Conversations with Friends, the critically-acclaimed debut from an Irish writer falls short of the sky-high parameters set by its unofficial TV prequel. Normal People, the emotionally and sexually intimate tale of schoolmates’ on-again-off-again romance rekindled was one of the best shows of 2020. Streamed on BBC during the first UK lockdown, the electricity of first love and refreshingly real sex made it an instant and memorable hit. Viewers were just as hooked by Connell’s chain as they were by the straightforward but elegantly told plot.
Conversations with Friends on the other hand struggles to capture the viewer as the literally-superior Rooney novel fails to translate into the 12-episode TV adaptation set out for it. Exactly like its award-winning predecessor in font, style, and structure, you’d be forgiven for thinking Conversations with Friends was a sequel. Set in Ireland, with Dublin University students at its centre, featuring another European trip, and set to a beautiful soundtrack, the formulaic approach is unforgivable for a book much more suited to a deeper 6-parter.
A harder sell, Conversations with Friends also has a far more complicated premise. With a quadrangle of love affairs between two students and an older married couple, the show transcends the clear-cut sexuality, innocence and appeal set out by Normal People’s Marianne and Connell. In Rooney’s debut, life is more complicated and realistic, and as age, class and sexualities collide, it is much harder to follow.
Conversations with Friends follows protagonist Frances (Alison Oliver) and her best friend and ex-lover Bobbi (Sasha Lane), as they manoeuvre life as Dublin University students. Soon enough we meet author Melissa (Jemima Kirke) and her ‘trophy husband’, actor Nick Conway (Joe Alwyn). By the end of Episode 1, our four main players are together, sitting around a table having dinner in the couple’s beautiful home outside the city. A perfectly imperfect asymmetrical foursome.
Soon enough, the seemingly faultless life of Melissa and Nick soon is torn apart and re-examined as the self-proclaimed communist students invade their home and their marriage. And it’s not just capitalism that gets undercut in the process. As their lives become more and more tangled, the plot gets messier and murkier.
Frances, a self-doubting and at times self-loathing, 21-year-old who seems and acts much younger soon develops a crushing infatuation on the (cue the mysterious and handsome Nick. A feeling we soon learn is much requited by Nick, for a reason so inexplicable in the show I’d advise anyone wanting to watch to read the book first, the two begin an affair which irrevocably changes their lives.
Where Normal People was full of raw, hot and intimate portrayals of sex, Conversations with Friends is a slow-burner featuring glimpses of slightly awkward shagging and one Francis Bacon-esque scene of jumbled naked bodies. Like Bridgerton’s Season 2 representing a much less steamier Regency-era London than it did in Season 1, perhaps directors are deciding TV is not where the British population should be getting their sexual hit, regardless of how much sex sells.
A slow-burner full of meaningful glances and longing looks, Conversations with Friends makes most viewers want to throw something at their screen with the level of painful miscommunication. With a psychological softness to the characters and their almost adamant refusal to speak in full sentences, let alone have full conversations, the audience can often be left dumbfounded by some of their decisions. My mother had to strain her eyes to read most of Frances conversations with her friends, which were largely over text. And she had missed most of them by the time she found her glasses.
Whereas the book features paragraphs upon pages of detailed thoughts and conversations, the TV adaptation often feels as staged and scripted as it certainly is. Whilst Sally Rooney, known for her masterful balance of everyday detail with life-defining moments, explains every thought, feeling and look in her debut novel, the BBC adaptation often fails to match that. The characters are often unreadable, aloof even. But Rooney’s story, with a lucid lick, still manages to transport the audience into the young yearning minds, hearts and souls of her characters. At times.
And there are beautiful moments in Conversations with Friends. The pure friendship between Frances and Bobbi binds the entire show together and is by far the most convincing relationship in the series. I smiled when Bobbi slipped a packet of ibuprofen under the bathroom door as her friend struggled with period pain in her bathroom, or later stripped her (very unsexily) and ran her a bath when she felt sick.
And in a stark contrast to most fiction, these characters don’t forget to eat, drink, dress, travel, shop and think. Whilst the attractive cast and prepossessing scenes leave behind some reality, the awkward behaviour and inexplicable wordlessness at least make the audience feel something, even if the intended result was meant to be slightly different.
The show, which focuses on love, friendship and sex, also dives into deeper issues of depression, endometriosis, self-harming and alcoholism. Nick and Melissa’s candour about their failing marriage, careers and mental health is bracing, if nothing new. Not even the show’s beating heart, the insufferably wired Bobbi, escapes the shallows of life’s everyday hardship: “I’m just a normal person, I’ll find my own way.”
Just as Normal People was anchored by beautiful performances by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, newcomer Oliver carries Conversations with Friends with her anxious lip-biting and eyes full of pain. The only Irish actor in the main quadrangle, her Dublin education and writer aspirations makes you ask whether Sally Rooney just writes herself in all her novels. But I’m not complaining.
In the BBC Three adaptation, Lane’s Bobbi, who retains her American accent and Kirke’s Melissa, now English, de-Irish the story without much conviction. But what Irish tilt is missing, they make up for in enigmatic and charismatic performances that outrank their other halves by quite a way.
But the best performance comes from London-bred Joe Alwyn, the incredibly private boyfriend of global pop sensation Taylor Swift. With an Irish accent so slight every word sounds a little bit British, he captures the sexless sexiness of Nick without speaking much. Simple and unsophisticated, his charm, or lack thereof, helps us relate to all the characters at once. It’s, by all means, a career-defining role that will make dodging the paparazzi even harder.
Perhaps because Rooney had no official role in the series production, unlike with Normal People, the show just doesn’t have her lyrical touch. Perhaps not reduced to our homes and our families, we are no longer as starved of sex and connection as we were during lockdown. Or perhaps some books, however brilliant, are just too tricky to translate to TV.