The BBC’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People was one of the biggest successes in the corporation’s modern history. Within a week of its release it had been streamed 21.8 million times. By the end of the year it had been streamed 62.7 million times. In the space of a few weeks the show’s male lead, Paul Mescal, who played Connell Waldron, went from being an anonymous fan of the singer Phoebe Bridgers to being her boyfriend.
At this point it doesn’t really matter whether critics like a show or not, although, for the record, they did and used the sorts of phrases directors mutter to themselves in their daydreams: “a triumph in every way”; “gorgeous and melancholy”. Normal People also triggered what from certain angles appeared to be a worldwide psychosexual awakening as the melancholy love story and very long and detailed sex scenes drove locked-down citizens across the globe into frenzies of nostalgia and lust.
Minute details of the show became cultural totems. For instance, in Normal People Connell wears a plain silver neck chain, a detail that would not ordinarily have provoked much comment, but this was Normal People. An article in Vice about the neck chain (“I would quite willingly trade in my physical body to become Connell’s chain”) went viral on Twitter. A piece in Metro purported to analyze the “science” of the neck chain (“the neck is a place of intimacy and trust”).
An Instagram account consisting solely of pictures of the neck chain acquired more than 150,000 followers. When the show’s director, Lenny Abrahamson, was accosted in the street by “some bloke showing me his silver chain and giving me the thumbs-up”, he understood immediately that in the fervid atmosphere of 2020 this was the universally recognized hand gesture for “I am a fan of Normal People”.
Abrahamson, 55 and no stranger to acclaim (having directed such fêted films as What Richard Did), is a bald Irish man in spectacles. Speaking to him on Zoom, I notice that the wallpaper in a corner of his living room is peeling. He has just finished post-production on a new television adaptation of Rooney’s first novel, Conversations with Friends. For in the aftermath of the Normal People phenomenon, no sane TV production company would fail to commission Abrahamson to make more Rooney adaptations.
By the end of the year it had been streamed 62.7 million times.
He tells me he watched the success of Normal People with “a feeling of unreality”. He was stuck in the middle of lockdown, but “every time I looked around that time, everyone seemed to be talking about Normal People”. The ubiquity of neck chain think pieces made him go, “Wow. When people really like something they consume it and gnaw the bones.”
Rooney, he says guardedly, was pleased that “people who loved the novel also loved the adaptation”. She was closely involved in Normal People, working on the script with Alice Birch and as an executive producer, but much less present with Conversations with Friends because she was “really deep into writing her next novel” and therefore left the screenplay to Birch. She gave her views on casting choices and participated in the initial divisions of the book into separate episodes, but never appeared on set. She has seen Conversations with Friends, though, and was “really positive about the results”. If her absence shows, it is perhaps in the dialogue, which is less taut than in Normal People and tends more toward cliché.
Normal People was Rooney’s second book, but feels like a debut. Its plot is more straightforward and its characterization less complicated. The lovers Connell and Marianne — as the book’s critics sometimes complain — are extremely hot, extremely clever and extremely politically aware students. Both are fundamentally decent people periodically separated by their often-baffling emotional inarticulacy, but the novel derives much of its force from the simplicity of the scenario.
In Conversations with Friends, Frances and Bobbi are former high school lovers, now university friends, who perform spoken-word poetry together. Both are subtly characterized and capable of being wonderfully obnoxious. Frances is self-involved, awkward and sensitive. Bobbi is charismatic, overbearing and meddling.
At a poetry event, they meet a wealthy, older couple: Melissa, a writer, and her husband, Nick, a B-list actor. “I’m gay and Frances is a communist,” Bobbi tells them. Bobbi develops a crush on Melissa and sensitive, taciturn Frances embarks on an affair with Nick, who is also sensitive and taciturn but in a smoldering, intense way. There is a high-stakes, bed-swapping holiday in Croatia. A sort of ménage à quatre develops.
Conversations with Friends is more complex than Normal People and, as Abrahamson says, “colder”. Asked to pick a favorite, he says diplomatically that although “the initial pleasure of reading Normal People is hard to beat”, he prefers Conversations with Friends because “it’s more complex and rewards thought and rereading”.
An obvious danger for a director approaching Conversations with Friends is its similarity to Normal People: wan Irish students failing to communicate their feelings in Dublin and abroad. Abrahamson admits that there is “definitely a family resemblance between Frances and Marianne”. Pale, dark-haired Daisy Edgar-Jones, who played Marianne in Normal People might be the twin of pale, dark-haired Alison Oliver, who plays Frances in Conversations with Friends. Oliver is a newcomer, a recent graduate of the Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art at Trinity College (Mescal’s alma mater). Although it is a mark of the dramatically elevated prestige of Rooney adaptations that whereas Mescal found a pop star girlfriend only after Normal People launched him to fame, Oliver’s co-star Joe Alwyn, who plays Nick, is already dating Taylor Swift.
Oliver and Alwyn’s relationship lacks the passionate certainty of the Connell/Marianne romance, which, as Abrahamson says, was “the engine” of Normal People. “You’re always wondering where Connell and Marianne are in relation to each other — and if they’re not together you feel that must be coming and you want it to come.” Normal People was characterized by an atmosphere of monotone emotional intensity. In Conversations with Friends the tone is complicated by the two extroverts. Jemima Kirke, who played Jessa in Lena Dunham’s Girls, is wonderfully cast as Melissa: boho posh, brisk and inadvertently patronizing in a well meaning, scatty, self-absorbed sort of way. Sasha Lane is the bumptious, chatty Bobbi.
Normal People was famous for its extended sex scenes. In the second episode of the series there’s one that lasts nine and a half minutes, or about a third of the episode. Critics applauded the truthfulness: Connell fumbling about for a condom, Marianne briefly getting her bra stuck on her head and so on. The sex in Conversations with Friends is briefer, less explicit and more conventionally shot; the traditional abstract Hollywood tangle of limbs and panting faces.
An Instagram account consisting solely of pictures of the neck chain acquired more than 150,000 followers.
For, as Abrahamson says, Conversations with Friends is not primarily a romance. “The coming-of-age aspect of the novel is the spine.” The drama derives from Frances’s entry into the adult world. The narrative question at the heart of the story is not “will they, won’t they”, but will Frances survive her first painful contact with the real world? Although love is universal, the torments and social agonies of late adolescence are less immediately relatable to adults who have passed through it and discovered the real horrors of grown-up life.
That Conversations with Friends makes it gripping is down to Oliver’s virtuosically awkward performance as Frances, contorting her face almost to the limit of dramatic believability. She is all frowns, fidgeting hands, shrugging, apologetic nodding and failed attempts at eye contact. She brilliantly evokes the way that when you’re young and shy, every attempt to make public conversation feels like a doomed and excruciating venture from the first word. In an early dinner party scene she adopts an all too relatable expression of silent personal trauma when her halting syllable-at-a-time attempt to contribute to a conversation about race is swept away by a rush of confident chatter from Bobbi and Melissa.
Few directors can have thought as much about the power of awkward silences as Abrahamson. He says he agonized over using awkward pauses to create the “correct density” in the film “so that there was enough space, but that space would be charged”. The experience of Normal People showed him that there was an audience for “space and ambiguity” and that he did not need to worry about “story points being small”. He knew he had to get the dinner party scenes right because the drama is as much in “the truthfulness of how it feels to be 21” as it is in the plot.
Abrahamson hasn’t yet read Rooney’s third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You. He says that to have been reading it while involved in filming Conversations with Friends “would have been too much”. Will he be up for filming a third Rooney series? He equivocates diplomatically. “I’ve been in that world for a long time,” he says. And although he “thoroughly enjoyed it” and “got a tremendous amount out of it”, there are other projects that have been shelved. He trails off and says: “I can absolutely imagine doing another at some point in the future.” If Conversations with Friends sparks even a fraction of the Normal People frenzy, and we’re all reading articles about Alwyn’s beard in a few weeks, he may have no choice.
Conversations with Friends premieres on Hulu in the U.S. and on BBC Three in the U.K. on May 15
James Marriott is the deputy books editor for The Times of London