I’ll admit I felt nervous when I began the limited TV series Normal People. With the book garnering only three flames, I had little confidence that I would enjoy the show. I had to watch it though, right? I mean this is the hottest thing happening in TV at the moment — figuratively and literally. (I saw one headline that said it is the thirstiest thing we need right now.)
So I threw out my reservations about the adaptation. I tried to forget my negative thoughts toward the novel and the depressed feelings it evoked from me. I tried to not be swayed by my past experiences, which tell me that books are always better than their adapted screen versions. I took Normal People — TV versus book — toe to toe.
Round 1: Characters
This category can be thought of in two ways. First, you have the likability factor. Lon Hammond in The Notebook is much more likable in the movie than in the book, largely thanks to the charm, good looks, and kindness of James Marsden. But does that mean the movie’s characters as a whole are better? Not necessarily. The likability of movie Lon, for example, makes movie Allie kind of a jerk. Likability doesn’t tell the full story.
Second, you have the creator’s characterization. Which medium better explores the individuals and brings their qualities, thoughts, and feelings to the consumer? Characterization can easily be the best thing about a book or the worst. For this toe-to-toe matchup, let’s investigate the latter.
One of my biggest gripes with the book was that I didn’t truly understand Connell and Marianne or their relationship with each other. Nothing drives me more mad than when I can’t pinpoint someone or something when I’m reading, and that happened with this novel.
In the show, though, I got the clarity that I so desperately needed while reading the book. Connell’s anxieties and fears slowly showed themselves through his actions and trepidation toward Dublin and Marianne. And her feelings of unworthiness and how she acted on them could be deciphered. I could also better see why it took them a long time to actually try a full-fledged relationship, as well as how they had helped each other over the years. Their relationship and the pull toward each other simply made sense. The unnecessary abstraction in the book was cinematically simplified in a poetic way that didn’t make the characters less complex. They just had a complexity that made sense.
Round 2: Plot
No matter the art, if plot doesn’t blow you away or strike up a conversation, it’s probably not serving its purpose. Sometimes plot can be overshadowed by other writing techniques or qualities, but if it simply isn’t good, the rest of the art will fall flat. It’s the foundation for everything.
As I mention above, the novel’s plot was never quite clear. Just have a relationship already! Perhaps because the show provides a better understanding of the characters and their vulnerabilities, I could better discern their back-and-forth, which is really the entire plot.
While reading the book, I kept waiting for something to happen so I could grasp the whole point of it. That never became known. And then, at the end, I don’t just get a cliffhanger, I get absolutely ZERO closure. It’s not just a matter of what the heck will happen to these people; it’s quite literally “umm what just happened there?” The show provides answers, and even if they’re not completely laid out with clear endings, I can at least see where things are headed and why. I can understand that not everything has a definitive ending or future. Finally, the show gave me some closure.
Round 3: Narrative
If you’re asking how this is different from round 2, don’t worry; I had to google this to make sure my initial thoughts were correct. I also know I have used plot and narrative interchangeably in the past. My apologies, readers. While plot is sort of the sum of the parts and the what, the narrative provides the structure of the story and the how. Think of it as the path to get to the plot. And let’s just say Normal People‘s path is quite windy and turbulent.
Parts of the book lost me because it kept going back to the past before fast forwarding to the present. I’m not totally blind to this technique. Author Sally Rooney wrote this technique to represent the characters reflecting on how he or she got to the present moment. OK I get that, but I still got lost sometimes!
This is where the visuals of a show have an innate advantage because it too incorporated the structure. It was just easier for me to see rather than consume through words. It’s possible too that because I read the book, I already understood the timing of certain events.
OK this round may give the show an unfair handicap, but it wins nonetheless.
Overall winner: Show
After reading my review of the book and now after reading this toe-to-toe matchup, you’re probably wondering how the novel even received three flames. I see your point. I mainly notched it up to average because of its points about mental health and because I could not put it down (I could never deny a book that power).
The show, though, had those qualities and then some. Overall, I’d rate the show four flames. It kept me intrigued from episode one, and there were a couple of nights where I stayed up way too late because #onemoreepisode.
A theme that runs through all three rounds of this matchup is a lack of clarity versus closure: book versus TV show. The latter rounded out the parts of Rooney’s original that left me befuddled, and I truly felt connected to the narrative, plot, and characters because that clarity shined through. Let’s not forget the incredible acting on the show too. Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal were phenomenal, and I hear some Emmy and GG bells ringing for these two.
However, I would be remiss if I did not mention my biggest grievance about the show: Nobody — and I mean nobody — has that much skill during their first kiss or first time having sex. Nobody is that spectacular. Let’s hear it for accurately representing awkwardness!