Sally Rooney sees herself in both characters within her novel, “Normal People,” but don’t make her break it down further than that.
“I feel my psychological state as a child remains a mystery to me now,” Rooney said during a TCA panel for the upcoming Hulu series. “I don’t know why I am the way I am.”
That’s what the writing is for, after all.
“I felt, writing the book, that both characters were a projection of my point of view,” she said. “They both embody aspects of my own psychology. […] The challenge of adapting this for the screen is that they both have introspective qualities.”
To help with that challenge, Rooney turned to Oscar-nominated “Room” director Lenny Abrahamson, who helmed the first six episodes of the 12-episode TV adaptation, while Hettie MacDonald is directing the second half. Joining Rooney on the panel, along with executive producer Ed Guiney and actors Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones, Abrahamson said the key to unlocking the novel’s resonance onscreen is understanding how much you can learn about someone from their movement, reactions, and general demeanor — not everything has to be said.
“You meet somebody on the street and you talk to them for 30 seconds, and you get a sense of who they are,” Abrahamson said. “It’s extraordinary how many nonverbal [indicators] exist in that arena. […] What the novel gives you is this essence, so what you’re trying to do as a [filmmaker] is recreate that essence in a new medium.”
Abrahamson also said television was the best place for this adaptation because of how specific you can be when telling an intimate story.
“Television now gives you a chance to tell stories at an extremely granular level of detail,” he said. “We can get this story to such a substantial audience and give it the details it needs. […] It felt very rich and very exciting for me to do.”
Adapted by Rooney alongside writers Alice Birch and Mark O’Rowe, “Normal People” is a 30-minute drama series. Per Hulu’s synopsis, the adaptation “tracks the tender but complicated relationship of Marianne and Connell from the end of their school days in a small town in the west of Ireland to their undergraduate years at Trinity College. At school, he’s well-liked and popular, while she’s lonely, proud, and intimidating. But when Connell comes to pick up his mother from her cleaning job at Marianne’s house, a strange and indelible connection grows between the two teenagers — one they are determined to conceal.”
Both Abrahamson and Rooney credited their two leads for whatever success the series sees.
“When you cast two people as talented as Daisy and Paul in territory as rich as this, it gives you a chance to explore the direct presence of those characters,” Abrahamson said.
But neither lead had read Rooney’s book before they were cast.
“I got my first audition and I’d heard of the book — a few friends had told me, ‘this is the best thing you’ll ever read’ — […] but I knew from the writing how complex she was in the few lines of dialogue I got,” Edgar-Jones said. “I’m kind of glad I didn’t read it before because I would’ve put an intense amount of pressure on myself.”
Mescal said he’d read Rooney’s first novel, “Conversations with Friends,” but not “Normal People.” Still, he described himself as a “romantic” who loved devastating love stories like this one, as well as films like “Blue Valentine” and “Marriage Story.” Edgar-Jones agreed, citing Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” as a favorite.
“Those are the kind of stories I’m most interested in — I love love,” she said. “To be part of one that’s as special as this was really something.”
Abrahamson also pointed out that “Normal People” tells a rare story on television, when it comes to other young romances that can skew very dark (like HBO’s “Euphoria”) or a bit soapy (like on The CW).
“It’s just as valuable to tell a story that’s life-affirming […] about formative life-changing relationships,” he said. “There’s nothing cynical about it, but it’s still very deep and very textured.”
“Normal People” is slated to premiere in Spring 2020 on Hulu. Watch the trailer below.