“Normal People,” an Adaptation of a Heartbreaking Love Story (Trailer)
Faithfully adapted for TV by Rooney with writers Alice Birch and Mark O’Rowe, Normal People stars Daisy Edgar-Jones as Marianne, a quiet and intelligent teen from an affluent family who’s starved for love by her widowed, emotionally unavailable mother and abusive older brother. Although she doesn’t fit in at school, she flourishes once she goes to Trinity College in Dublin and is free from her family’s influence and the yoke of small town society. Paul Mescal, in his first television role, portrays Connell, an equally intelligent teen who is well liked at school but is quietly lonely and who struggles to find his place once he goes to Trinity, as what he wants for himself and what society tells him he wants causes him emotional distress.
While it’s relatively easy for the novel to make multiple time jumps as periods of close friendship and intimate sex give way to months of little to no communication, the show struggles to effectively do the same, creating a pacing problem that hinders the back half of the show. When a later episode details Connell’s struggle with depression after the death of a childhood friend, it seemingly arrives out of nowhere and is gone just as quickly, a development that in effect reveals the show’s greatest weakness: its inability to properly and authentically convey its characters’ deepest thoughts and feelings.
Rooney’s novel, which is told from both characters’ points of view, is deeply introspective, relying heavily on Marianne’s and Connell’s innermost thoughts to convey to the reader everything they’re not saying aloud, either because they don’t have someone they feel they can talk to (Marianne) or because they tend not to say much at all (Connell). Without this intimate access to the characters, their feelings, and their motivations (or lack thereof), the show can’t help but fail to reach the same level of emotional storytelling.
The first six episodes of the series, which feature the end of school and the first year of college, are easily the strongest part of the show ? which is hardly a surprise as that was also the strongest part of Rooney’s novel as well ? but the series is bolstered throughout by engaging performances from both Edgar-Jones and Mescal, who breathe life into a story that is hyper-focused on what’s often left unsaid between two people. The result is a show that is surprisingly honest, frequently heartbreaking, and sometimes frustrating, but always worth watching.