‘Normal People’ adaptation: Durham’s student reaction

Books and Film & TV collaborated for this special feature of Durham student reactions to the hotly anticipated BBC Three adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel, Normal People.

Rooney is now proving herself the saviour of the socially distanced generation, with Normal People hitting our screens at the seemingly perfect time. I was initially apprehensive that the best parts of the novel would be lost on the small screen. However, Rooney’s strength is her characterisation: Connell and Marianne are both complex, intelligent and deeply flawed. Charting their ambitions, downfalls and bitter realities across school and university, the series triumphs in its portrayal of the vulnerability of individual experience. Marianne’s initial isolation at school juxtaposes Connell’s later sense of alienation at Trinity, while the depiction of mental anguish illustrates Rooney’s ability to deftly explore the very real and modern complexities of growing up.

The depiction of mental anguish illustrates Rooney’s ability to deftly explore the very real and modern complexities of growing up.

Is it possible to translate a story so tender, of inner monologues and private struggles that reside so deeply in individual minds, onto the screen? Normal People‘s charm lies in the subtle looks, touches, and sighs shared by Connell and Marianne, which reflect Rooney’s close third-person narration and the book’s interest in the often uncomfortable gestures of intimacy; their mouths twitch familiarly with the desire to say something more, yet find themselves inhibited in the moment.

As a truthful zeitgeist of the modern university experience, the show does not cocoon us from the weighty angst of navigating love, loneliness, betrayal, and sex, but simply edges us towards the bittersweet realisation that though there is always fragility and self-doubt, there is also joy.

Everything is exactly as Rooney’s writing depicts it to be, from the dialogue and silences between characters to the raw emotions expressed throughout. The colours are beautiful, the music choices are faultless, and the casting is somewhat perfect. It is hard to believe that Paul Mescal’s portrayal of Connell is his television debut. Raw and open, it is in essence an exploration of coming of age, and of two people coming together, over and over.

Marianne and Connell’s imperfections are handled with great attention to detail through subtleties in the acting and cinematography, from audible swallowing down to the dark circles and smudges of Marianne’s ‘morning after’ make-up. This sets itself apart from other dramatizations promoting ‘effortlessly flawless’ appearances of their otherwise flawed characters. The dramatic melange of long and close-up shots provides a beautiful impression into how the characters inhabit the environment around them, fully immersing you in their intimate relationship through shared glances or prolonged eye contact. 

The book itself, through the subtleties of its prose, tackles sensitive issues of class, anxiety and depression, and critiques the innate desire of individuals to conform to the expectations of society. Perhaps due to Rooney’s role in the screenwriting process, these messages are not lost in this adaptation, as the polarities of Connell and Marianne’s lives present a plethora of barriers to their relationship and the infuriating miscommunication did often lend itself to a sense of frustration when viewing. Their decisions seemed harder to empathise with when reading the book. 

The story takes seriously the importance of that excitement and confusion of first relationships, whilst at the same time creating an overall atmosphere of nostalgia, reassuring us that these predicaments will pass and seem trivial, in time. It is heavily (if not entirely) focused on Connell and Marianne’s relationship with one another. There are no substantial glimpses into exchanges with friends or family, leaving their characters less rounded than is realistic. 

However, this is not a story about two individuals; it is a story about a relationship. And what we learn from this relationship is that dependence is okay, and necessary, and ‘normal’ — if it is mutual. Both feminism and masculinity thrive off of different versions of the same ‘strong and independent’ stereotype. Normal People shows us two people uniting to achieve strength and independence together.

Examples of books that have lost some of their integrity when adapted for the screen are not few and far between. Yet, on a rainy day in lockdown I figured I had little to lose from giving Normal People a chance. The portrayal of Connell and Marianne is near flawless; it not only brings the complex characters to life but complements them with an added depth and humanity. Indeed, the importance of Rooney’s writing has never seemed more pertinent. Her message is clear: our life paths are not always straight; things get complicated– as do the people we meet along the way. But the essence of the human experience is to love and be loved, and if we seek that out then maybe, somehow, we can all muddle through. 

Everyone I’ve talked to who has watched Normal People has had an incredibly personal experience with it. Whether it be a weird relationship in high school, anxiety, or the inability to communicate what we’re really thinking, we’ve all found something within it which has reminded us of ourselves. Connell and Marianne take this inability to communicate to frustratingly new levels, perhaps the only element of the series which doesn’t completely ring with realism, but mostly the series is life stripped back and laid bare (quite literally).

For me, Connell’s reticence to talk about his own emotions came far too close to my own experiences. The almost-but-not-quite words coming to the forefront of his mouth, before deciding ‘no, not right now.’ It’s strange to find something so personal and private about yourself within a programme, and to inadvertently share it with a million other people.

It’s strange to find something so personal and private about yourself within a programme.

Undoubtedly, his mental health is gendered, man’s often inability to share emotions portrayed brilliantly onscreen by Paul Mescal. I’m sure though, that everyone will find solace in it, and I can think of more than a few people I will be recommending it to, in the hopes it will encourage them to share more as well.

Both the novel and series deserve credit for their sensitive and realistic handling of mental health. Watching Connell’s conversation with his councillor in episode ten was really difficult but so important. Normal People normalises speaking out about how we feel, and reaching out for help when we need it. Issues such as abuse, depression and insecurity are also approached with care and honest detail. Reading the book, it felt as though Rooney had understood every feeling of anxiety, happiness, pain, I’d ever felt. 

Watching the series, it was like seeing someone close to me struggle. That’s how powerful and intricate the characters and their experiences are. Rooney recounts the description of reading literature from Connell’s professor as ‘the pleasure of being touched by great art’, and indeed we are touched by Normal People’s artistic brilliance. English student Connell believes ‘the same imagination he uses as a reader is necessary to understand real people also’.

Life can be at times both painful but pleasurable, exhilarating but terrifying, lonely but overbearing. Yet, as Marianne says in the series’ close, ‘we’ll be okay’. Amidst the social distancing rules currently in place, the simple power of face-to-face communication conveyed in both the novel and the series provoke a yearning within us, to be reunited with those we love after these difficult times pass. 

Rooney does not present us with a ground-breaking story. It’s nothing new or unheard of. It is quite literally another coming-of-age romance story between a girl and a boy. However, Rooney’s ability to write realistic, personal narratives by paying attention to all aspects of how characters interact with each other is so refreshing. In her writing, she omits all speech marks and presents us with conversations that flow and blur into the action of the plot. On screen, this translates into looks and impulses that we have all felt. 

As someone who grew up in Tower Hamlets, to then end up at Durham University, one of the stand-out moments for me was the portrayal of Connell’s experiences at Trinity. Social class is an integral part of Rooney’s personal framework and this translates into how she writes her characters. I’ve never seen a university experience on screen that hit so close to home. The imposter syndrome on campus, feeling completely out of my depth in seminars and never quite fitting in at parties. 

Rooney has beautifully approached how classist micro-aggressions can, and do, impact on a student’s mental health at university.

The issue of class and identity are so much more complex than many individuals working in higher education institutions and their typical student bodies will ever realise. Often, students in elite universities can forget about how class differences can impact on individual experiences. Yet, what Rooney has beautifully approached in Normal People is how classist micro-aggressions can, and do, impact on a student’s mental health at university.

Normal People spoke to me, to an almost scary extent. There’s terrifyingly accurate depictions of class differences at university, of mental health and pain-staking romantic interactions where no one says what they’re really thinking. Rooney speaks for a generation, a confused yet beautiful one learning that all of this is real life, it’s ‘normal’. So if you’re moving on, or embarking on another year at Durham, I think we can all take away from this that young love is no less real because it is complicated. The fact that it is complicated is all part of student life with its ups and downs. Rooney captures the tensions in our student experience with unapologetic candour and her insight will make you think, in the best possible way.

Image: Chris Boland, www.chrisboland.com

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