Credit: The Atlantic

From the page to the stage: capturing the essence of books in screen adaptations

By Divya Venkattu

Divya explores what is gained and lost when translating between different mediums: literature and cinema/television.

*Spoiler alert*

Content warning: Suicide

My standard response after watching several adaptations of great books has long been: “The book was better.” However, the 2020 series Normal People served to challenge that view by being nearly as good as the book and there are many reasons to love this book-turned-series. From its brilliant casting and the intense chemistry between the lead actors, to its convincingly vulnerable equation to the colour palette of each frame and camera lens zooming in to convey intimacy, there is a lot of meticulous detail that seems to have gone into the making of this television show.

Normal People is the story of Marianne and Connell, a story of young love, hurt and healing. What elevates it from a conventional coming of age narrative are the layers of complexities Sally Rooney, the novel’s author, employs in characterisation and the broader themes she chooses to interrogate. Marianne and Connell, from the outset, do not belong to the same social circles. At school, Marianne is the outcast, she is brilliant, outspoken and ostracized. Connell belongs to the echelon of popular kids, who also turn out to be bullies, although he is not a bully himself. From an economic perspective, the lovers are worlds apart, with Marianne hailing from a wealthy family and Connell having a traditional working class background. The differences in their respective lifestyles and experience of the education system subtly manifest.

Being an ardent fan of the book and Rooney, I took a skeptical stance when I first heard it was being adapted for television. This is because historically, movie and series adaptations have failed when it comes to capturing the essence of the much-loved source material. One exception is Gone Girl. The novel, a crime thriller by Gillian Flynn, is a fantastically written page-turner. An engrossing feature is how the chapters alternatively present married couple Nick’s and Amy’s perspective infusing several plot twists, and how with every new piece of information, your judgment as a reader fluctuates. I remember first watching Gone Girl, alone in a room, being hooked from the first scene, and feeling literally cold by the climax. What the film adaptation managed to do right was choose the most adaptable scenes from the novel and breathe nuanced life to such loaded words. One particularly unforgettable sequence is the “cool girl” monologue, where Rosamund Pike delivers a vitriolic-in-tone but smooth-in-delivery narration about how most straight men want the kind of girl who casually adopts his personality while dissolving her own, who adheres to certain weight expectations, watches a certain kind of movie, has no qualms with his habits and lifestyle – all of which supposedly make her “cool girl”.

I have seen people rave over male characters written by women, as they are often crafted with a lot of emotional maturity, not hesitating to reveal their vulnerabilities. Contrastingly, female characters written by men have been abysmally poor, often objectified, sexualised and romanticised to suit and solely serve the needs of the male characters in novels (think of the reductive Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope). While there are outliers on both sides, there is evidence enough that this has largely been the case. In relation to Normal People, Sally Rooney fulfils this in her character of Connell. I was taken aback by just how vulnerable, flawed and real he is.

Throughout the novel, Connell is shown to be a conflicted character, often acutely aware of himself and his surroundings. For example, he knows when his ‘popular’ friends in school display bullying tendencies. He knows that he himself is being a terrible person for asking Marianne to keep their affair a secret, only because he wants to protect his social reputation. Connell’s struggles at college deepens his character arc, opening up a highly emotional side, and on screen this is given such charge by Paul Mescal, evoking real empathy from us. He feels lonely when he moves to university, his social proclivities changing with the new place and setting. In a later episode, when his school friend commits suicide, Connell feels guilty and depressed. He attends therapy, but for him (and for many of us), the company of a best friend really helps. In Marianne, he finds a confidante, someone he grew up with and has loved deeply, someone who will always be there for him. On watching the series, I really appreciated the way Connell was carefully depicted: his breakdowns, his apologetic behaviour for past mistakes and his truly loving, sensitive nature.

Conversely, Nick Dunne of the female-authored Gone Girl is an interesting, if vastly different, male character, because he is the bad guy, in a sense. Neither Nick nor Amy are the kind of characters you can grow fond of. While she is a psychopath (with cause), he is a cheat. The ways in which their toxic marriage unravels is effectively portrayed in the movie, within the setting of a crime thriller. The actors and gloomy cinematography capture with finesse what’s between the lines, setting a permeating mood of distrust and deception.

Ultimately, books and movies are vastly different mediums and both contain varied elements that allow different levels of audience engagement. It is admittedly difficult to capture the essence of a book, and even more so, to create a film as succinct as the writer’s prose but as vivid as readers’ imaginations. But sometimes everything just comes together, from casting to direction and editing, to make a book-turned-movie an irresistible watch.


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