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‘Normal People’ Isn’t a Story About Adults

The small-screen adaptation of Sally Rooney’s second novel about the yearslong relationship between two naive, confused characters is faithful to its source material—and to the experience of adolescence

Getty Images/Scott Laven

The events of Normal People are the stuff of YA fantasy. Two precocious teenagers, Connell and Marianne, are drawn into each other’s orbit as teenagers in West Ireland. Together, the two experience the rush of first love, then the self-discovery of early adulthood as they attend Dublin’s Trinity College. As a rough outline, the plot wouldn’t be out of place in the pages of a John Green novel—or, given an interlude in an honest-to-God Italian villa, Call Me By Your Name.

But while Normal People may be about teens, it’s distinctly for adults. At just 29 years old, literary wunderkind Sally Rooney is young enough to remember and channel the intensity of adolescent emotion. (Both Normal People, her sophomore effort, and 2017 debut Conversations With Friends follow students at Trinity, Rooney’s alma mater.) She’s also distant enough from her teenage years to refract that intensity through the perspective of time and maturity. In fact, Rooney’s books are often about characters acquiring that perspective through experience. Conversations With Friends has its heroines get up close and personal with a slightly older couple they admire, allowing them to observe the 30-somethings’ foibles firsthand. Normal People takes place over a tumultuous half-decade for its central pair, transforming them from confused kids to still-confused, slightly older kids.

The TV adaptation of Normal People, a 12-episode coproduction between streaming service Hulu and the BBC, is faithful to the novel in many ways, but especially in tone: not unsentimental, but authentic to the nuances and contradictions of sentiment. Connell and Marianne aren’t generic young people in love. They’re two specific people from specific circumstances that both draw them together and keep them from fully realizing their bond. It’s Twilight for people who are too cynical to get swept away by the bland naiveté of stories like Twilight.

Normal People’s fidelity to its source material can be partly attributed to Rooney’s continued involvement; she splits script credits with fellow writers Alice Birch and Mark O’Rowe. But the project’s new collaborators—directors Lenny Abrahamson (Room) and Hettie Macdonald (Howards End); stars Daisy Edgar-Jones (Gentleman Jack) and Paul Mescal, in a remarkable screen debut—put their own stamp on the material. On the page, the connection between Marianne and Connell is largely intellectual, two kindred spirits who bring out each other’s depth. (Another teen touchstone, artfully rendered: the sensitive jock who reads books!) On the screen, by necessity, the relationship is more physical—often shockingly so, considering the characters’ ages when they first start sleeping together. “Carnal” might be a better word.

Over many years and several iterations, Connell and Marianne defy easy categorization. When the series begins, Connell is a popular athlete, while Marianne is a sharp-tongued social outcast. Once the two acknowledge their mutual attraction, Connell suggests they keep their trysts a secret, never admitting to either Marianne or himself that he fears the judgment of his friends, who harass her in school. The trailer calls this arrangement “forbidden,” but that’s not exactly right; Connell himself admits later that if his secret had gotten out, no one would have cared much. Like most teenagers, he makes the mistake of projecting his own crippling self-scrutiny onto others, an act of equal parts self-absorption and self-destruction. He ends up alienating Marianne by asking out a social peer he doesn’t even like.

Marianne and Connell are people whose privileges obscure their disadvantages and vice versa, to each other as well as themselves. Marianne may be isolated and disliked by those she intimidates, but she gets to know Connell because his mother works as a housekeeper for her family. Their different class backgrounds are magnified by higher education, where Connell struggles to adjust while Marianne acquires a like-minded social set. Yet once again, Normal People is hardly so simple as a smart girl getting vindication while a cruel boy gets his comeuppance; this isn’t an Avril Lavigne song. Another gap between these two comes from their home lives—Connell enjoys a less affluent but loving family, while Marianne is tormented by a verbally abusive older brother tacitly enabled by their mother. Marianne’s new surroundings don’t fix her shaky emotional foundation, and Connell can’t empathize with what he isn’t equipped to understand.

Normal People excels at capturing the way leaving home affords the distance to understand how your native environment shaped you. “How have we never talked about this?” Marianne asks her ex as they discuss their families’ economic ties while eating ice cream in a piazza. (She’s staying in a vacation home her mother owns; Connell spent the summer backpacking through hostels.) She asks as if the answer weren’t obvious: College is where you’re given not just the space to start reckoning with your childhood, but the frameworks to understand it. On the same trip, Connell’s first to the continent, he resentfully calls money “what makes the world real.” The honors scholarship that’s a résumé boost for Marianne has changed the course of Connell’s entire life, just as he’s become conscious how rare and arbitrary such opportunities can be.

A longtime Marxist, Rooney is sharply attentive to how larger structures assert themselves on her characters’ lives. (In a 2019 New Yorker profile, writer Lauren Collins argues that Rooney’s foremost identity is “post-recessionary.”) But Normal People is even more in tune with how those forces interact with individual quirks. Connell is the working-class son of a single mother; he’s also prideful and passive, abandoning another shot with Marianne because he can’t bring himself to ask for a rent-free place to stay when he’s laid off for a summer. Marianne is a bourgeois sophisticate fueled by a fierce intellect; she’s also profoundly self-loathing, calling herself “a fundamentally cold, unfeeling person” and seeking out violent sex. Seeing the two as flesh-and-blood human beings instead of words on the page only reinforces their singularity—emphasis on the flesh.

Sex is at the core of Normal People, a lightning rod the show embraces with both hands. Normal People follows a string of TV romantic comedies that took on the same subject with a more lighthearted and slapstick-y approach, physicality included. Normal People, by contrast, is a straightforward romance, shrugging off the crutch of levity to go all in on magnetic attraction. Working with intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien, Mescal and Edgar-Jones are tasked with embodying their characters’ relationship as much as, if not more than, they speak it aloud. Rooney-written dialogue—“It doesn’t feel like this with other people”—has to be backed by tangible emotion. It’s a high bar that the production manages to meet.

Many love stories run into a similar problem: Their conflict feels manufactured, the heroes kept apart by an artificial barrier. If only the protagonists would talk to each other, the viewer finds themselves yelling at their TV, a single adult conversation could solve their made-up problem. But Normal People isn’t about adults. The miscommunication between Marianne and Connell feels entirely believable, and therefore authentically tragic. These are two people who obviously like and understand each other, but don’t have the capacity yet to grasp why and how they’re kept apart. What could be more normal than that?