Film & TV

Adaptation Done Right: The Case of Normal People 

By Ella Gauci 

Enda Bowe/ Hulu

Is it blasphemy to say that there’s a small part of me that loved the 2020 BBC adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People more than the book itself? 

For readers, the book is often heralded above all as the pinnacle of good taste. You’re not a true reader if you prefer the film adaptation of a book. You shouldn’t even be allowed near a book if you watched the film without reading the book first. Like a lot of my generation, I had read Sally Rooney’s knockout, coming-of-age novel depicting a love affair between two teenagers. I get a bit tetchy when adaptations of my favourite books get released after my disappointment at The Maze Runner film adaptation when I was 13. When BBC announced they were adapting for a series, I was apprehensive to say the least.

Here’s the thing, Normal People is not blockbuster worthy – it’s quiet, it’s sad, and it’s (as the title suggests) about normal lives. The concept of that being translated onto the screen seemed impossible to me. But in the words of J.B., the adaptation ‘embraces the drabness’ of Rooney’s novel. Unlike others that would be keen to fill those empty spaces with action or drama, the BBC adaptation allows us to see the normalcy and mundane the book so masterfully captures. 

Film adaptations of beloved books can often feel so separate from the books themselves that they are unrecognisable from the source (look no further than The Percy Jackson franchise). To capture the essence of a book is hard. To make an adaptation that fans support is even harder. 

And yet everyone fell in love with Normal People. With an audience score of 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s clear that both book lovers and TV watchers alike were drawn in by the cinematic shots and acting. In short, it’s a TV series for book fanatics. A fan’s best case scenario when their favourite book gets chosen for adaptation. 

But what made Normal People’s adaptation so perfect wasn’t just the cool tone colour palette or sweeping shots of Ireland – it was the casting. Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones had chemistry that even the book fell slightly short of. Replacing pages of unsaid thoughts, one glance at each other was enough to convey the feelings of longing between the pair. It felt like they had stumbled off the page themselves. 

As Lucy Mangan argues in her review for The Guardian, it is ‘triumph in every way’. But what I think is its greatest triumph is the faithfulness to conveying its source text both accurately and innovatively. 

And so while this may be unorthodox, instead of picking up the book for a reread, I now open my laptop. 

Categories: Film & TV, TV