant as a riff on ’80s sex comedies about adolescent boys desperate to lose their virginity.) Connell’s so internalized his high school social order that he mistreats a person he loves, the only person he likes speaking with, who really knows him, whom he longs to fuck, and who has offered herself up to him unselfconsciously and totally, just because he can’t face the imagined censure. He rips her heart out and he doesn’t even want to.

Mescal has a hunkily imperfect nose and, based on the evidence of a late-season breakdown, may be the best young crier since Claire Danes. He puts over the intelligence, insecurity and quiet confidence all at once. He’s very good, but Connell is the more straightforward part. In the novel, Marianne, whose father died when she was 13, is ignored by her mother and physically abused by her brother. The series takes the abuse out—perhaps, as the New York Times suggested in a piece on the show’s approach to sex, to avoid pathologizing her—but it leaves in her masochism, her desire to be dominated in bed by men, which starts to manifest in earnest after she and Connell break up. The close third-person narration of the novel gives readers intimate access to Marianne’s pain and self-abnegation, but some of this gets lost in adaptation. Edgar-Jones is also excellent, steely and vulnerable, but from the outside, it’s hard not to see her as everyone else does, hard to reconcile the assured young woman who doesn’t seem to care what anyone thinks with the one who means it when she says she would let Connell do anything he wanted to her body.

For years, Connell can’t quite get a handle on it either: He knows her so well, and yet she’s unknowable to him. The irreducible mystery of even the people we know the best is the crux of the novel, but it’s not quite the crux of the series—which, no surprise,  emphasizes the role of sex in this mystery instead. After things end badly in high school, Marianne and Connell meet again at university, but their social positions have been reversed. At Trinity, Marianne fits in. She’s rich, she’s beautiful, a minor campus celebrity. Connell comes from another social class, a less cosmopolitan place, and he’s at sea. The two find their way back to each other, swimmers breathlessly making for the dock. But it’s not safe. At some point, Connell asks Marianne if she’d be upset if people learned about their past. He’s thinking only of himself, thinking only that she would be embarrassed of him, now that he’s so uncool. But Marianne is thinking of what actually happened, how he was embarrassed of her, how he kept her a secret, and how humiliating that would be to share. It’s the kind of thinking past each other that Connell and Marianne don’t quite believe they do, though they’ll do it again.

This is what causes their second breakup, which arrives even though they are both rapturously happy. This breakup is the scene I remember most clearly from the book. Connell has lost his job and can’t afford his apartment anymore. He wants to live with Marianne, but he’s terrified to ask her. When he finally starts the conversation, he begins all wrong: He says he has to go home. Because of their past, she’s hesitant to ask for more. But he’s so insecure that he assumes she’d rather see other people, which sounds to her like he wants to see other people. In a few sentences it’s over. They’re miserable and completely clueless about what really happened. Yet their thinking has been so clearly conveyed that the reader understands it all. They have been undone not just by their own fears, but by their certainty that the other person knows those fears, knows what they mean, knows what they want, and is responding to and rejecting  all of that, instead of what they mumbled, or failed to mumble, out loud.

The show doesn’t capture this scene with the thrilling clarity of the book. (In fact, it kind of boffs it, tricking it out so that it becomes the only moment in the show that resembles the hokey clashing perspectives of The Affair.) But for viewers who have read the novel, the show can sometimes work like the other half of a stereoscopic match: a slightly different image of the same thing, that, viewed with the original, provides a deeper picture. This is one of those cases. Part of what has gone wrong for Marianne and Connell is what is also so right, all that earnest sex. Connell and Marianne think the other understands them perfectly because there is one place where they do. “I did used to think I could read your mind at times,” Connell tells Marianne. “In bed,” she says. The total harmony of their sexual rapport lulls them into thinking everything else can go unsaid too.

The fantasy of having someone know exactly what you want without you having to say it is powerful. Marianne and Connell come closer to achieving it than most. That’s where so much of the show’s melancholy comes from: the wastefulness of their being apart. But  the rest of it comes from their holding onto that fantasy in the first place. It’s when that fantasy is finally punctured that something really changes. It happens—where else?—in bed. It’s been years (and episodes) since they were last together. They’ve dated other people, traveled, struggled with their mental health, and stayed close friends. As the sexual and romantic tension between them comes to a point, Connell tells Marianne, “I think it’s pretty obvious I don’t want you to leave.” She replies, “I don’t find it obvious what you want.” This has always been the case. And this time, she asks him to hit her. He doesn’t want to. All the awkwardness they’ve never had finally subsumes them. It seems like it might be the end of them. It’s not. If nothing perfect lasts, only the imperfect stands a chance.