In a cross talk, two writers sit down to discuss a book, movie, TV show, or piece of art they both feel strongly about. Sometimes they disagree; other times, they’re in perfect harmony. Here, Arts & Culture Editor Tara Joy ’20, and Assistant Arts & Culture Editor Zoë Kaplan ’20 discuss the newly released TV series “Normal People,” based on Sally Rooney’s novel of the same name.
TJ: What were your first impressions?
ZK: I was interested—obviously they would use the same actors for the whole series, but the show spans a time period where people really change and grow, so it was pretty impressive to see how the actors change. You could tell that they had aged and matured.
TJ: Both of them, but I think especially Marianne, transformed fairly convincingly from 18-year-olds to people in their early 20s. I do think the main two actors [Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal] kind of carried the show on their backs. They really had so much chemistry.
ZK: I’m glad that they didn’t use internal monologues in the show. I was kind of worried that would happen because the internal narrative is so important to the book. I love that they keep a lot of the dialogue sort of sparse and weird—they have conversations where they just say “yeah” back and forth for a little bit—but it’s still so telling because of their expressions and the way they react to each other.
TJ: I was skeptical because there’s honestly not that much in the way of plot in the original book. It’s primarily a story about the internal journeys of these two characters, which is harder to translate onscreen in a compelling way. But I think they did do a good job. Part of me still wonders if someone watching the show who hadn’t already read the novel would enjoy it as much.
ZK: I don’t know if I would have gotten past the first few episodes if I hadn’t read the book. At the beginning, I was thinking so much about what I knew about the book and having my own opinions inform that. But I think they’ve done a really great job of keeping with the book’s overall journey. It’s cool to see a show that’s not so plot-oriented and is very much focused on character. That’s what’s so great about Sally Rooney’s writing and I think they’ve really maintained that in the show.
TJ: The thing that I feel is notable about the book “Normal People” that makes it different from a lot of more straightforward romance novels is that Rooney has such a gift for really clearly elucidating people’s emotions in a way that a lot of writers can’t always manage. And in the show a lot of that emotional intensity now comes from the actors’ performances of course, but also the direction and cinematography, and just the general mood and appearance of the show. So much of the story is just these two people who clearly love each other a lot and just cannot communicate that properly, and so keep orbiting around each other without really asking for what they want. In the book I empathized a little more with their inability to talk openly about their feelings because I spent so much time in their heads, but in the TV show, it’s like “Why can’t you just tell each other how you feel? You guys are being stupid!”
ZK: I think even when reading the book I was a little like, “Come on, you guys.”
TJ: The example that I keep thinking of is when they get together for the second time during their first year of college, and Connell can’t afford to stay in his apartment over the summer, but he also can’t bring himself to ask Marianne if he can stay with her. And then because of that, he does end up leaving Dublin for the summer, and Marianne thinks he wants to break up. The whole thing is so stupid, it would so easily be resolved with one conversation. And also you should ask your rich girlfriend if you can stay in her apartment that she’s not paying for, it’s the least she can do!
ZK: I know everyone keeps talking about how horny the show is.
TJ: (laughing) Oh yeah.
ZK: I found this Instagram that’s just dedicated to photos of Connell’s chain necklace.
TJ: Oh my god, I also saw that Instagram account!
ZK: I actually was upset by the chain. I had a big problem with it at first because I thought it looked out of character, but then I decided that actually it is pretty fitting.
TJ: I’m pro-chain.
ZK: It took me a couple episodes. I think the whole show took me a couple episodes to get into. At first I was like “This is so awkward, and we’re missing a lot of it,” but I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be, because they’re just getting to know each other and it actually is awkward.
TJ: I thought the back half of the show was a little bit stronger than the first half, which is interesting because I definitely preferred the first half of the book.
ZK: I think the first half of the book really relies on their internal monologues more, and in the second half it’s such a downward spiral and you miss a lot of them being together. And here I felt I was learning more about them later.
TJ: It feels a little bit glossy. Whereas in the book, both the characters have so much self-loathing and insecurity, and there are a lot of sections in the book that felt very raw and relatable in kind of an upsetting way. And I don’t know that the TV show captures that as much, which maybe is a good thing, because I don’t know if a global pandemic is really the time to explore your own insecurities that deeply. Especially in the ninth episode, which is the one where Marianne is studying abroad in Sweden and the audience really sees the depths of her sadness, it’s a little underwhelming, like “Oh she’s staring at the skyline and looking melancholy and beautiful.” The book feels a little bit uglier.
ZK: There’s a part in that episode where she looks down at her plate and she’s barely eaten anything, and I remember so clearly in the book where it talks about her only eating a croissant for the whole day and how her body was becoming so thin and frail, and it was so much darker. It was really clear that she was kind of deteriorating beyond just the guy she was with who was treating her poorly, and I didn’t really see that in the show.
TJ: And that episode ends with her staring at the sunset dramatically. It just feels TV-depressing.
ZK: I’ve been holding off watching the last episode because I am sad to finish it. I don’t think there should be more of it. This is the whole story.
TJ: Although TV streaming executives will want any excuse to make a franchise [laughs]. But if they do make another season, the stuff that’s special from the book that the TV show is already starting to lose would be gone entirely. It would fully turn into a sad-ish rom-com.
ZK: So many people were upset with her for the way she ended the book. I feel like people might want more from the show and want it to go on, but I think that’s part of the whole heartbreak of the story, that not everything gets resolved.
TJ: I think that’s one of the smart things about the book that the TV show does preserve. Even though it’s clear that these two people love each other so much and so drawn to each other, it’s not totally clear that they’re the solution to each other’s problems. They might not be able to fix each other in the way that romantic interests in fiction so often do. The ambiguity of the ending preserves that in the TV show.
ZK: It’s not just about them loving each other, it’s so much more. I love that in the show you can see all the other factors in their lives. It’s so much more than the two of them and their love story.
TJ: Above all, the show is an excruciating reminder that I haven’t touched another person on purpose since March [laughs]. I guess because I’m missing college a lot right now, but a lot of the show feels a little aspirational even though it’s so sad. Much like Marianne, I started to wear heavy eye makeup and velvet when I got to college. Unlike Marianne, it did not suddenly make me cool. She blossoms.
ZK: It hits home for me because now we’re graduating and so many things in our lives are changing. Obviously you can love people and have strong relationships that last, but as you grow and change those relationships will change. That’s such a scary thing to think about right now. Good “art” or whatever you want to call it makes you feel things, and it definitely makes you feel a lot of things. Especially now.
TJ: It’s a good thing to watch on a rainy afternoon. And feel a bit of self-indulgent melancholy.
ZK: You can’t go in and think it’ll make you happy or feel something good about life. I think the book is upsetting in the same way.
TJ: This feels a little like, “I’m going to watch this and feel sad,” but in an enjoyable way. There were parts of the book where I was like, “I’m reading this and I feel sad in a very real way.” It felt almost as if it were happening to me. Here, I’m like, “I feel sad for these very beautiful Irish teenagers.”
Tara Joy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Zoë Kaplan can be reached at email@example.com.