Either by word of mouth, buzz online, or dedication to Sally Rooney’s NYT Bestseller, BBC Three’s miniseries adaptation, Normal People has very quickly become a favourite of a multitude of ages since it’s release. This to me is no surprise. I quickly latched onto this novel following my graduation from university; on the cusp of adulthood, I had felt empty, restless, waiting for a surge, some sort of jolt that would give my life momentum. In a capitalist world, it’s far too easy for newly minted adults to feel inefficacious. Normal People sketches out a world just like ours, where two young adults understand each other better than anyone else, and somehow this empathy and grace in a society set up to isolate those who are ‘lost’ can feel like comfort. It’s the transferability of simplicity, yet at the same time profound human feelings that gives Normal People its opulence. For one of the first times in my life, answering the questions of so many of Rooney’s faithful readers, I can confirm that the book upholds and propagates the richness of the book as well as any adaptation of the kind could.
Over the course of twelve 20 to 30-minute episodes, Normal People encapsulates the classic story of “boy meets girl,” and transforms the archetype into a more equality-driven “boy and girl meet one another.” These short snippets —of a relationship, a friendship, a partnership— chronicle a once-in-a-lifetime bond from the final year of high school through to the completion of university. Connell Waldron (Paul Mezcal) and Marianne Sheridan (Daisy Edgar-Jones) have been in school with each other since they were in their pre-teen years, but only collide later on in high school due to Connell’s mother’s job as a housekeeper in Marianne’s mansion.
When the series first begins, so does Connell and Marianne’s physical and emotional relationship. Their love manifests in the shadows as Marianne and Connell keep their relationship a secret as to not tamper with the social dynamics of the school. This proves to have lasting effects on their relationship, which ultimately continues throughout college as they both attend Trinity. Marianne, coming from wealth and prestige, always knew that with her success she would go, and in turn motivates Connell to do so as well, to follow his talents and passion in English. This is one of the first insights on their profound intellectual rapport that the audience is privileged to, but is certainly not the last.
From the beginning of the series through to the end, we are not told one story, but two. There is an undeniable juxtaposition to Marianne and Connell’s lives that, based on their representation on screen, would lend itself to two individual yet interactive narratives that ebb and flow. Marianne and Connell are tied together by their extreme intelligence, their vulnerability towards one another, and their overall outlook on people, relationships, and society. The immediate obvious differences in each of their lives —social class, school popularity, gender— never disappear, but instead warp and change throughout the years that pass from high school to university. The nascently independent vines of their lives become tangled, disentangle, and tangle again in a constant loop for the entirety of the miniseries.
What is so enthralling about the book and what equally bleeds through to the series is the tangibility of the closeness of Connell and Marianne. Onscreen, this is portrayed in so many different kinds of shots that depict intimacy: soft shots of Connell and Marianne regarding one another, the way one another’s face lights up after periods of separation from one another, and tight shots of candid, painful conversations. As late millennials growing up in the 2010s technology surge, so much feeling is lost in broken communication, which ultimately prevails in the series.
The relatability of their story is not through a transient identification process, but perhaps by a transportation of feeling by way of the female gaze. Connell and Marianne’s stories, together and apart, are painfully, yet beautifully told by an unhinged authenticity; we as viewers bear witness to a global portrait of the couple together and the couple apart. Conversations on discomfort, dysmorphia, trauma, and isolation are as prevalent as the carnal desire evoked through the frequently displayed sex scenes. The vulnerability that Connell and Marianne have with one another is also one that viewers have with the TV series; we feel vulnerable due to the way we are transported back to our own bodies in watching other people’s, which is as phenomenological as spectatorship can get in visual media.
The purpose of the show is not to keep the viewers on their toes. Whether Connell and Marianne will “end up together” is not a priority —we are not kept on the edge of our seats. Normal People is instead a lengthy character study of two people together and apart, over the course of time, in different worlds. Perhaps though, it is more of a medium for us to reflect back on ourselves, to examine how we behave in relationships and to guide our minds to our own heart-aching loves.
Normal People is available to stream now on BBC iPlayer and Hulu
by Ariel Klinghoffer
Ariel K. is a bilingual Philly native transported across the Atlantic to France. She has degrees in Neuroscience and French, but is currently teaching English and experimenting with other things like film, writing, and photography. She thinks films are some of the strongest forms of activism, especially ones that construct the female gaze, and would trust her favorite filmmaker, Céline Sciamma with her life. Her favorite favorite film is Portrait of a Lady on Fire, her favorite book is Normal People, and her favorite candy is Kinder Bueno white. Twitter: @qqnenfeu. Letterboxd: @qqnenfeu