The problem is that Rooney’s signature writing style doesn’t always transcend the screen. As “Normal People” has done before, the adaptation of its debut novel, “Conversations With Friends,” faces the challenge of emails and inner musings being completely uncinematic (not to mention nearly impossible to describe without overreliance on storytelling). The former miniseries partly overcame the hurdle by exploring the dynamics of her central relationship through sex scenes choreographed by an intimacy coordinator – an approach revisited in “Conversations With Friends”, but with less hit.
The new series, which premiered on Sunday, weaves a tangled web of romance between University of Dublin students Bobbi (Sasha Lane) and Frances (Alison Oliver) and a slightly older married couple, writer Melissa (Jemima Kirke) and actor Nick (Joe Alwyn). Bobbi and Frances, ex-turned-BFFs who perform poetry together, find themselves drawn to different halves of the couple — Bobbi to Melissa, Frances to Nick. In the book, flirtatious email exchanges between Frances and Nick, who are both established as socially awkward and uncomfortable in group settings, eventually lead to them having an affair. On screen, this happens almost immediately.
“Conversations with friends”: if sleepy, you better take a nap
Regardless of whether Rooney truly speaks for her generation — she’s earned plenty of comparisons to Lena Dunham, whose ‘Girls’ character proclaimed she was “at least a voice of a generation” – the writer undeniably flourishes as a “psychological portraitist”, to borrow an expression from an old New Yorker review. She makes shrewd observations about the flippant absurdity of how millennials can think, such as when Frances, after a risky interaction with Nick, is relieved to see him send her a message in all lowercase letters: “It would have been dramatic to introduce compounding at such a time. tense moment,” she says.
Much of Frances and Nick’s relationship takes place online; for readers, many of whom are millennials with an innate understanding of the hidden meanings behind a specific grammar or syntax, the recognition can be rewarding. Rooney also builds Bobbi and Frances’ backstory through snippets of their IM history. At one point, Bobbi tries to decipher the concept of love as “like a system of social values”. At another point, Frances claims that Bobbi is “attached to this view of me/as having some sort of undisclosed emotional life/I’m just not very emotional”, every time she presses play, ironically, like a catch of his breath.
“Conversations With Friends” seems to rely more on digital communication than “Normal People”, lending to an adaptation that strays further from its source material. In the novel, Frances jokes that she looks forward to an email from Nick because “I like getting compliments where I don’t have to make eye contact with the person”. The on-screen Frances doesn’t really have a choice, lest the show evolve into a series of scenes in which she stares at her phone (of which there are already too many).
That’s not to say “Normal People” hasn’t faltered at times, despite the best efforts of actors Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal. Their characters are also driven by a neuroticism that Rooney details painstakingly on the page, but it doesn’t quite translate into some scenes. In the series, for example, it appears that Connell (Mescal) and Marianne (Edgar-Jones) split up for seemingly no reason when he returns home for a summer instead of staying in Dublin.
But the spark between Edgar-Jones and Mescal makes up for whatever the storytelling lacks. If Oliver and Alwyn were such a strong couple, perhaps “Conversations With Friends” would have circumvented the pitfalls of adapting Rooney. But their lack of chemistry, coupled with the lack of explanatory messages, instead leads to confusion about why Nick would care about Frances, and vice versa.