Normal People review: BBC series is a gut-wrenching adaptation that lives up to the book
This is television drama done properly, thoughtfully, and tenderly, says Eleanor Bley Griffiths
When I finished the novel Normal People, my greatest regret was that I'd never again be able to read it for the first time. I had picked the book up idly one Sunday morning, settled down on the bed, and suddenly it was evening and I was reading the final pages and the journey was over already. It took me several days to recover.
All of which is to say, I am a big fan of Sally Rooney's 2018 Man Booker longlisted second novel – and so I was both excited and nervous when the BBC commissioned Normal People as a TV series. Would it capture what I loved so much about the original writing?
Briefly, the answer is: yes.
In Normal People, Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) begin as two teenagers who've grown up in the same small town in the west of Ireland. She lives in a white mansion with a driveway and an unhappy family; he lives with his supportive mother Lorraine (Sarah Greene) who earns a living as a cleaner. At school, Marianne is smart and defiant and unpopular; Connell is popular and well-liked and quietly studious.
But even though the two soon (of course) fall for each other, the storyline doesn't go quite where you'd expect it to. What Sally Rooney gives us is a meditation on friendship, love, mutual fascination, growing up, sexuality, emotional trauma, family, class, and how popularity shapes personalities and relationships well beyond the schoolroom. As Connell and Marianne hit their university years and go out into the world, their lives weave in and out of each other's – but their relationship is complex and often painful.
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Thankfully, when it came to transferring all this to the small screen, Rooney herself was on board to co-write the scripts alongside Alice Birch – and Lenny Abrahamson adds a masterful touch as director. The casting is also absolutely spot-on, with particularly brilliant performances from the two young stars who are absolutely the versions of Marianne and Connell who live in my head.
And the music is great! And it's visually stunning! This is drama done properly, thoughtfully, and tenderly... and boy am I relieved.
I should say at this point: Normal People may not be for everyone. And that's okay! Some people will find something that resonates, and some people will find something that irritates. But what I personally found in the opening episodes of the BBC's adaptation was a drama which brought a lump to my throat and made me feel things.
The two episodes I've seen so far really get to the heart of that gut-wrenching stuff of being young and uncertain and not knowing quite who you are yet; of discovering sex for the first time, and of painful crushes (god, weren't they painful?).
The 12 episodes are bite-size at 30 minutes each, and even though they're getting a broadcast outing on BBC One, all episodes will be up on iPlayer as a boxset on Sunday 26th April. Oops, there goes another of my Sundays...