Matthew Bell learns how Sally Rooney’s acclaimed Irish novel Normal People was reworked for the small screen
It is no exaggeration to say that Sally Rooney is one of the biggest names in contemporary literature. Her debut novel, Conversations with Friends, and its follow-up, Normal People, have won literary prizes and been fixtures in the bestseller lists. Now Normal People is set to entrance TV audiences at a time when they are confined to the home and most in need of a telly treat – and facing a dearth of new, high-end drama.
In Connell and Marianne, who move from small-town Ireland to university in Dublin, falling in and out of love, Rooney has created a truly modern couple. “As a story of a first great love, it’s something that everyone can relate to, from all cultures and all backgrounds,” says Ed Guiney, co-founder of Irish producer Element Pictures, which has adapted Normal People for the BBC and Hulu.
Nevertheless, he adds, “there is a specificity about the place – it is absolutely set in Ireland now. When people think about Ireland, it’s often of oldfashioned things, such as the dominance of the church or maybe the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
“All these things, as a modern European country, we’ve left behind. Ireland has changed hugely in the past 20 years – it has seen massive social and legislative changes. The book is born in that world; that’s Sally’s world.”
Normal People marks a rare foray into television for Lenny Abrahamson, who appreciates the extra time the small screen offers a director “to go into depth and detail, and to give the audience a proper encounter with characters”.
In recent years, Abrahamson has enjoyed huge success in movies. Room, about a woman held captive for seven years, received Oscar nominations for best film, direction and adaptation, and won its star, Brie Larson, the 2016 Best Leading Actress award.
Despite the devotion that Rooney’s novels have generated, Abrahamson was sanguine about filming Normal People. He points out that Room was based on Emma Donoghue’s critically acclaimed and much-loved novel of the same name: “You can’t go into a project with trepidation; you have to approach it as a great opportunity. You have to believe, if you approach it honestly and with skill and sensitivity, that you will do justice to the book.
“One of the reasons Ed and I were so keen to adapt the novel is that we know this culture; it’s where we come from.”
Like Rooney – and the novel’s protagonists Marianne and Connell – Abrahamson and Guiney went to Trinity College Dublin; indeed, they knew each other before university. “We didn’t go to school together, but we were in the same sort of circles as teenagers. We’d find each other at parties and chat, very often, about films,” recalls Guiney.
The pair set up a society at university, the Trinity Video Company, and made short films. Years later, Guiney and Andrew Lowe founded Element, which produced Abrahamson’s movies Adam & Paul, Garage and Room. “It’s been the most important professional relationship of my life, never mind friendship,” says Guiney.
“When I talk to other film-makers, they are always envious of this longstanding, really solid relationship with a producer of Ed’s creative ability and industry standing,” adds Abrahamson.
Guiney continues the story: “When Normal People came up, we were determined to get it. We felt we were the people best placed to adapt it. Luckily, we managed to convince Sally.”
Element took the book to the head of BBC Films, Rose Garnett, in spring 2018. The corporation snapped it up. “The BBC green-lit the series on the basis of the book and Lenny’s interest in making it,” recalls Guiney. “That was an absolute green light – there was no sort of conditional development process.”
The following year, Guiney, Abrahamson and Rooney pitched Normal People to the US broadcasters and streamers, signing a deal with Hulu.
Rooney wrote drafts for the first six episodes and then handed the baton to Alice Birch, who won Best Screenplay for Lady Macbeth at the 2017 British Independent Film Awards. Birch wrote all but one of the remaining parts – episode 11 was penned by Mark O’Rowe (who wrote Boy A).
“Every time I got on the Tube, someone was reading one of Sally’s books – I couldn’t think about it too much or I’d have been too scared to make a start on it,” says Birch.
Her approach to adapting Normal People was to “stay as close to the characters and to the feeling of reading the book as possible. There’s very little that’s invented or moves away from the novel – I imagine people would be furious if there was.”
At the end of this month, the 12-part Normal People (each episode is 30 minutes long) is being released in one go on the web-only BBC Three and shown in weekly instalments, in the same manner as Fleabag and Killing Eve, on BBC One. It is also being streamed on Hulu.
“Binge watching is such a huge thing and even more so now [with the coronavirus outbreak], but I was thinking more about it as half-hours, as opposed to a six-hour beast,” says Birch.
“In those half-hour episodes, [audiences] want to feel they’ve been told a complete story but also be left wondering what’s going to happen next. Equally, some people will want to eat the whole thing up, so I was also conscious of that.
“Most people I spoke to who’d read it – and that was certainly my experience – had swallowed [Normal People] whole.”
Casting proved a lengthy process. “We needed the right people to play Connell and Marianne – they are two such distinct and fascinating characters,” says Abrahamson. “And then, there’s that ineffable demand for chemistry between these two people.”
Irish stage actor Paul Mescal was one of the first to audition. “He rose to the top of the list and stayed there,” recalls the director.
Eventually, after a trawl around the English-speaking acting world, Londoner Daisy Edgar-Jones (Gentleman Jack) landed the part of Marianne.
Normal People was filmed mainly in County Sligo and Dublin, with brief shoots in Italy and Sweden. Abrahamson shared directing duties with Hettie Macdonald, who helmed the 2017 BBC One adaptation of Howards End.
As one of the series’s executive producers (with Rooney, and Element’s Ed Guiney, Emma Norton, Andrew Lowe and Anna Ferguson), Abrahamson was involved creatively throughout the project. “The director is often brought in too late in the process, when a lot of decisions have been made, and that doesn’t make for the best adaptation or screen experience,” says Guiney.
“To Lenny and I, who come from a film-making background, it seems crazy that you don’t foreground a film-maker in the birthing of a project such as this.”
Element Pictures also holds the rights to Rooney’s first novel, Conversations with Friends. “The world is in a state of crisis at the moment, so it’s hard to predict anything. But, all things being equal, we’d like to start shooting it before the end of this year,” says Guiney.
Birch, too, is on board and already working on the adaptation: “[Normal People] was one of my happiest working environments. It feels lovely and a source of great comfort in these times to be working on Conversations.”
Initially, Guiney and Abrahamson saw Conversations with Friends as a film rather than a TV series, but the experience of making Normal People clarified their thinking. “The way Sally writes demands that you spend time with her characters – they really benefit from deeper exploration,” says Abrahamson.
“Conversations and Normal People are seminal Irish novels and their reputation will endure for a long time. It’s a great privilege to be part of bringing them to the screen.”