How to adapt an unadaptable novel? For Hulu’s ‘Normal People,’ you hire the novelist
While shooting “Normal People” last year in Ireland, the filmmakers and crew had an unofficial motto: “The book is the bible.”
By book, of course, they meant Sally Rooney’s evocative, award-winning novel, “Normal People,” which was snapped up by Element Pictures and the BBC before it even hit U.K. shelves in 2018. Rooney says she felt little hesitation offering her story up for the screen — provided the creative team behind it sparked to the ideas in the text. The result, which arrives on Hulu Wednesday in 12 carefully wrought, 30-minute episodes, is a remarkably nuanced, intimate rendition.
“Why not?” Rooney says. “I’m sure there would have been circumstances in which I would have been like, ‘Oh no, I don’t want to go down that route.’ But it felt like, ‘In principle, yeah, that’s something that I’m open to.’”
In 2018, ahead of the novel’s publishing date, a galley of “Normal People” appeared in the offices of Element Pictures, the U.K. production company behind “Room” and “The Favourite,” and producer Ed Guiney quickly passed it along to director Lenny Abrahamson. Immediately, Abrahamson connected to the imperfect realness of the characters. The BBC greenlighted his pitch for an adaptation after the first meeting.
“What’s radical about ‘Normal People’ is how real it is in an environment where so much television is super high-concept and big,” Abrahamson says. “It does really cut through. You see these characters and you think, ‘My God, that’s a real person like me.’ Pretty much everything that we’re seeing is super shock-y, glossy, transgressive dystopian stories. ... If you see the way it really is, that’s quite a shock.
“Some things just announce themselves as films and some things as television,” he adds of the format. “There was no real difficulty with this one. The fit was so perfect from the get-go. The intensity of reading the book comes in waves.”
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Getting the green light was the easy part. Translating the novel from page to the screen proved a more daunting task. Rooney’s writing, which frequently switches between its two lead characters’ perspectives as they navigate an on-again, off-again relationship from high school through college, leans inward. The novel is about what the characters are thinking and feeling in specific moments, and its conversations and moments of action are sparse. Often, the focus is on what is miscommunicated.
To help reimagine the chapters as TV episodes, Rooney came on board as both an executive producer and co-writer, penning six installments with Alice Birch. Her guidance was invaluable to Abrahamson, who helmed the season’s first half, and director Hettie Macdonald, who took over for the second. Still, Rooney took some convincing to be involved as a screenwriter.
“As a novelist, the first thing you see when you try to write a screenplay is all the things you can’t do,” Rooney says. “You can’t do internal psychological process the way you can in novels. For me, it was a lot about learning, ‘OK, what can I do that I can’t do on the page of a book?’
“It feels like Lenny has found a way to tap into the silence of the book and the actions that aren’t taken and what isn’t said. It felt like that brings a new level of sub-terrain to the story,” she continues. “The emotional energy, the dynamics between them, remain faithful to the novel. The story remains intact. But the way that television allowed us to express that and bring it to life was just so completely different from what I could do in the book.”
Casting director Louise Kiely saw more than 1,000 tapes from actresses all over the world hoping to become Marianne, a conflicted young woman who required immense complexity. It wasn’t until the very end of the process that London-based actress Daisy Edgar-Jones read for the part. “She’s such an extraordinary character in the novel,” Abrahamson notes. “She’s spiky and vulnerable at the same time. That can be a bit of a cliché and it’s not in the novel, so we needed to find our version.”
Irish actor Paul Mescal, on the other hand, was only the 10th actor to come in for the equally complicated Connell, and it was apparent that he and Edgar-Jones were the right pairing during their first chemistry read.
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“I think if you get the essence of the relationship right, people will almost overlay their imagined versions with the versions that they see,” Abrahamson notes. “If you get it right, there’s a fusion of reading the novel and the experience of watching the show.”
The actors’ ability to inhabit the characters helped solve the issue of the story’s timeline. The novel often skips entire weeks and months, only looking backward at key events when relevant to a particular scene. Initially, Rooney and Abrahamson considered keeping that structure, but after seeing how well Mescal and Edgar-Jones worked together, Abrahamson allowed the episodes to become more linear. (Much of the series was shot chronologically, using real locations like Trinity College and small cities in West Ireland, as well as Dublin studios.)
“What it does [with time] in the novel is intensifies the experience of reading it because she’s saying, ‘Now let me take you back and show you something that’s important,’” Abrahamson says. “It focuses the mind in a very particular way. And we do some of that on-screen. But in the end, when we were watching Daisy and Paul, it was just so strong that on many occasions we thought, ‘No, it’s better just to follow along and let it develop on-screen in a straightforward form.’”
The interiority of the novel became less of a concern once shooting began. Both Abrahamson and Macdonald took advantage of the visual medium to convey feelings that would normally require a written description — something Abrahamson learned to do in previous book-to-screen adaptations like “Room” and “The Little Stranger.” Here an emotion is revealed by a glance or a tuck of the hair or even a moment of silence. Feelings emerge thanks to close-ups, or to other shots that linger slightly too long on an actor’s face.
“I was really curious to see how they were going to do that,” Edgar-Jones says of playing Marianne’s emotions. “I was wondering if they were going to do voice-over to tell the story. What’s been interesting is seeing how Lenny and Hettie give you the opportunity to show that internalized thought through the way they film. … They’ll say ‘We’re going to do one shot that shows your conversation as it is. And then we’re going to do a secret shot that will show the way you really feel about that conversation.’ You have the opportunity to play it both ways, masking how you think and then showing it.”
“What I’ve learned is that you give credit to the audience for their own intelligence,” Mescal adds. “That you don’t show them all the things you have the luxury of showing them in a book. We can’t turn to camera and say we’re feeling something in a particular moment. You just give them credit to look at how these characters are communicating — or miscommunicating — and hopefully they’ll find that interesting and engaging.”
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The unfolding drama of “Normal People” is understated and thoughtful. Even its grand moments don’t announce themselves.
“You can be quiet and really compelling at the same time, but you have to create that atmosphere very deliberately and let an audience know that this is the level at which the story will unfold,” Abrahamson says. “And once you do that you can tune them into the big significance of very small things. If you’re making a drama of intense personal relationships it can be a look or a slight shift in atmosphere that has the same effect as an explosion in an action movie.”
“Normal People” covers the entirety of the novel, coming to the same bittersweet conclusion. Although there is not a sequel to adapt, both the filmmakers and the actors feel like there could be more story to tell.
“I think everybody’s aware of the fact that there is a desire for it,” Abrahamson says. “I remember finishing the novel thinking, ‘I wonder what the next phase of their lives is going to be like.’ So it’s something we should probably think about. It depends on how Sally feels, if she feels she’s finished their story.”
Rooney’s less sure about a second season, largely because she’s focused on her next novel. But she understands the strong connection readers have with Connell and Marianne.
“I think people like love stories,” she says simply. “And, hopefully, it’s a kind of romance that feels rooted in the real texture of everyday experience. What I tried to do when writing the book was to convey the feeling of very intense desire and love, but not in a way that was removed from the mundane nature of our everyday lives. That feels true to how we experience the boring, unglamorous parts of our lives and the difficult, complicated parts of our realities, but also leaves room for that feeling of just being ravished with romance.”
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