BBC’s Normal People: how does episode 1 compare to Sally Rooney’s book?

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The BBC Three TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, is available to stream from Sunday 26 April. But is it as good as the book? One writer watched the first episode to find out. Beware: spoilers ahead.       

Everybody – and I mean everybody – has been talking Sally Rooney since the publication of her debut novel, Conversations With Friends in 2017. Rooney’s distinctive, fresh, generation-defining writing led to The New York Times calling her “the first great millennial author”. While I don’t entirely agree with such a bold claim, I am big fan, along with Zadie Smith, Taylor Swift and half of New York.

But when I first heard about the BBC adaptation of Rooney’s s second novel, Normal People, I was apprehensive. 

As the book was only published in 2018, I didn’t get a chance to mentally cast the characters – a little game I like to play – before the lead roles of the TV series were announced. And, as with many books I’ve finished over the last year, I still find myself reflecting on what I took from the story. It just felt too soon, like the book hadn’t had time to breathe.

But the thing is that Normal People isn’t a normal book.

The coming-of-age story about love, displacement and class won the Costa Novel Award 2018, the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 and the Dylan Prize 2019. It was also long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2018 and named Waterstones Fiction Book of the Month in May 2019. It’s basically a huge deal with a lot of hype.

So, if any new author was getting the BBC Three treatment – it of course had to be Rooney. But can the Normal People adaptation really be as good as the book?

What is Normal People about?

OK, for those of you who have been living under a rock (seriously, sort it out), here’s a very quick recap of the story: Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) are two students from two different worlds. Marianne is the unpopular but incredibly smart girl who lives in a big house, while working-class Connell is the sports captain who keeps his love for books from his friends. But the two come together – and fall apart – over five years, moving from their home town in Sligo to college in Dublin. 

What happens in Normal People episode one?

The first episode only takes us up to page 20 of the book. Rooney was heavily involved in creating the show and you can really tell: there’s no rush, it takes its time. We’re first introduced to all the ways Marianne and Connell are different.

Normal People.
Normal People: Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal).

At school, Connell puts his head down while his friends make fun of Marianne. We also see the class disparity when Connell picks up his mum (Sarah Greene) from Marianne’s house, where she works as a cleaner. And it’s clear that Connell has the support of his mum and friends, while Marianne lives a pretty solitude life.

But, thanks to perfectly scripted dialogue and shots of those snatched glances and longing stares, it’s clear they are fascinated with each other – and we learn that their shared academic talent, love for reading and college ambitions actually unite them.

Marianne tells Connell that she likes him. After kissing, he asks her to keep it a secret and she agrees. (Yes, this is just as infuriating to watch as it is to read.) The episode ends with the pair planning to spend the night at Connell’s at the weekend.

Does the Normal People TV show follow the book?

What makes Rooney’s writing so distinctive is the dialogue. It’s nonchalant yet self-conscious, whip-smart but vulnerable. So fans will be pleased to hear that a lot of the lines are word-for-word used in the script, and the characters awkwardly deliver them in the mumbling Irish lilt that you read in your head. 

The school, the village, the football match where Marianne realises how “beautiful” Connell is – they’re all exactly how I imagined. 

However, one important theme that the first episode explores a little differently is Marianne’s relationship with her abusive brother Alan. Although he’s clearly a bully (teasing her for having no friends, making her walk in the rain), he doesn’t physically hurt her like he does in the first few pages of the book. It’s obviously a highly sensitive issue, so it will be interesting to see how they continue with this.

Is Normal People any good?

YES. I’m almost embarrassed about my initial apprehension. Edgar-Jones and Mescal have been perfectly cast, and the chemistry reminds me of that first awkward love. I’m excited to see how they continue to capture the characters so well on the ups and downs that I know are ahead. 

Images: BBC

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Hollie Richardson

Hollie is a digital writer at Stylist.co.uk, mainly covering the daily news on women’s issues, politics, celebrities and entertainment. She also keeps an ear out for the best podcast episodes to share with readers. Oh, and don’t even get her started on Outlander…