‘Normal People’: Sally Rooney and Lenny Abrahamson Made a Daunting Adaptation a Sweeping Success

Along with Alice Birch and a phenomenal cast, the novelist-turned-screenwriter and director-of-novels made "Normal People" outstanding all over again.
Normal People -- Episode 3 - Episode 103 -- The night of the Debs is approaching and the girls at school have organised a fundraising event. Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) has been asked to help and is out of her comfort zone.  At the club, one of Connell’s friends Karen (Niamh Lynch) does her best to show Marianne some kindness but Rachel (Leah McNamara) behaves coldly towards her.    The evening turns sour, when one of the boys’ older friends gropes Marianne. She leaves the club, upset by the incident and Connell (Paul Mescal) offers her a lift home. Marianne stays over at Connell’s house and bumps into Lorraine as she leaves the next day.    Connell becomes anxious when his friends tease him about Marianne, suspecting they’ve guessed about their relationship. Fuelled by anxiety, Connell makes an unexpected decision that hurts Marianne and causes a rift between him and his mother, Lorraine (Sarah Greene). Marianne withdraws from school, causing Connell intense guilt. Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal), shown. (Photo by: Enda Bowe/Hulu)
Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal in "Normal People"
Enda Bowe / Hulu

Despite the relatable story and timeless genre, Hulu’s “Normal People” was never going to be an easy book-to-screen adaptation. Take Sally Rooney’s first chapter: It’s clear that Marianne and Connell, two Irish students about to be swept into a decade-long romance, are attracted to one another, but the shy young man’s disposition and the garish young woman’s teasing are framed by thoughts, not dialogue or actions.

Readers only know Marianne’s a social outcast because of Connell’s interior monologue, and they only know he’s nonetheless attracted to her because of an admission — “He feels his ears get hot” — that an actor can’t easily trigger.

“‘Normal People,’ both the book and the TV show, are about that feeling of a gulf between the inner self and the outer self — between the private individual and the social world,” Rooney said in an interview with IndieWire.

Rooney’s economy of language conveys immediate intimacy between her two central characters, but it doesn’t lend itself to an easy visual translation. Yet Hulu’s limited series finds a way. Earning high marks from critics and an impassioned response from fans, “Normal People” stands out as a vivid, heart-wrenching, and profound romance — one able to bridge the gap between novel and series without sacrificing depth.

Rooney wasn’t a screenwriter when Lenny Abrahamson came calling, nor did she plan on becoming one when she first heard an adaptation of her second novel was in the works.

“I didn’t think I would have any involvement,” Rooney said, remembering her first reaction to the pitch, before anyone in particular was attached. “It was sort of just like, ‘Yeah, sure. I guess that’s something that could be interesting, if other people find the idea is going to germinate some new ideas for them — I have no objection to that.'”

But when Abrahamson came on board, he brought a full team with him. Ed Guiney and Andrew Lowe’s Element Pictures, who worked with the director on “Room,” among other projects, had secured early rights to “Normal People,” prior to the novel’s release. They took their pitch to Piers Wenger, Controller of BBC Drama, and Rose Garnett, Director of BBC Films.

“They basically said the combination of the book and me was enough for them to greenlight the show if we had the rights,” Abrahamson said. “So we took that information to Sally and her reps; it was lovely to be able to say, ‘Look, it will get made, and it’s going to happen.'”

Normal People -- Episode 2 - Episode 102 -- Connell (Paul Mescal) and Marianne’s (Daisy Edgar-Jones) relationship continues in secret and they sleep together for the first time. At school, Connell makes excuses for why he didn’t see his friends at the weekend and evades questions on his mother’s job at Marianne’s house. A girl in his friendship group, Rachel (Leah McNamara), gets impatient with Connell’s lack of interest and tensions build for Connell. Meanwhile, Marianne must find a way to explain her unplanned absences to her prying brother Alan (Frank Blake). Director Lenny Abrahamson, shown. (Photo by: Enda Bowe)
Lenny Abrahamson on the set of “Normal People”Enda Bowe / Hulu

That’s when things changed. Rooney went from a novelist giving her blessing to a co-screenwriter tasked with writing the pilot. She’s far from the first to make the transition — Abrahamson went through a similar process with author Emma Donoghue when adapting “Room” — but what helped nurture this new collaboration was a shared admiration; he loved her debut novel, and she cited his 2012 film “What Richard Did” as evidence the director had “a really precise eye for social interaction and capturing the manner of a milieu of young people.”

Detailed observance was both a key aspect of telling “Normal People’s” original story and one of the greatest challenges in adapting it for television: How do you take a book built around two characters prone to internal monologues and make it just as rewarding to watch? And how do you trust a first-time screenwriter to set the right foundation for such a complex onscreen romance?

“I realized during my first attempt at writing them as episodes, I have these two central characters, one of whom is characterized by not having any friends and really having no one to talk to, and another one who is characterized by being really taciturn — his entire external affect to the world is he’s shy and reserved and doesn’t really say a lot. And I was like, ‘Oh my God. This is so much harder than I thought it would be.'”

Rooney is quick to cite co-writer Alice Birch in helping not only guide her through these early hurdles, but for evoking meaningful additions of her own. They chose early on to write the 12-part limited series in half-hour episodes, rather than the hourlong standard expected for dramas (a choice which, coincidentally, took a while for people to appreciate). She also credits the actors, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, for embodying the young students Connell and Marianne with meaning — knowing how to make a flit of the eyes or a curl of the lips as telling as any explicit statement.

“When you look at the way that Paul plays Connell, for example, he manages to convey these long interior monologues from the book in small gestures and expressions,” Rooney said. “So even though you are giving away a lot of the tools that you have as a novelist, you’re gaining all these other tools that I myself don’t really understand how to use very well, but thankfully, other people are around who can use them.”

Abrahamson also acknowledged each of these elements with particular praise to Birch, but he still emphasized Rooney’s significant contributions to the scripts.

“When Sally wrote a pilot of an episode, and it was really good, that was the first big moment of reassurance,” he said. “You just go, ‘Well, she has an instinct for screenwriting’ — and that’s not always true; not every novelist does. Then we hit it off [together], so there was a very relaxed, open conversation with the two of us. I found it stimulating to talk to her.”

Normal People -- Episode 6 - Episode 106 -- Connell (Paul Mescal) and Marianne are back together. Connell (Paul Mescal) has gained confidence in college; giving presentations in class and getting good grades but is reluctant to show Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) affection in front of her friends. Will the two be able to admit that they are together? Things take a negative turn when Marianne goes home and argues with her brother Alan (Frank Blake) and Connell loses the part-time restaurant job that funds his life in Dublin. Connell is torn when Marianne returns to Dublin distant and distracted, and finds himself once again, unable to share his worries… Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal), shown. (Photo by: Enda Bowe/Hulu)
Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal in “Normal People”Enda Bowe / Hulu

As for the challenge of evoking specific emotions with minimal exposition, Abrahamson saw the novel’s honesty as a “radical” avenue to pursue. He immediately connected to the story’s intimacy and found the focus on “real people, really in love, represented so well in a non-sensationalistic way” to be exhilarating.

“You’re taught in Screenwriting 101, nobody should say what they think, and conversations should really be about something else,” he said. “Here, we get to watch a couple speaking truthfully to each other, and it’s completely captivating. That amazed me.”

As the director, he tried to stick as closely as he could to that same ethos. When he was filming, Abrahamson would try to trust everyone to do their job, push everything out of his head, and focus on the actors — not the monitors or the framing, but to see the scene as a living, breathing moment and check if it resonates.

“A big difficulty and an opportunity as a director is to de-professionalize at the key moment,” he said. “The liberation for the director is, at that moment, you just need to be another human being in the room. That’s the fundamental job. It’s really hard because you’ve got a thousand things in your head about what you’re trying to achieve — all the reasons why you set it up like that, why you’re shooting it from that angle — but your duty at the moment of the take is to be a person and to look at them and to say, ‘Did that move me? Do I believe it? Is it real?’ And that’s all you’ve got. You just have that instinct, and you just have to rely on it.”

So far, it’s working. “Normal People” stands as a consummate book-to-screen adaptation, delivering an epic romance for readers and newcomers alike. Much like Marianne and Connell, collaborations as fruitful as this don’t come around often.

“Normal People” is streaming now on Hulu.

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