'Normal People': Why we shouldn't romanticise flawed characters


Jenna Luxon comments on the adaptation of Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel and why we shouldn't romanticise flawed characters

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Image by Hulu & BBC Three, 2020

By Jenna Luxon

When BBC Three released their adaptation of Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel Normal People at the end of last month, I felt sure I wouldn’t get as emotionally invested with the series as I did with the book.

However, having now finished the twelve-part series starring Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, I can safely say I was wrong. Rather, I am now a shell of the woman I once was and have had to significantly up my fluid intake in order to counteract the dehydration of such relentless sobbing.

As a committed fan of the novel, I was anxious for the release of this series. While, if pushed, I would have to declare my official position as being in the ‘book was better’ camp, I loved this adaptation. If you’re feeling emotionally strong enough for six hours of pain and heartbreak, then I would highly recommend it.

Normal People is the story of two teenagers, Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron, who grew up in a small town in the west of Ireland. Despite coming from vastly different backgrounds and social groups, the two begin an unlikely relationship during their last? year at school. A relationship the book then follows for the next four years, seeing both characters through their time at university.

One of the greatest challenges for any adaptation of Normal People was always going to be the fact that so much of the plot occurs in the two main characters' heads. In fact, if you reach the end of the book or series and are left wondering if the entire plot could have been cut completely if Marianne and Connell were just open and honest with each other and themselves, then you are not alone.

This leads me to suggest that if you’re the kind of straight-shooter who tells everyone exactly how you feel about them and have managed to smoothly transition from adolescence to adulthood without a hiccup, there’s a strong chance this story will drive you insane. But if you lack these superpowers and are a mere mortal like the rest of us (yielding a chronic inability to say how to really feel) then this story will relate to you.

Marianne and Connell are two confused individuals, trying to figure out who they are and how that relates to the people and society around them. At the beginning we have Connell, an attractive, sporty popular boy who gets along with everyone by using that tried and tested technique of ‘if you don’t stand for anything there’s very little for people to object to’. While Marianne, strong in her convictions, exists as somewhat of a social outcast.

Their relationship serves to highlight the extent to which our identity is formed by those around us, that there’s a version of us alive in the minds of every person we know, and that each of those versions differ and are crucially different from who we think we are or perhaps who we’re trying to be. It is because of this that we see Marianne and Connell gravitate towards each other time and time again, as much as anything gravitating towards the person they are in the other’s mind and who they can be in their presence.

Normal People demonstrates how difficult forming and maintaining stable relationships can be, a task made all the more complicated in Marianne and Connell’s case by the complex power relations that exist between them. Marianne holds advantage by coming from a well-off family having the privilege, access and all-important cultural capital that comes along with it. While Connell holds power through his knowledge that Marianne has a far greater loyalty for him than he does for her.

These power relations, both in terms of broader societal structures and personal characteristics, develop throughout the story, and rear their head again in the two main characters’ sex lives; sex being another important theme in the story. Without getting into a deeper philosophical discussion of whether it is ever possible to separate sex from power, power play comes up repeatedly in the story both being shown in intimate, caring scenarios and in more harmful and problematic cases.

It would be impossible to cover all the themes this novel picks up on, but the main take away should be that it is more than a romance, something I hope is not lost in all the TV adaptation hype. It is important that we don’t let the physical depiction of these characters distract from the story they tell. Paul Mescal for example, stunningly beautiful as he is, is portraying a deeply flawed character. The social media response to Connell in the TV series, seems to have been largely a romanticised and hyper-sexualised version of him as the new teenage pin-up.

Instead, it would be nice if a complex character could be portrayed by an attractive actor without a crazed fandom ensuing. I have no problem with people fawning over Mescal himself, rather I am concerned when those feelings about the actor become conflated with the character. Connell is not a perfect boyfriend, and it's important we don’t make him out to be one. Connell is confused, deeply flawed, in many ways a very weak character who at points treats Marianne awfully (as she does him).

Marianne and Connell’s relationship is not there to be emulated or placed on some pedestal. It is at times unhappy, unhealthy and extremely dysfunctional, hurting them both. Romanticising these characters or their relationship, strips away all their complexity and all their reality. They are not supposed to be idolised; you are not supposed to fall in love with either of them. They’re flawed and broken and ordinary. They are not the new fictional love of your life, or the relationship model you strive for, they are normal people. That’s the whole point.