‘Normal People’ and the best page to screen chemistry casting

Life under quarantine means watching a surplus of television online, and like many others, I am currently obsessing over the BBC/Hulu coproduction ‘Normal People’ adapted from Sally Rooney’s novel of the same name.

Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal as Marianne and Connell in Normal People (Credit: BBC)

I was apprehensive when I heard the novel was being adapted, much as I loved the book. The story spans several years, focusing on the on-again, off-again relationship between Irish teens to twenty-somethings, Connell and Marianne. Through the years the two are constantly drawn to each other, but through miscommunication or rather lack of communication altogether, they find themselves drifting apart time and again.

The reason for my hesitation regarding the TV series was due to how much of the book tells the story in ways that cannot be shown onscreen; through though process and character observations. I worried a television version of Connell and Marianne’s would struggle to capture its intricacies, so integral to the story, or rather I wondered how it would attempt to do so without using the words Rooney employs. I needn’t have worried.

I am always protective of well-loved stories being adapted because so often their beauty on the page does not translate to the screen, but ‘Normal People’ is an example of how it can be done. The story does not have a wild plot… far from it. As the title suggests, it is just about two normal people and the relationship they have. But it is this very relationship that makes it so addictive a read. Sure, page and screen may have a different way of doing it, but get the relationship right, get the chemistry right, and it’s magic.

The chemistry between Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, the two lead actors, was electric, and I challenge anyone to tear their eyes away while they are on screen together. By contrast, this creates a dullness in scenes when they are with other people, and an eagerness in viewers to see them reunited, just as the author intended her readers to feel, so the series urges its audience to feel. And thank goodness it worked, for without the chemistry between Marianne and Connell, Normal People simply does not have a story to tell.

There is nothing better than when a relationship you’re so enraptured by in writing transitions so flawlessly onto the screen because let’s be honest… we all love stories that make us feel giddy, admit it or not. Here are two of my other favourite examples that excel at this in the same way.

Elio and Oliver, Call Me By Your Name

A book told largely through the obsessive thoughts of absolutely infatuated 17-year-old Elio was beautifully translated thanks to the skilful hand of director Luca Guadagnino. So much is made of the small moments that make up the large chunk of the story before the two get together that by the time it does finally happen, audiences brief a sigh of relief. Actors Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer did a terrific job of capturing the electricity between the characters of André Aciman’s 2007 novel, and the result is enchanting to watch.

Henry and Clare, The Time Traveller’s Wife

Unlike ‘Normal People’ but again as the title would suggest, the plot of this story is a far-fetched one. Rather than the extraordinary fact of time travel in the central character, Henry, it is his lifelong love with Clare that is the story’s focus. To create belief in a relationship so strong as the book did so masterfully, the film adaptation had to cast two actors whose chemistry went all the way, and boy did they nail it.

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