It's safe to say that first love is 'young, dumb and broke'. Only a few get to experience this special emotion. You hurt each other, you hurt yourself and still try to come out strong. Normal People is a love story; quite literally, a story about love. Love in different forms, its impact and its intensity.
Normal People is a teen romance that focuses on the relationship between Marianne Sheridan (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell Waldron (Paul Mescal). Where young love grows into a much wider picture of the way first love can change one and leave with a life-changing impact. Throughout the series and the book, we see that there is no end to their relationship or love story. Even when they are apart and engaged with someone else, they still are together with each other. Their involvement with other people acts as a medium of growth for them.
Even though Normal People is a teen romance, it does not limit itself to a stereotypical high school clique drama. It is much more than high school love. It is a story about vulnerability, a story about class conscious love, a story portraying the importance of communication and a story of personal trauma and its effect on these two young humans.
A still of Marianne and Connell from the series.
The series is an adaptation of Sally Rooney's 2018 book of the same name. When introduced to our protagonists, Connell and Marianne, we notice that they both study at the same high school in Sligo and that Connell's mother works as a house help at Marianne's mansion. Their indefinite interactions outside the school premises, secretly hooking up and having sex eventually lead to the beginning of their secret romance. One can say that Marianne and Connell are opposites. She is a smart opinionated, eccentric wealthy girl, and hence ostracised. Whereas the lover boy is a smart, timid and popular football player.
Hence, the relationship is secret. So that he can avoid being mocked at by his friends. After all, he is dating the "weird chick".
The series does not follow your usual conflict and resolution track but goes back and forth in their relationship's timeline after high school. There is no definite goal that the filmmakers are headed towards. Surprisingly, this uncertainty is very endearing and fulfilling. At the end of the day, the story is about two people, their relation, the hurt they've caused each other and the history that they have created together. The makers of the series, director Lenny Abrahamson and Ed Guiney at Element Pictures, made it clear that they want to stay true to the source text, "in spirit and detail."
Sally's writing is very intimate and simple. Readers received a first-hand experience - they experience emotions with the character. Therefore, they paid more attention to character development over climaxes. It was necessary to portray the inner monologues and the character's subjectivity truthfully, and they managed to do that to a certain extent, with Sally co-writing the screenplay with Alice Birch. Since Sally was a part of the writing process she could, as and when, make modification and give her insights. Modifications and changes were made but the series is visually similar to the book. Important intervals and parts in the book were converted into dialogues, and Paul and Daisy's acting did the work perfectly.
Most of the show was shot amid jagged west Ireland countryside, windy beaches, university blocks in Trinity, Dublin and few shots in Italy and Sweden. The shots took place in a natural setting, they were partly real and partly stylised.
Stills from the series, top left: the countryside of Sligo, top right: windy beach, bottom right: vast countryside, bottom left: Trinity campus.
The book is very verbose but the show isn't very "wordy", there are long stretches of silence and pauses. No conversations at a stretch. These long pauses not only let the viewers sink themselves in the character's thoughts and mind but also provided a platform for unsaid feelings and the building tension. There are frames where no one can put a finger on their expressions, the acting and drama do the talking. These silences allow us to focus on the physicality, "eyelids fluttering, bits of sweat or tears, a hand extending down from a bed to set down a half-finished popsicle on its wrapper."
A still from the series, Marianne placing her half-finished popsicle on the wrapper.
Similarly, the sex scenes weren't "vulgar" or "explicit", in the sense that they were frank. It is focused on their emotional connection over the physical connection. All the sexual intercourses that Marianne and Connell have, are very particular to them. They are awkward and silent, painful, interruptive and a form of navigation for them. Through these scenes, the filmmakers made sure to pay attention to and highlight the importance of consent when indulging in this act.
Since the series was made with careful consideration and thought these sex scenes have an impact. It has a reason to be there. Their relationship is primarily about sex, but these scenes show the importance of the physical bond Marianne and Connell have, and respect it. Additionally, this is their way of always coming back to each other again and again, different each time.
The scene where Marianne loses her virginity. It is her first time, but not his, and how the scene plays out is, both, charged with lust and is a representation of how one should ask for consent. Connell asks, “Is that okay?” “Is this what you want? ... If you want to stop or anything, we can obviously stop.”
A still from the series, the scene where Marianne loses her virginity to Connell.
To ensure this 'frankness' and also to ease in the actors into it, intimacy coordinator Ita Brien was hired. She has worked on shows like Sex Education and Gentleman Jack:
I bring a professional structure to the intimate content. An understanding that just as with dance a choreographer has to bring a skill to learning a dance, or a stunt coordinator shows you how to throw a punch safely. I, too, bring a physical skill to the content.
She created a safe workspace where the actors had a place to talk about their concerns about each scene before it took place and made sure that they saw the footage before it gets aired. "Timeouts" were introduced so that the actors could step out if they felt uncomfortable.
One can say that the most difficult scene could be the one where Marianne explores BDSM. While filming this, Daisy's physical and psychological well being was put forward first. Ita says,
It was really important to make sure we were taking care of the narrative, making sure it was seen as a consensual exploration and not abuse.
A still from the series, one of the scenes where Marianne explores BDSM with Lukas.
Other than solely focusing on the pair and their emotional and physical relationship, the makers also throw light on the storyline on mental illness, emotional and physical abuse, and the presence of class difference and how it affects them personally. In episode 10 we are introduced to Connell struggling with depression. The scene where he approaches the counsellor and has a break down is very important, especially for young men who stop themselves from expressing. It breaks the pillar of toxic masculinity brick by brick. Connell, the character and his traits do not conform to his gender's stereotypes. He is vulnerable, he has a breakdown, his “excruciating” attempts at tenderness with his previous girlfriends at high school is broadcast and made fun of.
Stills from the series, Connell having breakdowns.
Lenny Abrahamson says that showing young people in a positive light is necessary compared to the general narrative,
It feels like it is designed for older people to go, 'Oh my god, they are so messed up, our culture is doomed.'
Rooney's work is said to be 'oddly and radical' and there have been instances of being compared to Jane Austen. Mainly because her portrayal of relationships is highly influenced by the characters and their socio-economic environment and reality. Marianne's dad is dead, her mother is wealthy and cold, her elder brother physically and mentally abuses her. Connell's mother had him when she was a teenager, they are poor but happy. As mentioned before, she works at Marianne's mansion. This power dynamic is present throughout, shuffling between finance and sexual dominance. Connell trying to be someone else and having a hard time to fit in at Trinity and Marianne having found her bunch of "hippie" friends and leading a lavish lifestyle. This inequality is present throughout the series. The underlying Marxists tonality of the novel has been displayed through side characters. For instance, Jaime, one of Marianne's boyfriend, his elitism and his cruel attitude, the way he always looks down at Connell, makes him a good example.
I'd say that Normal People in a sense is very different when compared to all the other young adult novel/adaptations that I’ve consumed. The biggest difference being the similarity between the source text and the adapted text. Lenny Abrahamson did justice to Sally's writing, her writing represents millennial thoughts and feelings, his work also touches upon issues and thoughts that millennials face and experience. Another difference being, portraying teens and young adults in a more mature and serious light. Putting them forward as people who are aware of the consequences or their action.
It treats young adults with respect and takes their relationships, especially first loves, seriously. It is well aware that those relationships leave permanent marks.
I've had a very positive experience with this book and adaptation. When books are adapted into movies, for the majority of the time the reader faces disappointment after watching the movies. Either they miss out on major plot parts or sometimes the representation is wrong. 13 Reasons Why, its terrible representation of teenage suicide and mental health. Percy Jackson, all I can say is that I cried after watching both the movies. They couldn't recreate the magical world on the big screen.
To conclude, I'd say that the series is very wholesome and binge-worthy, but please do take small breaks between episodes to reflect and to let out the emotions that you experience while watching it. When reading the novel, finish it in a go. You can cry and reflect as much as you want later.
A still of Marianne and Connell.