top of page

Normal People

A Deep Dive into the Power of a Faithful Adaptation

By Shelby Sveiven

(Graphic: Shelby Sveiven)

When I first read Sally Rooney’s Normal People, my first thought was “these characters are insufferable”. Whether it was Connell’s endless contemplations of his existence or Marianne’s seeming lack of autonomy and self respect, I was irritated to no end by the leads. Even so, I couldn’t stop reading. There was something to be said about the use of the setting, a fictional Irish town in the county of Sligo, and its abandoned buildings and suburban plainness that made the book atmospheric. Even though Marianne’s internal dialogue became annoying, there were scenes that genuinely gripped me, and helped flesh out her character. I really grew to enjoy the dual point-of-view narrative structure, and how the timelines were intertwined between passages of the present and passages of reflection. Though there were aspects of the book I enjoyed, my feelings of general apathy remained consistent throughout the book, and I felt genuinely relieved when I finally finished the last page and was able to never think about the story again.

Until about a month later, when I logged onto my sister’s Hulu account and decided to give the TV adaptation a try. Within the first twenty minutes or so of the first episode, I was having a deeper connection with the story than I had in the entire six-month period of slogging through the book. Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal give Marianne and Connell a sort of immediate chemistry that I felt completely lacking in the book. Their connection feels genuine, and messy, and heavily emotional, and the audience immediately gets the impression that whatever happens between these characters, they’ll never be the same people again.

Scenes that are essentially word-for-word what happened in the book, coupled with a delicate, whimsical original soundtrack reassures the audience that care was taken in the adaptation, and it immediately becomes clear in the first couple episodes that the only changes made for the television show were necessary ones, that the heart of the story is intact. For this article, I’ve decided to pick out three of my favorite scenes from the show, compare them to the text of the book, and provide my own interpretation of the scene when I first read it, to gauge how faithful the adaptation was, and to show how the narrative of Normal People is actually much more powerful in a visual medium.

(Graphic: Shelby Sveiven)

SCENE ONE (The First Kiss)

In this scene in the book, I personally felt like it happened too fast and there wasn’t enough foreshadowing for Marianne and Connell’s relationship. It was around the 15 page mark, and we had only seen them together in a couple scenes. To have this step in their relationship so early felt somewhat forced to me. In the show, Marianne and Connell had more chemistry even though it was early in their relationship, but it still felt slightly rushed in the overall arc of the story. Less to do with adaptation, and more to do with how Sally Rooney plots her work.

(Graphic: Shelby Sveiven)

SCENE TWO (Connell Getting Mugged)

I really enjoyed this scene, both in the book and the show, because it shed a light on Marianne and Connell’s relationship, and the depth of it, even though they were distant at the time. Marianne telling Connell to come to her apartment and helping him pay for the fare was the right thing to do in that situation, but the lack of hesitancy adds to the feeling in the reader that their relationship is one that will continue, whether in the capacity of a romantic or platonic relationship. The drama also heightens as they go inside Marianne’s apartment and her friends talk to Connell. Some of them are kind and really care about how he is doing, and others, such as Marianne’s arrogant boyfriend Jamie, use the moment to talk about how the person who mugged Connell was probably homeless and using the money to buy drugs. The further interaction between Connell and Jamie adds tension to the scene, and raises the stakes in the story.

(Graphic: Shelby Sveiven)

SCENE THREE (Marianne and Jamie Fight in Italy)

This scene sets the tone for the rest of the story. At this point, Connell has just arrived in Italy and Marianne is bringing out dinner for everyone, including her other friends and Jamie. Jamie has been obnoxious the entire time, asking Marianne for things he could get himself and making everyone uncomfortable in conversation. After a while, Marianne goes inside and Jamie follows her. Those at the table try to make conversation and ignore it, until Marianne screams and Connell runs inside to make sure she’s okay. She and Jamie have been fighting, and when Jamie drunkenly drops a full glass of wine, Marianne lunges for him. This is when Connell stops her and takes her outside to compose herself. In the book, I really loved the juxtaposition of the high emotion fight and the very serene description of nature when they go outside. I think both the book and the show captured the energy of the scene really well, and it’s one of my favorite scenes in both mediums.

Overall, I really love the world between Marianne and Connell that Sally Rooney created in Normal People, and I’m glad that I had the experience of the book before I watched the TV adaptation, because it let me get to know the heart of the story before I watched the show, which I enjoyed more deeply. Though the book has its moments of beautiful prose and characterization, what Paul Mescal, Daisy Edgar-Jones, and the rest of the Normal People crew did with the source material brings the story to life in a way the book was unable to, and I’m really glad I gave the story a second chance.

9 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page