'Normal People' Author on the Pressure of Adapting Her Best-Selling Novel for Hulu

In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, first-time screenwriter Sally Rooney also opens up about why she avoids engaging in the discourse surrounding her work.
Hulu; Inset: Getty Images

When Sally Rooney was approached not only to turn her best-selling novel Normal People into a TV series, but to also try her hand at adapting it to screen — her very first time writing a screenplay — she couldn't say no. Besides, she tells The Hollywood Reporter, she thought that because "the book is basically arranged in scenes already, this is going to be an absolute breeze. There's so much dialogue, it's going to be fine."

But it turns out that her novel, about two Irish teens who embark on a deeply felt, on-and-off relationship in high school that lasts throughout their Dublin college years, isn't as easily adaptable as she thought it would be.

"Sitting down to write the scripts was like, 'Oh, my God, these characters never say what they mean. They never do what they want to do.' Half of the book is like, 'She said this, but what she actually was thinking was [this].' I mean, not in so many words, but that's a huge part of the book. It's about the disparity between your interior life and the external stuff that you project out into the world."

Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is a rich outcast, Connell (Paul Mescal) is a popular jock whose single mother is the cleaner for Marianne's family. They're both super smart, earning spots at Trinity College, and super bad at discussing their actual feelings.

"Connell is so taciturn, borderline sullen. He never says anything. He certainly doesn't show much tender affection toward this character who he clearly is in love with. And then Marianne can be so spiky, and also doesn't have many friends. So it's not that she's having these intimate conversations where she says, 'My feelings about Connell are X, Y and Z,' it's all internal," Rooney says.

That meant the success of the series wouldn't necessarily lie in the scripts, it would be dependent on the casting of the two lead characters. "It was a big leap of faith that we were going to find people who would just get it and would know exactly how to communicate that friction between the inner life and the outer world," she says.

Screenwriting wasn't necessarily something the acclaimed novelist, whose debut, Conversations With Friends, is now being adapted into a series by the same team, planned on attempting. But after many meetings with executive producers Ed Guiney, who served as showrunner, and Lenny Abrahamson, who directed the first six episodes (the others are directed by Hettie Macdonald), she felt encouraged to at least try.

"They felt that it would be helpful for me to at least give it a go. And their vision for the project was so interesting, and I was so excited about it, and I felt like if me having a really shoddy attempt at this is going to be helpful to them in some way, I'm happy to do it," she says.

So with the help (and technical expertise) of co-writer Alice Birch, Rooney got a crash course in writing for the screen. "From the beginning I wasn't very prescriptive when I was writing. I felt like if these lines end up getting delivered on the day, it's fine. I totally trusted Lenny, these actors get it, so I didn't feel worried, like, 'Oh, what if he doesn't deliver this line exactly as it's written on the page?' When you have that level of faith, then you can really relax a bit about the screenwriting. It's still obviously very important to try and structure the episode in a way that makes sense, but there's also so many other layers to the storytelling that you feel the script is just the basic block of that."

Below, Rooney discusses her experience learning how to write for the screen, the biggest changes from the book, news about her next novel and avoiding reviews.

Did you start writing the scripts before the book came out?

I didn't start working on the screenwriting until after. Publication in the U.K. and Ireland was in September 2018, so it was probably between that and the American publication, which was April 2019, that I started working on the screenwriting.

The book was critically well-received, does that give an added layer of pressure when you're writing the adaptation, or does it make you more determined to get it right?

It's all got a certain degree of pressure. To be honest, I don't really want to open myself to too much about what's being said about the show. And I felt the same when the book came out. I didn't want to read reviews. Even though it was all, as you say — I was really lucky. It was all so positive, almost all. So it wasn't that I was trying to hide my head in the sand and not read bad stuff about myself. It was just that I feel that being so exposed to how my work is received just isn't good for me as a human being or as a writer. And so I think with the TV show I'll maybe do a similar thing and try not to read too much about what's being said about the show and let it take its course. I hope that people will love it and see what I love about it. But I am not in control of that. So it feels like maybe you step back a little bit and let things take their course.

In an industry where there's so much importance placed on buzz, it's definitely interesting to think about to what degree that's helpful and at what point does it hinder you?

Obviously the the degree of buzz around a literary novel is never going to be — even the biggest one is still going to be a lot less noisy than the television show. But even for me, Normal People as a book was a lot in terms of the conversation that was happening around it, the discourse. But it's funny because I did interviews, and so those come out and then people feel that you are participating in the discourse. Which you kind of are, but you're not reading it or engaging in the feedback loop. I think that's what's important. So it's lovely to meet people and chat about the stuff that I've worked on. But I try not to expose myself to the write-up that comes later or tweets about the write-up that comes later.

Essentially, don't read the comments.

Yeah, exactly! Even if the comments are nice! It's just like, don't do it.

There's a lot on the page of a novel that needs to be conveyed onscreen, particularly tone. So how do you fundamentally translate that in an adaptation?

You can do things that as a novelist you can't do. Like, for example, when I'm writing, I always say, "he laughed, he smiled, she laughed, she smiled" — which, my characters are always laughing and smiling way too much — and then when I'm editing the book, they all just come out. No more laughing and smiling, because you can't just keep repeating yourself and saying that your characters are smiling, or frowning, or whatever it is they're doing with their faces. Whereas onscreen, if they want to smile they can smile, you can find it doesn't feel repetitive for them to smile at each other. Or glance at each other or look at each other across the room. They can do all those things without it feeling like I'm typing the same line again and again, "He smiled, he looked at her." Through characteristic looks and gestures you can build a sense of personality without using any words at all in a way that with a novel you have to toil a little bit to build up that impression of how it is that somebody inhabits physical space.

And any good romance needs a lot of meaningful looking at each other.

As a novelist, that is what I strive to attain. It's like, I have to work so hard to get my characters to look at each other so that the reader can be like, "Oh, that was a look." You can't just say, "He looked at her." That doesn't do the job. You need to build to that. Whereas onscreen, Paul can really just look at Daisy and it's like, "Oh, there's something there."

You're working on a new book. Are you also now thinking about something you can write directly for the screen, or adapting your first novel or the new one you're writing?

To be honest, when I'm working on a new project it kind of takes over my brain completely and I can't really imagine ever doing anything with my life ever again. I sort of believe that when I finish this novel, if indeed that ever happens, I will never write again. So for now it's just the new book and if that finishes — which, please God, it will — it's completely open as to what I will do next. I have no idea. It could well be screenwriting, adapting a 19th or 20th century novel that hasn't been adapted, or anything. I have no idea. Or it could be another novel, but at the moment it's the third one. And that's what I really hope is going to get finished.

How involved were you in the actual production process? What was it like to see something you'd created come to life onscreen?

I was very much kept in the loop, but it's so beyond my area of expertise that I was usually happy to defer to other people who knew better than me. I was seeing stuff and like, "Yeah, this looks great. Sure." I was very much kept involved and I was on set, and it's almost indescribably strange. I think it's actually so strange that after a time, I just stopped being able to experience it. It's like my brain has absorbed so much strangeness that I started being like, "This is normal." Things that I had in my head are now happening on the screen, a physical house has been designed that looks like the house that I imagined with the pictures on the walls, and people are moving through it who are playing the characters who I invented in my head. Like, "This is normal to me. I'm not freaked out at all." You're walking past the food trucks and the hair and makeup and it's just like, "Oh, my God. In a sense, all this work has been generated by an idea that I had in my apartment when I was working part-time in a restaurant a couple of years ago." Even trying to think about that would be destabilizing for me psychologically.

Are there any significant changes you made in the structure or content of the story? Did anything major change in this translation?

The broad contours of the story are very faithful to the contours of the story from the book. I think we felt from the beginning that this is the story that we want to adapt, so let's just keep it. But of course, you have to find new ways of telling that story. Because the techniques that the novel uses are not available to the show, but also because if you just want to replicate the novel exactly, beat for beat, why bother? You already have the novel, right? What's the point? So it was about trying to do this in a new way.

The story and the characters remained in tact, but our ways of dramatizing their relationship did change, and we had to make decisions about how to change that. Not in order to mess with the fundamentals of the book, but in order to actually preserve them. Like, if we if we try to stick too closely to the book, we'll end up with something that doesn't preserve the essence of what the story is about. So how do we use new ways of keeping what it is that we want to maintain about what the book was doing? Decisions certainly have to be made about, like, moving stuff, changing the timeline around and things like that. But it was all about being faithful to not only to my mission, but Lenny's vision and Paul's and Daisy's vision of who these people are and what their lives are about at this moment. We all kind of shared a read on what that was, so  we were all partners in trying to preserve that, whatever that is.

How do you think the ending of the story, at least in the book, will translate to a medium where people often expect closure?

The whole team really wanted to preserve the spirit of the book, and the ending is part of that. I was told not to give spoilers, but you can go into a bookstore and check for spoilers anytime you want! But vaguely speaking, I think we did want to do something kind of challenging and to not necessarily wrap things up in a conventional way. That's what I was trying to achieve in the book and that felt most honest to who these characters are, and also the stage of their lives — because they're still so young at the end of the book, it felt like to put too much of a closed ending on that would be dishonest about what your life is really like when you're 22. So the team working on the TV show all felt like we needed to preserve the spirit of that. Which is not to say that it necessarily follows it to the letter or whatever, but to preserve the spirit of the ending.

The series uses a lot of music cues from the '90s and early '00s. What kind of input did you have in that?

That is something I was fascinated by from the beginning, as to how it would go. Obviously I wasn't supervising that on a micro level, but I was really interested from the start. When I write books, something that I do — you may say to procrastinate, or you could say it's an important part of my creative process — I make playlists for my characters. And so while I was writing this book, I was making playlists. I was thinking about what Marianne and Connell will be listening to, and what music would be playing while they were at a party or whatever. Sometimes in the book there's even references to what song is on the radio.

I was acutely aware, even as a novelist where it doesn't necessarily come naturally to the text of the book, that music has a very strong emotional power to inflect the tone and feeling of a theme. Sometimes as a novelist I get frustrated that I can't just be like, "Before you read this scene, go to Spotify and just let it play softly in the background while you read." So the music cues, as you said, there were unexpected choices in there and I think they're really interesting. They inflect usually what the read of those scenes is. And again, it's part of the whole collaborative process of putting together a TV show — so many people make decisions that end up being part the storytelling in a huge way.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Normal People is available to stream in full on Hulu.