‘Conversations with Friends’ and the art of the stylised slow burner

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The latest highly anticipated Sally Rooney adaptation, Conversations with Friends, has garnered a mixed reception to say the least. 

I’ll admit it — I haven’t fully read any of Rooney’s books. Before her fans come for me, I’ve tried and can definitely see the appeal. They’re just not my cup of tea. I guess that’s merely a credit to both television adaptations of her two most famous novels. I don’t feel like I’m missing out by not having read the original source. Maybe I’d gain some extra satisfaction from recognising specific traits in characters or just being able to exclaim rather pretentiously that I’d loved Rooney before she was mainstream. But honestly, that’s not a dealbreaker. 

With little to do in the first lockdown back in 2020, I soaked up the drama and emotion of Normal People, entranced by the beauty of Dublin, incredible acting debuts and the Connell’s chain meme that hilariously took Twitter by storm. Sally Rooney’s characters feel simultaneously distant and relatable. Most of them live highly unattainable, romanticised lives, waltzing around Trinity College with tote bags full of books and an intricate string of past relationships. Whilst Conversations with Friends maintains many of these comforting tropes and aesthetics, on first watch I found it incredibly refreshing. I was never going to fully relate to the edgy and effortlessly nonchalant characterisation of Normal People’s Marianne, so something about Frances’ awkwardness and naivety ultimately appealed.

The perfect ratio of style and substance

As a concerningly avid TikTok user, my feed has recently been full of criticism of Conversations with Friends, predominantly from fans of the original text. Stating that the casting wasn’t how they’d imagined, or that characters delivered specific lines unconvincingly, from an outsider perspective it just feels like glorified nit-picking. Like many people, I easily criticise poor adaptations, especially when I adored the original book. However, it’s inevitable that a completely accurate translation from page to screen is practically impossible. Though it might have missed supposedly vital mannerisms and quirks, I think Conversations with Friends captures the original gist of Rooney’s work. Encompassing key Rooney themes — loneliness, romance, self-discovery, friendship — the show charmingly fills each thirty-minute episode with the perfect ratio of style and substance.   

The series is beautifully shot, introducing viewers to impressive acting performances. Alison Oliver and Sasha Lane shine as Frances and Bobbi, convincing us of their complicated relationship and close bond. Joe Alwyn and Jemima Kirke were equally enjoyable to watch as married couple Nick and Melissa, complimenting the youthful innocence of the two student protagonists perfectly. 

It feels all too easy to make comparisons with Normal People

Though Conversations with Friends was a thoroughly engaging watch, it feels all too easy to make comparisons with Normal People. It’s this that I think has resulted in some of the show’s rampant critics. Without being too blunt, I think it’s much more likely I’ll rewatch Normal People as opposed to Alice Birch’s latest adaptation. I was undeniably more invested in Connell and Marianne’s relationship, finding aspects of Frances and Nick’s dynamic intrinsically uncomfortable and awkward. Although this was probably intentional, part of me thinks I’d have preferred a show solely exploring Frances and Bobbi’s relationship. Saying that, this might purely be because of my love of Sasha Lane’s acting approach, exemplified in previous work like the 2016 film American Honey

Conversations with Friends is by no means a carbon copy of Normal People, despite maintaining many similar tropes. In particular, I thought its depiction of Frances’ bisexuality was especially well done and nuanced. However, I worry that directors Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald were too concerned with prioritising what made Normal People so great instead of making Conversations with Friends its own separate entity.

All in all, Conversations with Friends is bingeworthy, high-quality television at its finest. Though it might not be as special or noteworthy as its counterpart, Normal People, it’s a mistake to view it as simply an overly stylised, unrealistic portrayal of the lives of twentysomethings. The show simultaneously characterises itself as a heartfelt slow burner, all whilst effectively using its relatively short episodes to establish complex character dynamics and relationships. 

Illustration: Anna Kuptsova

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