The Normal People Series Is As Devastating As We Had Hoped
I need to retract a statement I made earlier.
When asked four months ago, when news first broke of the television adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People, I said, rather defiantly, that I would not be watching it. I said I didn’t want it to ruin my experience of the book. I said that if the characters looked different to how I’d drawn them in my head that I’d be devastated. I said, in not so many words, that I’m a purist.
Clearly I was full of shit.
Isn’t it funny how little we know ourselves? I mean, in what (!) world (!) was I not going to watch it?! And not only have I watched it, I’ve devoured it. I’ve sobbed into my bed sheets over it. I’ve started listening to Imogen Heap again because of it.
Normal People recently aired on Hulu in the States, on BBC in the UK, and on TVNZ On Demand here in New Zealand. The series was made by Ireland’s Element Pictures, with Rooney serving as both a scriptwriter and executive producer, and centres on the complicated relationship between two friends and lovers, Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal), from a small town in the west of Ireland. But that doesn’t tell you much. Not really. I saw someone on Twitter say that Normal People, “will make you horny and sad, and then happy, and then sad again.” Which is a much better description. In fact, I probably should have just published that tweet and wrapped this thing up.
I had some prerequisites for what the characters had to look like: Marianne had to be worryingly small in stature; she had to have the fragility of a bird that you were constantly scared was going to have her wings clipped or stood on. Especially in the presence of her C-U-Next-Tuesday of a brother. Connell’s beauty had to be subtle and not translate all at once, but rather reveal itself over time. He had to be handsome in an unconventional way. It was merely a bonus that Paul Mescal had the kind of blue eyes that I could write a six-thousand word dissertation on. And just as an aside: isn’t it funny how on the right guy a chain necklace is unbelievably sexy, but on the wrong guy you feel like you’re dating Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems?
Just like the book, Normal People explores topics like sex and anxiety as they exist for young adults, at times graphically but always delicately. The score and soundtrack was perfect, and added another layer that the book couldn’t. It made you uncomfortable in the silence when Marianne or Connell refused to say anything. It built frustration in the missed moments and mis-read signals. And it procured sympathy when either one of them made a fundamentally bad decision. Songs like “Hide and Seek” by Imogen Heap. “Only You” by Yazoo. And the devastating “Dream Baby” by Elliot Goldenthal and Elizabeth Fraser, which was the only song to feature on episode 7 and might make you want to spend a week in bed.
There’s this article from The New York Times that I sometimes think about called ‘The Case For Melancholy”. In it, the author argues that sometimes it’s okay to sit in the grace of a deeply-tinted blue mood, which is distinctly different from the disease of depression, because it generally leads to self-reflection and some kind of mental steeping:
“It is fine to indulge in the cloudy charms of melancholy: to watch a sad black-and-white movie or to be swept away by the wind making a sound that Truman Capote described as a grass harp. Should melancholy descend, you may as well welcome it, wear your finest lounging outfit; give it your finest fainting couch or chaise to lounge in, or that hammock stretched between two elm trees. Let it settle in.”
We’ve been homebound for six weeks now, which means the aforementioned “blue mood” will have hit each of us at a different point, and probably more than once. When I was watching Normal People, sobbing or holding my breath or staring at the wall as the end credits played, I felt okay about slipping into that melancholy. It kind of felt nice. Like lowering yourself into a warm bath. Breathing out.