Sally Rooney has risen in popularity following the release of the adaptation of her book Normal People in 2020. The show was a huge success, streamed over 62 million times, making it BBC Iplayer’s most successful show of that year. All this cumulated in a huge sense of anticipation for the BBC’s adaptation of her debut novel Conversations with Friends, however following Normal People was always going to be a challenge, and everything that made that first adaptation a success seemed to be lacking the second time around.
they were plagued by miscommunication, and this added realism and made their story so compelling…
Conversations with Friends tells the story of two university students, Frances and Bobbi played by Alison Oliver and Sasha Lane, who spark up an unlikely relationship with a married couple, Nick and Melissa played by Joe Alwyn and Jemima Kirke. We see how the dynamic of these two friends, who used to be romantically involved, is brought into conflict as they both find themselves magnetised to opposing members of the marriage. The story is driven by coy and unassuming Frances who is drawn to actor Nick, and we focus on the development of their intimacies, with questions on the ethics of monogamy and what it truly means to love someone.
Relationships are a central focus of Rooney’s work, and what made Normal People such a hit was the undeniable chemistry of Connell and Marianne, the sense of electricity that ran through every scene in which they were together and the manner in which they were drawn together is what captured so many audience members. Their relationship was not smooth, it was not idealised, instead, they were plagued by miscommunication, and this added realism and made their story so compelling.
It almost felt perverse to watch these individuals attempt to carry an empty conversation
This formula was unfortunately not replicated in Conversations with Friends, the evident chemistry that drove the narrative of Normal People seems to have been thrown by the wayside and instead replaced with stunted dialogue and uncomfortable silence. This left nothing at stake, and I found myself lacking any care for the fate of these characters, it was replaced with a feeling of intrusion. It almost felt perverse to watch these individuals attempt to carry an empty conversation. Where Normal People retained my attention for hours on end, I was slow to make my way through Conversations with Friends because of this feeling of discomfort.
The show does have positives and was not a complete disaster. Frances as a protagonist holds many similarities to Marianne, and I think as a character she shines. Sally Rooney writes this type of personality excellently, and both times this has translated very well on screen. Knowing this is Alison Oliver’s first big role is exciting, as the way she captured the vulnerability and naivety of Frances was probably my biggest highlight of the show, and I hope this offers a kickstart to her career as she is a huge talent. There is a tenderness to the scenes involving Frances and Bobbi, particularly as the series progresses that makes it worth sticking with despite its slow pace, however, I don’t think it is enough to redeem the show to the point where I would actively encourage watching it to others.
the way Normal People captivated so many during lockdown with its transparency and humility set up anything that had to follow with an impossible task
Maybe where Conversations with Friends falls is the unavoidable comparison to Normal People. Stylistically the two shows are very similar which of course comes from the fact they are both Sally Rooney adaptations. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if my disappointment with Conversations with Friends is a symptom of my sheer love of its predecessor. There is a feeling that the way Normal People captivated so many during lockdown with its transparency and humility set up anything that had to follow with an impossible task.
It hurts me to be so critical of a TV show that stemmed from a book I love so dearly, and I can’t quite put my finger on why the spark between Nick and Frances did not translate onto the screen in the same way that it did with Connell and Marianne. After the response to Conversations with Friends, it will be interesting to see if there is an adaptation of Rooney’s third book Beautiful World, Where Are You. My instant reaction is that the BBC should perhaps take a break, I think the small timeframe between Normal People and Conversations with Friends prompted the comparison and consequently the negativity. The show did not effectively satisfy the expectations that were set and perhaps offers evidence that you can in fact have too much of a good thing.