Translating words into images- the case of Sally Rooney’s Normal People

Translating words into images- the case of Sally Rooney’s Normal People

[Written by Bianca Callegaro (she/her)]

[Photo by Blaz Photo on Unsplash]

Adapting written stories for the big (or small) screen is never a straightforward process. The production’s task to translate another artist’s story into a visual world evoking that narrative is rarely easy to put into practice. This act of transposing a story into a different medium often generates debate, with the audience and critics alike sharing controversial opinions on the success or failure of the filmmaker’s interpretation. Indeed, what can we consider to be a good screen adaptation of a novel? Is it its faithfulness to the source material or, on the other hand, a different creative and interpretative take on the written narrative? The power of literature seems indeed to reside in the margin for imagination: it is through ellipsis, through omission that the reader builds the storytelling atmosphere, giving faces and shapes to the words assembled by the writer. In Immortality, Milan Kundera states that in recent times there has been an attempt to adapt everything that was ever written into films, TV programs and graphic novels: “What is essential in a novel is precisely what can only be expressed in a novel, and so every adaptation contains nothing but the non-essential.” To ‘protect’ novels, he claims, books need to be written in such a way that they cannot be adapted or, in other words, so that they cannot be retold.

In Normal People, Sally Rooney makes great use of ellipsis and omission, already evident in the chapters’ titles indicating the passing of time between each episode in the story. Indeed, absence and presence continuously alternate and intertwine in the relationship that develops between the protagonists Marianne and Connor, and the time gaps purposefully underline this contrast between progression and regression in their feelings. Therefore, the novel appears to respond to Kundera’s stance on essentiality, as this is achieved through a condensed, almost telegraphic form. Its simplicity and minimalism work to further amplify the writer’s take on universal feelings of love, pain, and difficulty in communication, ultimately producing an essential depiction of what it means to be human, particularly in your 20s. Especially striking to me was the effect of such stylistic choices, as they remarkably underline how the lack of communication and sincerity between Marianne and Connor produced an initially imperceptible, then growingly-present deterioration in their relationship. It is precisely through the unsaid, through the vague sketch of feelings expressed in between the lines that readers can be immersed in the story’s universe in a rather active way, by creating their own imagined version of the story, both in a narrative and in a descriptive, visual sense. This could be said of many novels, however in Normal People it appears to have a specific, intentional function in the storytelling process. By completing the characters’ outlines through one’s own imagination, by filling in the gaps in the narration, readers are prompted to juxtapose their own take on the story. Filtering it through their own feelings and experiences, they are as a matter of fact creating a parallel version of Normal People, therefore resulting in a more personal, intimate interpretation of Rooney’s words.

To achieve this sense of relatability in a screen production is significantly more challenging, as the freedom for viewers to imagine the setting and characters is greatly reduced. The moving image already contains the narrative and visual ingredients for a story to take place, hence the viewer appears to be relegated in a passive role, that of (marginal) gazer. Although for viewers it might be more difficult to identify with the format provided by the TV series, the BBC’s own take on the novel Normal People strikes me as a successful adaptation, as it manages to capture that essentiality the book is so remarkable for. This familiarity is firstly achieved through the dialogues, as the screenplay closely follows the cinematic-like writing of Rooney, sometimes directly quoting parts of the text. However, speech is not the dominant component in the series. Underlining once more that the unsaid is precisely what leads to misunderstanding, silence becomes a recurring motif in Normal People and accounts for the (almost) total lack of soundtrack music, which on the most part is only present in the end credits of each episode. Yet, the most striking aspect of the televisual adaptation is indeed its ability to create a highly relatable and plausible setting, in which the remarkable cast of characters realistically enact the raw emotions that characterise their (and our, as viewers) experience of youth. Without distancing itself from the original source, the series succeeds in expressing those unspeakable feelings that are so universal and normal, ultimately creating a beautiful work that resonates with the present generations and removes stigmatization around what it means to be imperfect and, as such, human.

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