As an adaptation, Hulu’s Normal People is incredibly faithful to its source material: the bestselling 2018 novel of the same name by Irish novelist Sally Rooney. The 12-part character-driven drama follows the complex love story of Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) from a small town in the west of Ireland to Dublin’s Trinity College. As they grow from teenagers to young adulthood, they struggle to better understand themselves and one another.
Rooney also wrote the scripts for the first six episodes of the series. (She left to go work on her next novel, as novelists do.) The final six episodes were mostly written by playwright and Succession Season 2 story editor Alice Birch, with one written by playwright/screenwriter Mark O’Rowe.
Speaking about the similarities between the book and the series, Normal People producer Ed Guiney told BBC: “What is also interesting is that all of the book adaptations we have done at Element, Normal People remains closest to the novel. There are virtually no ideas or scenes in the series that aren’t in the novel, and we were always reacting to what Sally had written, which is a testament to its quality and depth.”
Making Thoughts Into Lines of Dialogue
Guiney’s above statement is mostly true, but there are some tweaks/minor changes that the series makes to the source material. This is arguably necessary as much of the “action” of the book takes place inside of Marianne and Connell’s heads—we follow their thoughts and feelings as closely as their words and external actions. This is much harder to represent on screen, so some of the thoughts and feelings that take place inside of Marianne and Connell’s heads in the book are made external through dialogue or more explicit emotional reaction.
For example, in the book, Marianne goes to see Connell play football and thinks to herself about it: “It occurred to Marianne how much she wanted to see him having sex with someone; it didn’t have to be her, it could be anybody. It would be beautiful just to watch him. She knew these were the kind of thoughts that made her different from other people in school, and weirder.”
In the Normal People TV series, these thoughts become dialogue that Marianne expresses to Connell while they are in bed together, saying: “You know when I was watching you play football, you looked so beautiful, I kept thinking how much I wanted to watch you have sex, I mean, not even with me, with anybody, how good it would feel. Is that really weird?”
Connell responds to this sentiment, saying: “Yeah, that’s really weird, Marianne, but I think I understand it.”
This may seem like a minor change, but for a story that is so much about Marianne and Connell’s inability to express their honest feelings for one another, it is also relatively monumental.
The Phone Call
Guiney mentions: “There are virtually no ideas or scenes in the series that aren’t in the novel.” This is true, but there are ideas that are expanded on for the series. One example of this comes in the scene that shows Connor calling Marianne after the Debs to tell her that he misses her. In the book, Connell calls Marianne but Marianne deletes the message before listening to it so we never hear what it contains. In the TV series, we are with Connell as he makes it, so we get some greater insight into where he is emotionally after breaking up with Marianne that first time.
“I think what Sally and Alice were really good at doing in the process were finding little moments in the book that sometimes might have just been a sentence, and expanding it out into a full, sometimes very emotional scene,” producer Emma Norton told BT. “In some respects, it may seem different to the book, but almost everything in the show has some little origin in the novel.”
In both the book and TV series, Marianne is a survivor of domestic abuse. In the book, Marianne tells Connell that, before he died, her father did physically abuse both Marianne and her mother. In the TV series, she tells Connell that her father never laid a hand on her, though it is implied that he was abusive in other ways.
Another slight change from the source material when it comes to Marianne’s family is that, in the book, Marianne’s mother is outwardly cruel to her daughter. In the series, Denise’s abuse takes the form of neglect. Denise is seen actively ignoring the verbal and eventual physical abuse that Alan, Marianne’s brother, commits against Marianne.
Marianne and Lukas
One of the thinnest parts of the Normal People TV series story comes when Marianne goes to study abroad in Sweden. In the book, we see more of her relationship with Lukas, with whom she shares a BDSM relationship. In the book, Lukas’ photograph sessions with Marianne as a submissive subject are a recurring thing. Furthermore, the photographs of Marianne are seen by her peers back at Trinity, serving as yet another source of gossip concerning the main character. In the series, there is no mention of anyone seeing Lukas’ explicit photographs of Marianne.
The “breakup” scene is also different in the series. In the book, Marianne decides to end things when Lukas tells her that he loves her during one of the photo sessions. Marianne immediately asks to be untied, threatening to call the police if Lukas does not comply. In the series, it’s left much more ambiguous what exactly happens, with Marianne deciding she wants to stop part way through a photography session with Lukas. There is a wordless, non-linear montage that sees her putting her clothes back on and leaving the studio.
The Connell/Helen Breakup
The breakup between Connell and his long-term girlfriend Helen is another example of the Normal People TV show taking an action briefly mentioned in the book and expanding it into a larger scene. In the novel, Rooney describes Connell and Helen’s breakup simply like this: “Two weeks later it was over, they broke up.”
In the show, this breakup takes up much more narrative space. We see Helen express to Connell why their relationship is no longer working as a severely depressed Connell listens from his bed.
While the TV ending follows the plot ending of the novel, it has a slightly different tone. You can read more about the TV series ending and how it differs from the source material in Delia Harrington’s ending explainer here.
What major or minor differences do you notice between the Normal People TV series and novel? Let us know in the comments below.