July 14, 2020

To work on TV, Normal People had to differ from the book


Who would you cast to play yourself in the biopic of your life? The thought is prompted by a New York Times article this week in which that newspaper’s TV and book critics shared their views on Normal People, including whether the staging and casting, particularly of Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) were “too beautiful” and therefore deviated from the spirit of the original.

As the article points out, there’s an inevitable upgrade that occurs when characters make it onto the silver screen. It’s most obvious when you compare real-life figures with their dramatised versions. Éamon de Valera was no Alan Rickman. In her portrayal of the young Elizabeth II, Claire Foy was conspicuously free of the long Windsor upper lip so beloved of Spitting Image caricaturists.

Shifts of emphasis, tone and effect are inevitable in the transition from one medium to another

But when it comes to literary adaptations, who’s to judge how faithful a translation has been? Setting aside for the moment the dubious proposition (apparently shared by Normal People’s production team, whose mantra was “the book is the bible”) that such fidelity is even desirable, how do you quantify the accuracy of filmed interpretation of a literary text?

The answer, thank God, is you can’t. But what you can do is observe how shifts of emphasis, tone and effect are inevitable in the transition from one medium to another. Some shifts represent deliberate creative choices by those doing the adapting. Others are baked into the culture and history of filmed drama, a primarily (pay attention at the back of the class) visual and non-verbal medium.

‘Repulsive’

You can see both of these factors at work simultaneously in Normal People. Take, for example, the New York Times article’s suggestion that, in the early episodes of the series, Marianne is not as “repulsive” as described in Sally Rooney’s book. This immediately raises the question of who’s defining her as repulsive (her horrible schoolmates) and what that actually means when you represent it visually. They may not wish to hear it but, for all their craft and intelligence, on that score the programme-makers veered very close to taking the same approach as a host of American high school dramas, where the ugly duckling is transformed into a swan by simply swapping her glasses for contacts and unplaiting her hair.

More interesting, perhaps, is the sense that the narrative as a whole has been softened in its transition from page to screen, with Marianne in particular shorn of some of her spikiness and contrariness. Parts of this is are clearly due to screenwriting decisions (some of them presumably by Rooney herself, who co-wrote the screenplay) which avoid or elide some moments in the book when Marianne’s actions are less conventional or sympathetic.

Others are intrinsic to the medium itself – we’re all conditioned by years of watching mainstream filmed drama to want to empathise with the characters on screen and make their story our own. Filmmakers encourage this, with the close-up their most powerful weapon. Try to imagine Normal People without its close-ups.

Sensuous

Ultimately, though, you can’t get away from the fact that much of what has made the series so successful – its languorous narrative, sensuous cinematography, dreamily downbeat soundtrack and evocative locations – is many miles removed from the emotional tone of Rooney’s novel.

Even if the series is softer and sweeter than the book, none of this necessarily detracts from its quality

“It almost felt like a much older person’s evocation of youth – so glamorous and heightened,” wrote Parul Sehgal in the New York Times. “The novel is very arid by comparison, the prose practically anaesthetised.”

She has a point. It’s noticeable how much of the enthusiasm for Normal People the TV series has been expressed by people who are considerably older than the characters it depicts. A subset of these fans will confess to not having particularly liked the novel, which, whatever else it may be, is less a nostalgic evocation of young adulthood than a drily forensic dissection of its disappointments, dead ends and tribulations.

Even if the series is softer and sweeter than the book, none of this necessarily detracts from its quality. I can’t think of another episodic drama made in Ireland by Irish filmmakers that rivals it in quality and execution. A feature of contemporary film and television drama is that the majority of the stories we see are adapted from other material. Perhaps Rooney’s less-is-more prose offered an ideal framework on which to hang first a screenplay (which itself is just a blueprint, after all) and then a finished drama in a way which would have been more difficult with a more detailed or emotionally flowery text.



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