Normal People: From Sally Rooney bestseller to BBC drama - How it was adapted for TV

Sally Rooney's bestselling book Normal People is coming to the BBC with a cast that includes Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal. Discover how it was adapted into a 12-part drama here.

By Sophia Moir Published: 20 April 2020 - 12.20am
Waterstones/BBC/Element/Enda Bowe

It’s arguably the biggest and most highly anticipated book-to-TV adaptation of the year.

And there’s not long until die-hard fans of Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel Normal People can watch the 12-part BBC Three series, which is landing as a full box set on BBC iPlayer.

Starring Daisy Edgar-Jones as Marianne and Paul Mescal as Connell, the adaptation - which has been directed by Oscar nominee Lenny Abrahamson - follows the tender but complicated relationship of two people from their school days to their university years in Dublin.

But what were the challenges of adapting a New York Times bestseller? How were the roles of Marianne and Connell cast so perfectly? How were the sex scenes and inner monologues adapted for television? And how was author Sally Rooney involved in the whole process?

Speaking to BT.com ahead of the show’s launch, the cast and crew of Normal People reveal how they adapted it from New York Times bestseller to a BBC drama.

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Normal People Marianne and Connell BBC/Element/Enda Bowe

Adaptation challenges: ‘We wanted to do the book justice’ 

There’s no guidebook to adapting novels into TV shows and films. Whilst some adaptations are very loyal to the source material - the first season of Game of Thrones, for example - others use the book more as a springboard, like The Stranger, which changed a number of key elements in its Netflix adaptation.

But while it’s fair to say that Normal People is loyal to Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel, the team did experience some challenges during the adaptation process.

One of the biggest challenges that came with adapting Normal People was the pressure and the expectation that came with making it for television, given that the book has been labelled the ‘literary phenomenon of the decade’.

“Adapting any novel that has a huge following and huge expectations, I guess we were all really conscious on some level of doing justice to the book," Normal People producer Emma Norton explained.

"But we had Sally in the process so we knew that we were keeping the quality of the book.” 

Another challenge that came with adapting Normal People was how to approach the timeline, as fans of Sally Rooney’s novel will know that the story jumps between the years quite a lot.

Director Lenny Abrahamson (Oscar nominee for Room) explains that they ultimately opted for a primarily linear timeline.

“We initially felt that we were going to follow Sally in that shifting timeline, but in the end the adaptation was more direct, we were in the present tense most of the time with a few occasions where we shifted around a bit,” he said.

Normal People Director Lenny Abrahamson Getty
Normal People Director Lenny Abrahamson

Sally Rooney and Alice Birch - who worked together to adapt the book into a television script - also expanded on certain moments in the book, embellishing them into bigger scenes in the TV show. 

An example of this is when Connor [Paul Mescal] calls Marianne [Daisy Edgar-Jones] crying after the Debs - the Irish equivalent of the prom. In the book, Connell calls her but Marianne deletes the message, so she never hears it - and nor does the reader. But in the TV series, we see Connell’s side of the call for the first time - a scene that doesn’t exist in the novel. 

Producer Emma Norton explains: “I think what Sally and Alice were really good at doing in the process were finding little moments in the book that sometimes might have just been a sentence, and expanding it out into a full, sometimes very emotional scene. In some respects it may seem different to the book, but almost everything in the show has some little origin in the novel.”

The next challenge was arguably the most important one yet - casting the two leads, Marianne and Connell.

Casting Marianne and Connell: ‘Paul and Daisy felt like the perfect evocation’

With over one million copies of Normal People sold, some viewers will be coming to the BBC Three adaptation with visions in their heads of what Marianne and Connell look like (no doubt in thanks to Sally Rooney’s vivid character descriptions).

As producer Emma Norton explains: “The key challenge was that people invested in the lead characters, because they were who you were going to spend all your time with.”

Speaking about the casting process, Director Lenny Abrahamson says that he, the casting directors and Sally were looking for two "very special actors" who were able to take Sally’s "beautifully drawn, nuanced and three dimensional" characters and bring them to life on screen. 

Abrahamson explains how they cast Irish stage actor Paul Mescal, in his first major TV role as Connell.

“Paul was one of the first self-tape [auditions] that we watched for Connell, and he really had mastered that character, he had a feeling for the character, for the character’s mixture of masculinity with uncertainty and tentativeness. 

“It felt like he came from the right place, rooted in very Irish… definably from the sort of world Connell was from.”

Normal People Connell BBC/Element/Enda Bowe

In casting Marianne, they were looking for someone who brought depth to the character.

“I think we’ve all seen the conventional version of the tricky, abrasive, clever girl in the class, but with the context of this, we wanted a pretty naturalistic and truthful version of the story," Abrahamson explained.

“We needed someone who brought depth to that, and Daisy really did. She’s just got this beautiful ability to be difficult as the character needs to be but also tremendously wide open at the same time.”

The team also had to consider how the two actors worked together, as they share the majority of their scenes.

“We did a lot of different chemistry reads [with] combinations of people, and it was Daisy and Paul, both separately and together, that felt like the perfect evocation of Connell and Marianne," said Abrahamson.

“It is interesting, people do have very strong pictures from the novel, but after a while, when you watch these two [actors] on screen, it feels harder and harder to think of Marianne and Connell outside of Daisy and Paul, which is a great result.”

Normal People Marianne BBC/Element/Enda Bowe

Daisy Edgar-Jones, who you may recognise from playing Olivia in ITV’s Cold Feet and Emily in Fox's War of the Worlds, also felt that she really understood the character of Marianne.

“As I was reading as Marianne, I felt so connected to her as a character. I fell in love with her," she said.

"It meant the stakes were very high when I was auditioning for her because I felt like I really wanted to tell her story, and I felt like I was right for it actually, which doesn’t happen very often. Usually it doesn’t happen, so I can’t believe it actually did!”

Working with Sally Rooney - from coffee catch-ups to accent inspiration 

As the author of the original novel, Sally Rooney was involved in all aspects of the adaptation process from book to BBC. Producer Emma Norton explains that prior to filming, Sally wrote the first drafts of the first six episodes, then she co-wrote the final six episodes with Alice Birch (Lady Macbeth, Succession).

Once the script was complete, Sally was involved in casting ‘every step of the way’ - including having her say on who she wanted to play Marianne and Connell - and she remained involved throughout the filming process.

Working in America at the time, Sally was sent regular rushes - unedited files - of scenes the team had filmed that day, before weighing in on episodes during post-production.

Normal People author Sally Rooney Getty
Normal People author Sally Rooney

Speaking to Vanity Fair, Rooney admitted that bringing her characters to the screen had been an exhilarating process, while the adaptation process also allowed her to experience the collaborative nature of a television project.

“It’s so interesting as a writer of novels to be like, ‘Now there’s a whole team of people who are creative, who have their own interests.’ Whereas, as a novelist, the only thing that rules is my whims,” she admitted.

“The idea of collaborative process is just so new to me. Really new and really different and it’s not necessarily something I ever gravitated towards.”

Daisy Edgar-Jones, who plays Marianne, agrees that Rooney trusted the filmmakers to adapt her novel. 

"Sally was very good at giving over her creative baby that is Normal People to Lenny and all the filmmakers," she said.

"She’s a novelist first and foremost so she was like ‘I trust you as filmmakers to do this’. Which I think is amazing, I don’t think I’d be able to be so free with my work, I’d be like ‘You have to do everything right!’.”

Of meeting Rooney for the first time, Edgar-Jones says excitedly: “She was really brilliant, I’ve only met her three or four times. I met her for the first time at the [script] read-through. She was so lovely. She was like ‘this is mad!’ and I was like ‘yes this is mad, I hope you like me!’. But she’s just so cool. She’s really wonderful.”

In fact, Rooney was more of an inspiration to Edgar-Jones than just writing the character of Marianne. Edgar-Jones, as a London native, watched countless video interviews of the Irish author’s ‘measured and articulate’ accent to help her perfect Marianne’s Irish accent.

Normal People Marianne BBC/Element/Enda Bowe

“I watched Sally Rooney interviews religiously for a long time [for accent inspiration], so I’m a bit of a super fan now! She’s from Mayo and she’s so intelligent, she’s got such a measured and articulate way of speaking and I really found that useful as Marianne has such a unique voice.”

Paul Mescal also met with the author for a coffee in Dublin a month or so after he’d been cast as Connell. His most nerve-racking coffee yet, he recalls.

“It was strange because I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous going for a coffee, because you’re going to sit in front of somebody who has a far greater understanding than we will ever have of these two people. 

“You’re trying to sit in front of her and not try to impress her, but you’re just like ‘Please give me your blessing!’. But she was incredibly generous, and she did give me her blessing, which is amazing.”

Translating the characters’ inner monologues from book to screen

A lot of what happens in the novel happens in the characters’ minds, with Marianne and Connell - often separated by distance - having lingering thoughts about each other long into the days and night.

There are various ways inner monologues have been adapted for films and TV shows previously, with some films adopting a character voiceover to convey inner thoughts and feelings to the audience. 

Normal People Director Lenny Abrahamson has adopted this method before. A voiceover was added into the film adaptation of Room that he directed, based on Emma Donoghue’s bestselling novel.

But while Abrahamson admits that they probably did talk at some point about voiceover in adapting Normal People for television, they never really went down that route. 

Instead, some of the inner monologue is adapted straight into speech between the two characters, or more generally, their feelings are alluded to through body language.

Normal People Marianne and Connell BBC/Element/Enda Bowe

“I think it’s a testament to Sally and Alice’s writing in the adaptation that those hints are still there, there’s enough in what’s happening in the dialogue, and flow of the sequences, to give you that," said Abrahamson.

“We do tend to say ‘It’s easier to get in people’s heads in a book than it is on screen’, because in an obvious sense you can just tell people what someone’s thinking [in a book], but actually we are very good at doing it [in real life]. 

“Our whole lives are about understanding each other, how we hold ourselves, what we do facially, and so it’s remarkable about how much is just present in a face.”

The team also used certain filmmaking techniques to try and break down the barrier between the audience and the character, including using a lot of close up shots to capture the intimacy of the novel.

“A lot of what happens [to Marianne and Connell] is so in a way small, but the meaning on the characters’ lives is so huge, so you need to go and really pay attention to the detail and the small shifts of emotion and power," Abrahamson added.

“We chose close-ups that felt like you [as the audience] were really leaning in to see what was happening, but still felt like you were observing, rather than being too theatrical and stiff and conventional. The aim was to always think about how we could get people as close as possible emotionally to the story.”

One character who has a deep internal monologue in the book, but doesn’t actually say a huge amount, is Connell. Paul Mescal said that he re-read the book a lot - and in turn, Connell’s innermost thoughts and feelings - to really try and get a sense of how Connell’s brain works.

“The first time I met Sally, she said ‘He’s a very difficult character to write in a television setting, because he doesn’t actually say a huge amount’. In the book, she’s obviously able to give him this internal monologue, and I think it was just about constantly referring back to the book," the actor explained.

“That’s what’s captured nicely in the book as well, that he doesn’t speak a huge amount when it’s not necessary, especially without Marianne being there - she’s his sounding board. It was about trusting that I had understood how his brain and mind worked, and not trying to make that a display, or show what he was thinking a lot of the time.”

Adapting the sex scenes with an intimacy director 

Some of the strongest and most memorable moments from the book are the intimate and complex sex scenes between Marianne and Connell, which are described so wonderfully by Rooney. 

Abrahamson and the lead actors have taken what’s at the heart of those sex scenes and made them feel even more intimate on screen. That is partly thanks to the show’s on-set intimacy director, as the team hired Ita O’Brien - the same intimacy coach who worked on Netflix’s Sex Education.

Both of the lead actors in Normal People are relatively young - Daisy is 21, and Paul is 24 - with little to no experience of filming sex on screen, but it does feature prominently in the book.

Normal People Marianne and Connell BBC Three/YouTube

Showing how much the filming industry has changed over the years, Daisy and Paul both now feel very strongly that they wouldn’t feel comfortable working without an intimacy director on future projects that involve filming sex scenes.

Edgar-Jones says animatedly: “It was wonderful [having Ita on set]. It was amazing. I can’t imagine doing anything like that without one. She was such a brilliant person to have on set and it meant that those scenes became quite positive, actually really positive, for Paul and I. 

“They’re so, so integral to the book and we wanted it to feel like we did them justice in the series because they say so much about their relationship and I think Ita just allowed us to concentrate more on the acting beats while she focused on the choreography, and also the safety of both of us, and our comfortableness in the scenes.”

First-time TV actor Paul agrees. He says not only does the experience for an actor suffer without the hiring of one, but the work suffers too. 

“I’ve obviously got no experience of those [sex] scenes prior to it, so it’s something that I’m really grateful that I’ve encountered at the start of my career because I couldn’t imagine doing a job without it [an intimacy director] going forward. 

“On a political level, I’d be saying that it should be necessary. I just can’t envisage a way for it to be possible [without one] and also I think the work would suffer both for actors and for audiences if intimacy co-ordinators weren’t involved. I think the work is better as a result of an intimacy co-ordinator, so it’s a big thumbs up from me.”

Normal People Marianne and Connell BBC/Element/Enda Bowe

Director Lenny Abrahamson admits he had concerns about how it would work before they started filming, but it was such a positive experience for him too that it’s a role he’d now recommend to other directors.

“I was worried about it to start with, thinking ‘is this someone who’s going to get in between me and the actors?’ and that’s a worry, but actually we all found it liberating," he said

“Ita’s got a great way of working, a great way of introducing the whole topic of intimacy to the crew and the cast, and finding ways of working that’s empowering and positive for everybody. It meant in a way that we had real certainty that the actors were comfortable with what we were doing.

“I think if it was just me and the actors, especially with the younger actors, I would worry that they would want to do what I wanted to do, because they would want me to be happy. I think that would stop me from asking, because I would think ‘Well I don’t want to have to make that decision, if it’s not a comfortable one for them to make.’ 

“With Ita, she had a structure for talking about these things which allowed everybody to be involved. By the time we ended up shooting some of those scenes, there was a very positive atmosphere on set. I would highly recommend that role for shoots where there’s a lot of intimacy, it really is very healthy.”

Normal People will land as a complete boxset on BBC Three on Sunday, April 26.

It will also air on BBC One from Monday, April 27 at 9pm with weekly double episodes.

Catch up on Normal People with the BBC iPlayer app on BT TV.