Normal People: How the Hulu Show Differs from Sally Rooney’s Novel

When it was published in 2018, Sally Rooney’s Normal People was everywhere: on Instagram, on the subway, in airports, and on coffee shop corners. A sparse, brainy exploration of millennial-era connection and heartache, the novel follows prickly Marianne, a high school outcast, and popular Connell, whose mother works as a cleaning lady for Marianne’s family. Over the course of the story, the two enter a secret relationship, break up, reunite in college, break up again—you get the picture. The book was an instant hit, with Rooney’s uncanny ability to make an entire generation of readers feel seen and understood, earning her the moniker of the millennial soothsayer.

So when BBC Three and Hulu ordered a 12-episode television series based on the book, suffice it to say that expectations were high. With the show’s U.S. release date—April 29—right around the corner, many a Rooney fan has been anxious to know whether the series will do its source material justice.

The short answer right off the bat: resoundingly, emphatically, yes. Faithfully adapting a book for TV or film is always a challenge, triply so when—as in Normal People—the story exists largely inside the characters’ heads. But directors Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald manage to keep the screen from swallowing up Connell’s and Marianne’s inner lives. From the emotive cinematography to the expertly curated soundtrack, they refuse to let a single audiovisual cue go to waste. And though putting more words into their mouths might have undercut both protagonists’ tendencies to brood, the writers’ decision to bulk up the dialogue between the two actually pays off—each time Connell or Marianne turns to the other to express otherwise-hidden feelings, the contrast between their central connection and either character’s other relationships is sharpened.

Ultimately, though, the series really works because of Daisy Edgar-Jones’s and Paul Mescal’s respective breakout performances as Marianne and Connell. Both Edgar-Jones and Mescal can communicate an entire world of emotion with the dart of an eye, and they are often called upon to do so. The result: a stunning visual treat that preserves the subtlety of its source material.

Still, certain slight yet key differences remain between the book and the series. If you want the full breakdown before committing to a full season of streaming fare, read on.

Spoilers for the book and series follow.

Marianne’s Appearance

First thing’s first: Daisy Edgar-Jones is pretty. Like, really pretty—stunning, even. And, look, the book makes it clear that Marianne isn’t exactly homely; even in high school, where she is an outcast, her bullies are quick to remark that she cleans up nicely. But it’s a little hard to believe that Edgar-Jones’s Marianne is seen as some awkward freak when she’s the most beautiful girl at her and Connell’s school, and by a significant margin. The book is also quick to point out that Marianne puts no effort into making herself look “nice,” instead dressing plainly and eschewing makeup. On the show, though, her frilly bralettes and subtle eyeliner tell a different story.

Perhaps in part because of this, the show also undercuts Marianne’s transformation from teenage pariah to popular university student. In the book, when Connell first encounters her at Trinity, he is amazed to find her in her element for the first time since he’s known her—but in the show, she is just as pretty in college as she was in high school, and just as bored with her newfound popularity as she was with her adolescent isolation.

The Sheridan Family

Marianne’s difficult (read: abusive) home life figures heavily into the novel. Her deceased father used to beat both Marianne and her mother; for her part, Marianne’s mother is cruel and neglectful, frequently belittling her. Her older brother, Alan, is a bully whose aggressive outbursts culminate in a stunning act of violence toward the end of the novel.

In the show, Marianne’s mother is still cold, and Alan is still aggressive, but the stakes have been lowered. Though Marianne confides in Connell about her abusive father, she says that he hit only her mother, never her. Marianne’s mother remains distant, blithely unconcerned with Alan’s abusive behavior, but she never stoops so low as to insult or harangue her daughter herself. Marianne’s home life is still fraught, to be sure, but there are glimpses of affection between Marianne and her mother that are wholly absent from the book. The result: Marianne has a far more difficult time explaining the extent of her family troubles to Connell, and even the audience may not fully understand just how volatile her home life really is until close to the end of the series.

Connell’s and Marianne’s Other Relationships

Normal People—the book, as well as the series—might as well be called The Connell and Marianne Show: Their relationship is the crux of the story. Still, the book also devotes a considerable amount of space to both characters’ relationships with other people, both romantic and not, whereas the show spends far less time on characters who exist outside our central couple. Connell’s relationship with Helen, for instance, gets fleshed out quite a bit more in the book, enough for us to learn that Helen is a bit of a prude and that Connell sees the traits Helen brings out in him as some of his best qualities; these insights are absent from the series. In Sweden, Marianne’s BDSM-flavored involvement with Lukas crumbles only when he tells her that he loves her. The series flattens out both of these dalliances quite a bit, even changing the circumstances of Marianne and Lukas’s breakup: In the series, each auxiliary love interest exists primarily as a foil to Marianne and Connell’s core relationship.

This streamlining extends even beyond romantic subplots. Connell’s nonconsensual encounter with Miss Neary, his former teacher, is reduced to an ambiguously discomfiting nightclub necking session; whereas in the book, Marianne says she’ll kill Miss Neary if she ever goes near Connell again, in the show, Marianne never even hears about it. And Marianne’s complicated relationship with her best friend, Peggy, is pruned down to just a few particularly awkward encounters; among them, Peggy’s proposition of a threesome to Marianne and Connell. The series largely elides the codependent, slightly cruel nature of their bond.

Truth be told, however, unless you’re particularly attached to any of these side characters in particular, you’re unlikely to miss them until after the fact. The pacing flows all the better with their absence, and the central dynamic between Marianne and Connell benefits from the extra screen time, particularly since the series necessarily takes us outside their heads and deprives us of their inner monologues.

The Inner Workings of the Mind

Perhaps the least surprising difference, as previously mentioned, is that the series lacks the intense interiority of the novel. This isn’t exactly surprising; barring incessant voice-overs, there isn’t much a filmed adaptation can do to replicate the introspectiveness of the written word. But to reiterate, the craftsmanship of the show—from the lead performances to the music cues—helps bridge that gap. But without that up-close view of two brilliant young minds firing on all cylinders, it’s a lot easier to see Connell and Marianne for what they are: two young kids struggling to better understand themselves and each other as they take their first steps into adulthood. It’s infuriating to watch—and it’s also intensely relatable. Who among us hasn’t wondered if saying the right thing would have gotten that person to stay, or how things would have turned out if we’d gotten the chance to reconnect with an old flame?

Ultimately, the show works for the same reasons the book did: because it’s a strikingly (and often embarrassingly) relatable portrait of millennial young adulthood. And for the most part, the changes made in the transition from page to screen only heighten that sense of familiarity. At its core, Normal People is, in both its forms, a story about understanding—between Marianne and Connell, yes, but also between the author and the audience.

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