Most people who have read Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel Normal People haven’t just liked it, they’ve loved it. So when the Hulu adaptation series was announced, some might say the pressure was on. How could 12 half-hour episodes (all available to stream now) capture all the adventures of Connell and Marianne in the same way they live in our heads and our hearts?
Well, you can now see for yourself because they’ve done it — and more. The TV show stays impressively true to the source material in a way that new and dedicated fans alike are sure to enjoy. According to The New York Times, the mantra for the producers of the series was “the book is the Bible.” That means you could literally hold the book in your lap as you watch the show and leaf through the pages following along with what’s happening on screen. Elements from the pacing (if you do follow along in the book, you’ll notice that the first six episodes cover almost exactly half the pages in the book) to the dialogue are identical to the book. Where the show differs, and many will say excels, are the visuals. Where a physical hookup is mentioned in the book, it is shown in the show, with great detail and intensity. This also goes for glances, both awkward and loving, for touches, for tears. While a book can give great detail about a kiss or a fight, none of the sensations or meaning of those actions are lost here in the TV version. It zips along as it follows the pair through their high school and university days without ever feeling rushed, because it takes its time where it matters — in the vulnerable, special actions between Marianne and Connell. And somehow, the nearly six hours total touches on all the biggest moments of the book — and then some.
So how did they capture this so perfectly? I spoke with executive producer and showrunner Ed Guiney (who has previously produced projects such as The Favourite, The Lobster, and Dublin Murders) and executive producer and director of the first six episodes Lenny Abrahamson, about how they built such a stunning show, which started before the book was even published. “We got the galleys of the book about two years ago when it went out to everyone in the States and across Europe, and we read it very quickly,” Guiney said, pointing out that he immediately “felt that it would make an amazing piece of television because of its episodic nature, because of the deep dive into these characters’ lives over time.” He then shared it with frequent collaborator Abrahamson, and noted, “Lenny and I actually first started making films together as students at Trinity which is the university that’s featured in the novel, but obviously many years ago,” but still a fun fact! “We love working with Len and felt that he would do an amazing job with this and he luckily really responded to that.”
Plus, it never hurts to have the director of Room, The Little Stranger, and Frank on your team, and so the ears of the BBC perked right up. “The BBC were very supportive,” Guiney continued, “and they basically offered to make the show if we got the rights given Lenny’s interest. So the book plus Lenny meant a greenlit show. And Sally [Rooney], who’s a great fan of Lenny’s work, was ultimately very happy for us to collectively get the rights. So we were in the gorgeous position of having the book, having Len, and knowing that we were making something we didn’t have to jump through any hoops — there was no question about that it was happening. And that just creates a lovely atmosphere around how you do something. You just think, what is the very best way we can honor this material, how do we tell this story?” So now that the show was a go, all they had to do was…not mess it up, really.
That began with figuring out exactly how to display this story, which spans many years and many adventures in an intense relationship, though a key note helped the process. “The BBC also said to us at the time that they would like whatever we did, however long it was, however many episodes, that they would like us to do the complete book in one go,” Guiney said. “In other words, not to break it up into seasons. And I think pretty early on we just hit on the idea of these half-hour episodes, which is unusual for drama.” It is, but it was the right choice, as each and every 30-minute installment will have you so desperate to immediately see more. Guiney said, “We felt for something that’s so character-centric that it would be the best way of telling the story — even if you botched it in one go, you still get the benefit of the individual identity of each of the episodes which are almost like chapters in the novel, and felt that longer episodes would require the kind of storytelling and plotting that we weren’t interested in getting into in the rendering of this novel.”
Then it was on to the next minor detail: casting the perfect Connell and Marianne. No pressure, everyone’s only obsessed with these two characters (and will be just as obsessed with the actors who portray them). As Abrahamson told me, “I think one of the things that’s fascinating to me, having done a few adaptations, is particularly in the casting because people will say, ‘Oh I had a very definite picture of this character when I was reading the book.’ And what I’ve discovered is if you get the internal life of the character right and they feel true and true to the essence of the character in the book, what happens is everybody goes, ‘Oh my god, this is exactly how I imagined them,’ which really could not be true because everybody has been imagining them differently.” Mind blown! But he understands that ultimately, “What happens is it becomes impossible to not see that face, and it feels like that’s how you always imagined them.”
He continued, “I think that the tricky thing about when somebody says you keep very close to the book, it’s a really fascinating process for me because you’re trying to understand the book at a level which still holds when you do all the expanding that you need to do when you put something on screen. Because you are always adding. You can describe the details of something in prose and leave lots of things out. As soon as you film something, that entire room is there. Every aspect of these other characters that can be just touched on in the novel, you really have to start to build out. A great novel like Sally’s, you keep discovering that it all really works when you start to shade in and color in the bits that are not described in the novel. It’s amazing how good it is because it all still works.”
But Guiney and Abrahamson and the team around them were in a place filled with much less pressure when they initially got started on the project because the book (and along with it, all of the readers’ very intense feelings about the story) hadn’t even been published yet. “It became a phenomenon after we started working on it,” Guiney said, “But obviously one of the things we had going for us is that Sally was very much nestled into the process.” He described the author as “the ultimate arbiter of whether we’ve done a good job with her book or not,” because it came from her mind — which is not to say viewers won’t still have their strong opinions. But if you love the book, your mind has really got to work overtime to find flaws in the way the story is told in the show. Even seeing the visuals of places like typically gray Dublin or the calm countryside will transport you into scenes that will take your breath away. And even though Marianne and Connell prefer words over numbers, if you do the math here it does make sense. They say that typically a page of a script equals a minute on screen, and since the novel is 273 pages long, that would add up to a show that’s about four and a half hours long. That only means this series is giving us even more of the love story.
Guiney also explained of Rooney’s part in the process, “She was across all of the conversations about turning it into 12 half hours, she wrote the first six episodes with Alice Birch, she was involved in all of the casting, she was part of the producing team. She was part of every crucial conversation and every crucial decision we made, which of course doesn’t guarantee that the readers out there that love her novel will love the TV show, but I think it goes quite a long way to helping that at least. And if Sally’s happy well then hopefully her readers will be happy too. But of course, people will have very different expectations about what they’re going to see and we want to fulfill them for some people, for sure.”