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Tips for Adulthood: Five Reasons to Watch Normal People

On occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood. It’s rarely the case that I prefer a film adaptation to the actual book.  But when I...

first loveOn occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood.

It’s rarely the case that I prefer a film adaptation to the actual book.  But when I recently watched the BBC/Hulu mini-series, Normal People, I found myself revising that opinion.

Don’t get me wrong. I really liked Sally Rooney’s book on which the series is based. It’s about two Irish teenagers, Connell and Marianne, who meet in High School and carry on an on-again, off-again romance throughout university. Rooney’s a young, super-talented author who is only heading upwards. But I don’t remember loving the book.

I did love the mini-series. I’m not alone. Since first airing on the BBC iplayer, the series has shattered BBC 3’s record for downloads, more than doubling its previous record (which was for the not-too-shabby Killing Eve).

I *do* recommend that you read the book first. It’s actually fairly different in tone to the series. (New York Times book critic Dwight Garner aptly likened the book’s feel to Rachel Cusk’s sparse style, whereas the TV show has a dreamier quality). But as soon as you’ve finished reading, I suggest that you drop everything else you’re doing and get thee to this TV series.

Here’s why:

a.  First love.  I can’t remember the last time I saw something that so perfectly captured the feel of first love. The tentativeness. The desire. The shifting power imbalances. The uncertainty. The delight. We never really recover from the scars of falling in love the first time, or from its exploratory feel. The first few episodes of this show will bring you straight back to that moment in your life and cause you to re-live it all over again.

b.  Melancholy.  When I was growing up, we had a pillow on our sofa with a quote from the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. It read “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy which sustained him through occasional periods of joy.” This series is so terribly Irish. Even the happier moments are laced with an undercurrent of melancholy. And some of the plot is downright dark. I think the only time the sun shines throughout the entire 12 episodes is during a brief scene in Italy one summer.  That worked for me; I like that feel-bad feeling. It’s more realistic.

c.  Sex.  Much has been of the explicit nature of this series. And there is a lot of sex. But it is beautifully rendered and an integral part of what draws the two central characters – both misfits, in their own ways – towards one another. One critic wrote that “the series is very conscious of sex as an expression of character, so it never felt like sex for sex’ sake.” That’s exactly right. The sex scenes don’t feel exploitative. You almost feel protective of the space, because you know that it’s one of the few places these two lonely young people get to be 100% themselves.

d.  Family.  A friend once observed that when you enter into a serious relationship, “You’re basically just waiting to find out what’s hanging on a hook in a refrigerator in the other person’s basement.” That may be a tad extreme, but my friend was onto something. Connell has a loving and devoted single mother. But you can’t help but wonder about the absent father and how far that goes towards explaining Connor’s underlying insecurity and depression. And although the darkness surrounding Marianne is never fully explained, a lot of it stems from a family marked by rage, fear and unspeakable sadness. While I couldn’t relate to Marianne’s desire to experience physical pain, I could relate to the ways in which family culture shapes our approach to everything we do. In some ways, the book is about how falling in love can help heal the wounds of childhood, and that really resonated for me.

e.  Acting.  The two young lovers are played by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal. And they are absolutely fantastic. I recently learned that a chain Connell wears around his neck in the show has its own Instagram account, replete with its own “Hashflag” on (Google it!) on Twitter. Personally, I think Marianne’s ring deserves equal love, but that hasn’t gotten much play so far.

Did you ever find yourself enjoying a film adaptation more than the book? Share in the comments.

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