** contains mild spoilers for the series **
Sally Rooney’s 2017 debut Conversations with Friends is a book I read a couple of years ago and loved – and when I reread it before watching the recent adaptation, I loved it even more.
The 12-part BBC Three and Hulu series tells the story of university students, best friends and ex-lovers Frances and Bobbi, who become involved with Nick and Melissa, an older married couple, with Frances’s entanglement with Nick threatening both pre-existing relationships.
It’s a story with a rather meandering plot, therefore its characters are key, and the star of this project is undoubtedly Alison Oliver, who is fantastic as Frances and is exactly how I’d envisaged the character. Just as the novel is told exclusively from her perspective, Frances is in literally every scene of the show – staggeringly, this is Oliver’s debut TV role, yet she appears a seasoned performer as the protagonist of the series. While the rest of the cast arguably feel like actors, Oliver feels like Frances, in her stunning ability to portray such emotion with subtlety.
Previously an Irish character, I was surprised that Bobbi is now American – I was briefly thrown, but I see why the engaging Sasha Lane was cast and I became used to this change after the first couple of episodes. Joe Alwyn’s South Dublin accent in his portrayal of Nick was questionable to say the least (can’t they just cast actual Irish actors?) but I slightly disagree with criticism that he gives a bad performance. He is far from charismatic and appears awkward and even bland, but this emulates how Nick was originally written, the only concern being that this doesn’t connect to audiences viewing this character for the first time.
Conversations with Friends, like all of Rooney’s work, is rooted in a striking interiority that is perhaps impossible to replicate on screen. While the 2020 adaptation of Normal People managed to successfully replace the written teenage yearning with some longing glances between Marianne and Connell, Frances’s internal voice is so nuanced that there isn’t a visual equivalent, and some depth gets a bit lost in translation. The novel is slow paced but is filled with Frances’s acute observations that carry the reader from one moment to the next therefore without these, the show feels a little emptier than it should, despite being beautifully atmospheric and despite Oliver’s magnetic presence.
Emails and texts form a large part of the communications between characters, and it does feel like something is lost by having to absorb them fleetingly over Frances’s shoulder as a viewer, rather than pouring over their contents as a reader. However, one significant email sent by Melissa in the book becomes a face-to-face confrontation between Frances and Melissa (Jemima Kirke) in one of the later episodes, making use of the visual medium to create a tense scene that works very well.
One aspect the show should be praised for is its depiction of Frances’s health struggle; what begins as a pregnancy scare becomes a story about endometriosis, a condition which I’ve rarely seen mentioned on television, let alone presented so truthfully and viscerally. The scenes that depict Frances’s debilitating chronic pain are the most compelling and are where Oliver truly shines. I also enjoyed the exploration of Frances’s messy relationship with her alcoholic father (played wonderfully by Tommy Tiernan), again scenes which felt authentic and carefully handled.
While the series presents Rooney’s story of messy, intertwining relationships, it doesn’t quite translate the intricate study of self-sabotage and youthful unease that made me connect to the book so much. Overall, I enjoyed seeing a story I love come to life, and I think that if you liked reading Conversations with Friends, you will also like its adaptation. However, I’m not quite sure how well the story will translate for those who haven’t read the novel, and if it will capture the imagination of audiences in quite the way Normal People did.
All episodes of Conversations with Friends are available to watch on BBC iPlayer.
– Erin Zammitt
Featured Image Source: Still via Youtube // Conversations with Friends | Official Trailer | Hulu – Youtube