The internet can be an intense place to communicate. Stripped of volume and perceptible tone, every word seems to hold more significance than it would in-person. Each punctuation mark carries extra weight. Sally Rooney, the Irish novelist whose “Normal People” was adapted into a Hulu miniseries two years ago, understands the digital anxiety that can plague young people in times of conflict.
Once deemed “the first great millennial author,” she is keenly aware of how a generation’s woes impact the way its members perform life online. She writes fraught love stories that live across platforms. Her characters, who struggle to communicate, find relief in emails and texts. Their internal monologues relay what they cannot say aloud to each other. The problem is Rooney’s trademark style of writing doesn’t always transcend to the screen.
As “Normal People” did before, the adaptation of her first novel, “Conversations With Friends,” faces the challenge of emails and inner musings being uncinematic, not to mention difficult to depict without an overreliance on narration. The former miniseries overcame the obstacle in part by exploring the dynamics of its central relationship through sex scenes choreographed by an intimacy coordinator, an approach revisited in “Conversations With Friends,” though to less success.
The new series, which premiered Sunday, spins a tangled web of romances between Dublin college students Bobbi (Sasha Lane) and Frances (Alison Oliver) and a slightly older married couple, writer Melissa (Jemima Kirke) and actor Nick (Joe Alwyn). Bobbi and Frances, exes-turned-best friends who perform poetry together, find themselves drawn to different halves of the couple – Bobbi to Melissa, Frances to Nick.
In the book, flirtatious email exchanges between Frances and Nick, both of whom are established as socially awkward and uncomfortable in group settings, eventually lead to them having an affair. Onscreen, it happens almost immediately. Regardless of whether Rooney truly speaks for her generation – she has earned plenty of comparisons to Lena Dunham, whose “Girls” character proclaimed she was “at least a voice of a generation” – the writer undeniably thrives as a “psychological portraitist,” to borrow a phrase from an early New Yorker review.
She makes shrewd observations about the casual absurdity of how millennials may think, such as when Frances, after a risky interaction with Nick, is relieved to see him message her in all lowercase letters: “It would have been dramatic to introduce capitalization at such a moment of tension,” she narrates. Much of Frances and Nick’s relationship unfolds online; for readers, many of them millennials with an innate understanding of the hidden meanings behind specific grammar or syntax, the recognition can be rewarding.
Rooney also builds Bobbi and Frances’s backstory through excerpts of their instant messaging history. At one point, Bobbi tries to decipher the concept of love as “as a social value system.” At another, Frances claims Bobbi is “committed to this view of me / as having some kind of undisclosed emotional life / I’m just not very emotional,” each time she hits enter reading, ironically, as a catch of her breath.
“Conversations With Friends” seems to rely more on digital communication than “Normal People,” lending to an adaptation that strays farther from its source material. In the novel, Frances jokes that she looks forward to receiving an email from Nick because “I like getting compliments where I don’t have to make eye contact with the person.” The onscreen Frances doesn’t have much of a choice, lest the show evolve into a series of scenes in which she stares blankly at her phone (of which there are already too many).
This isn’t to say “Normal People” didn’t falter at times despite the best efforts of actors Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal. Their characters are also driven by a neuroticism Rooney painstakingly details on the page, but that doesn’t quite translate in certain scenes. In the show, for instance, it seems as though Connell (Mescal) and Marianne (Edgar-Jones) break up for seemingly no reason when he returns home for a summer instead of staying in Dublin.
But the spark between Edgar-Jones and Mescal makes up for whatever the storytelling lacks. If Oliver and Alwyn were as strong a pairing, perhaps “Conversations With Friends” would have skirted the pitfalls of adapting Rooney. But their lack of chemistry, coupled with the absence of expository messages, instead leads to confusion over why Nick would bother with Frances, and vice versa.
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