Maybe It Was Better Than the Book
If there was ever a time to binge-watch streaming programming, it was Quarantine 2020. Many shows that dropped during the spring and summer of 2020 fulfilled that need to lose oneself in the “normal” lives of others. “Normal People”, a joint release of BBC and Hulu, fit that description perfectly as viewers grappled along with the main characters in searching for the meaning of being a “normal” person.
Normal People, the book, was released in 2018. Written by Irish author Sally Rooney, the novel drew accolades throughout the world and made it to long-lists for some of the most prestigious prizes, including the Booker. The story may be simply told and a quick read, but that should not preclude it from being recognized for its nuanced and layered construction, weaving in and out of the lives of Connell and Maryanne, troubled in their own ways yet finding something fulfilling in each other. The story follows them from their last year in high school through their time at Trinity College (Dublin) discovering off-again/on-again love in each other while navigating the journey of each becoming a self one can accept.
Released in April, Hulu made available all twelve (yes, twelve) half-hour episodes at once, drawing viewers into a six-hour experience that left nearly nothing out of the novel. Rooney herself was one of the writers on the series (as well as an Executive Producer), and one can appreciate how her presence drove the show to maintain fastidious loyalty to the print. The beauty of the program was the truth to the dialogue, scenery, and tone of the novel. Multiple accounts of the production revealed that the cast (starring newcomers Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones) and crew maintained the mantra that the book was the bible.
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson and beautifully shot on location in Ireland, Italy, and Norway, the program was a joy to watch. Whether the scene was a Gaelic football game or a train trip to Trieste, readers were drawn into the experiences of the characters as the scenery provided them the backdrop through which to flourish. One element of the couple’s relationship is the rich girl/poor boy dichotomy of experiences, and they navigate some of the same events through this lens. While that is only one dimension of their relationship, it is one that the program kept both subtle and present.
Perhaps the most compelling part of the series that proved it was -- I have to say it -- better than the book was the timing and compelling nature of the dialogue, both aloud between characters and portrayed silently within themselves through light, camera angles, and the superb acting of Mescal and Edgar-Jones. It was that precision that drew viewers in to watch the series multiple times, not wanting to miss even a blink of the efficient thirty-minute episodes. Re-reading the novel after watching the series brought a new appreciation of Rooney’s writing and story, which was brilliant commentary on how one grows comfort within one’s own skin and surrounding society. Sometimes one needs another person to achieve that, and Normal People, novel and screen, wove that beautifully together.
While it is usually recommended to read the novel before viewing an adaptation, that is not necessary here because the novel and program are so true to each other. However, regardless of the order, one should definitely make sure to enjoy the novel as well as viewing.