The Guardian view on Normal People: young love never looked better | Editorial

The television adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel is a superb and timely reminder of the pains of adolescence

The makers of the new 12-part adaptation of Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel Normal People have pulled off a remarkable feat. Avoiding all that is perfunctory about too many stage and screen versions of literary hits, they have crafted a work, available on iPlayer, that is set to become a television drama classic. Writing, casting, acting, direction: all are pin sharp. The risks of filming such sexually explicit material are triumphantly grasped.

The novel and its author (who co-wrote the script) are Irish. In a British media landscape increasingly dominated by the US – with organisations from local papers to the BBC under threat while Netflix, Disney and Amazon reap the lockdown’s rewards – Normal People’s locations in Sligo, Dublin, Italy and Sweden are not the least of its pleasures.

But the more extraordinary journey, particularly to viewers whose teenage years are long past, is through the actors to the unforgettable intensity of first love and lust. The intimate bond between Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) is the story’s subject and the depiction of their struggles to define themselves and each other, against familial and social backdrops that are shown to have penetrated their characters at the deepest levels, is sexy, romantic – and not soppy at all.

It’s widely if not universally acknowledged that young people are having a tough time. In the UK, the combination of tuition fees, the gig economy and housing costs meant many were struggling even before the coronavirus hit. But while Rooney’s characters are insulated from these pressures (Marianne by wealth, Connell by intelligence), her sympathetic portrayal of the dilemmas of youth feels particularly apt in our divided times.

Like the main character in Rooney’s first book, Connell is a writer. He and Marianne vie to praise each other’s brains. But (as with Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag) they show that cleverness can be a partner to confusion. Both on paper and screen, Rooney makes a case for fiction as a route to deeper understanding.

The male gaze remains the default setting for visual culture, with women’s bodies routinely objectified decades after feminists began protesting about this. Normal People can now be added to a too-short list of film and TV dramas that have a woman’s sexuality, complete with a troubling masochistic streak in Marianne’s case, at the fore.

But it is far from a didactic piece. Like Noah Baumbach’s 2019 film Marriage Story, it is committed to seeing the heterosexual relationship it describes from both male and female points of view. With episodes that are mostly less than 30 minutes, the series can either be rationed or binged on in a single six-hour stretch. It is not only superlative television, but a reminder of the symbiotic connections between the different arts. Without Sally Rooney’s novel, there would be no series. Has there ever been a time when we were in greater need of such works and the insights they offer?

Contributor

Editorial

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