Alison Oliver couldn’t help but fangirl last summer, when she got on a Zoom call with Sally Rooney to discuss her leading role in “Conversations with Friends,” an upcoming adaptation of the author’s debut novel.
Rooney — and her work — seems to have that effect on people.
“I was such a massive fan,” said Oliver, 24. “I think she’s such an incredible writer.”
Rooney’s popular novels certainly chime with a particular cohort’s sensibility: She has been called “Salinger for the Snapchat generation” and “the first great Millennial author.” And her stories have been greeted with a kind of frenetic anticipation. (See: The feverish publicity campaign, and the illicit — and profitable — resale of advance copies of her third book “Beautiful World, Where Are You” last year.)
It’s no surprise then that “Conversations with Friends” — an adaptation of Rooney’s 2017 debut novel — is highly anticipated. Yet, Rooney’s cult status is not the only looming over the show, which drops on May 15 on Hulu. The series must also contend with the success of “Normal People,” a popular BBC and Hulu TV adaptation of the book Rooney wrote next.
“Normal People,” a love story between two young people from a small Irish town, was a critical and awards darling following its release in spring 2020, earning Emmy, BAFTA and Golden Globes nominations. It also offered a glimmer of hope for the BBC in the midst of a youth viewership crisis and garnered an impassioned following online. (A silver chain worn by one of the characters now has its own Instagram account and fans continue to post and set clips from the show to music online.)
“Looking at it from this remove now, it feels a bit unreal,” said Lenny Abrahamson, an executive producer and director on both adaptations. He added that he is wary of comparisons between the two shows. “It would be a big mistake to sort of imagine, or to expect, the same thing to happen again,” Abrahamson said. “I want this show to go out into the world, get its best airing, and let it be its own thing.”
“Conversations” explores a complicated web of relations between four Dublin residents. Its action begins when Frances (Oliver), a 21-year old student at Trinity College, and her best friend and ex-girlfriend Bobbi (Sasha Lane) befriend Melissa (Jemima Kirke), a writer in her 30s. Melissa introduces the pair to her husband Nick (Joe Alwyn), a moderately famous actor.
The two students enter the couple’s world of fancy dinners, holiday homes and book launch parties. Frances begins a fraught and heady affair with Nick. Bobbi develops a romantic interest in Melissa. All the while, an air of intensity and irresolution hangs over Frances and Bobbi’s relationship. Despite breaking up some years before the events of the show they remain close and painfully sensitive around one another.
The show is a meditation on interdependence that shows that “relationships don’t exist in a vacuum,” said Meadhbh McHugh, an Irish playwright who adapted five episodes. So delicate are the relations between the four characters that shifts in one relationship always affects the others. “It’s messy and entangled, and that can be painful for those involved,” McHugh added, “but it captures something real about any relationship.”
Finding a way to render this emotional house of cards made the adaptation process more complicated than “Normal People.”
“It was way more intense and way more difficult,” said Ed Guiney, an executive producer on both shows.
This time, the show’s writers and producers had to transpose Rooney’s novel without the help of the author herself. On “Normal People,” Rooney co-wrote the first half of the 12 episode series; for “Conversations With Friends,” she was involved in casting, and read over early scripts. She also helped the team answer questions, “where there were things that we were really debating or playing with,” said Abrahamson. (Rooney declined to be interviewed for this article.)
“We would have been very happy to have her,” Guiney said. “But she also, as you know, has a very big day job.”
Even on “Normal People,” which was Rooney’s screenwriting debut, her desire to get back to fiction writing “loomed very large”; during the making of “Conversations With Friends,” she was writing “Beautiful World, Where Are You.”
In fact, the showrunners first secured the rights to “Conversations With Friends” before “Normal People”; at first, they envisioned “Conversations” as a film, but struggled with how that story might play out as a feature, Guiney said. When they secured the rights to “Normal People,” on the other hand, the form it would take — a television series at half an hour an episode — was immediately clear to them.
Tackling “Normal People” first was clarifying: Onscreen, Rooney’s “lowkey” stories are best told in episodic form, Abrahamson said.
Her characters also benefit from a longer run time. The people that inhabit Rooney’s world, Guiney explained, can appear privileged: In “Conversations,” the audience is witness to the emotional tumult of a famous actor, a successful writer and two students at one of Ireland’s top universities. “Their problems are really significant and important to them,” Guiney said, “but in order to kind of empathize with those characters, you need to spend time with them.”
Here we are invited to empathize with Frances. An archetypal Roonian protagonist, she is highly intelligent and observant, but dispassionate and self-conscious, with a habit of ruminating, rather than communicating. She is played, with a depth and innocence, by Oliver, a recent graduate from The Lir Academy, the same Irish drama school that produced Paul Mescal, the chain-wearing star of “Normal People.”
Oliver’s portrayal may feel surprising to some fans of the book. The Frances of the screen seems more sympathetic — less cold and arch than she appears on the page, and perhaps more insecure and quietly overwhelmed.
“I think her archness can be a type of defense mechanism,” said McHugh, “but onscreen we are not getting access to Frances’ interior thoughts as in the novel, and so you want to see the vulnerability from which she’s operating.”
It’s this vulnerability of performance that drew the producers to Oliver when they saw her audition tape, Abrahamson said. “She made so much sense of the character,” Abrahamson said, and “not in the obvious way.”
In her Zoom conversation with Rooney, Oliver recalled, the author wasn’t overly precious about how she should portray Frances, leaving Oliver room for interpretation. Rooney did, however, indulge Oliver’s request for cultural reference points so she could better understand Frances, including a playlist Rooney made for the character while writing “Conversations With Friends.” Oliver’s favorite song from the playlist, she said, was “Too Dark” by Frankie Cosmos, a song she felt like it was written just for Frances. (The song begins: “I wish I had some control / You embarrass me in full / I feel low low low.”)
Rooney may have taken a step back creatively, but her hands-off approach, Oliver said, could have also come from a place of trust. “I guess having done ‘Normal People,’ she knew it was in such safe hands,” she said.
That was a sentiment echoed by the showrunner. “We had such a good time working together on the first one,” Guiney said, adding that he believes Rooney is happy with how the show turned out.
“That is really important to us,” he said, “that she feels like we’ve done a good job.”