After the smash hit of Normal People two years ago, Conversations with Friends is BBC Three’s new Sally Rooney adaptation. With the same writers, directors, and production team back to put the pages on the screen, I’ve been anxiously waiting to see if lightning could strike twice. Unfortunately, as we all know, it so rarely does.
somewhere along the way Conversations with Friends stumbles off the trail
Like so many others, I joined the ‘Sally Rooney Fan Club’ back in 2020 after Normal People began competing with covid in the race to take over the world. Maybe it was the story? Maybe it was the cast? Maybe it was the fact that watching normal life is unusually thrilling when your current normality consists of nothing more than a commute from your bed to your desk and back again (with a break at 5pm to watch a shoddy government PowerPoint, of course). Either way, Normal People remains an electric show. The story brimmed with a tension that always resisted the urge to become obnoxious and the cast delivered their parts with such understanding and precision that it became tricky to remember someone had just yelled the word ‘action’. Brilliantly shot, and with the perfect soundtrack to match, it was an adaptation quite like no other.
Yet, despite receiving such a similar treatment, somewhere along the way Conversations with Friends stumbles off the trail.
The story follows Frances (Alison Oliver), a student in her early twenties with a sophisticated mistrust for capitalism and a generally internal nature which leaves her accidentally cold to most of those around her. She’s not a recluse, but she thinks an awful lot more than she says. This is in stark contrast to Bobbi (Sasha Lane), Frances’ ex and now close friend, who usually goes right ahead and says exactly what she’s thinking. This relationship is well summed up in their poetry performances; Frances does the writing and Bobbi (mostly) does the performing.
Things get tricky when Frances and Bobbi meet Melissa (Jemima Kirke) and Nick (Joe Alwyn), both in their thirties, married, Melissa a writer, Nick an actor. Melissa and Bobbi hit it off straight away, having strong conversations and actively striding into a friendship with ease. Frances and Nick, rather more quietly, do the same. As a result, a slightly awkward love-square (or perhaps a love-rhombus?) forms. The evolution of Frances and Nick’s relationship is the main power behind the story, giving both them and other characters an exceptionally hard time and putting their already precarious relationships to the test. Intertwined with this main narrative are sub-plots regarding Frances’ relationship with her father and problems with her own health. These feed well into both Frances as a character and also the story overall adding a rounded depth to the series.
Throughout, the casting and performances are strong. Oliver sells Frances’ quiet but opinionated nature with perfect balance. On the exterior she appears plain and straightforward but keeps us constantly aware of how complex Frances is on the inside. She sells Frances’ uncertainty and has good chemistry with those around her. It must also be said: Oliver is brilliant at playing someone who’s ill. She performs the vulnerability, the frailness, the fear, and the way that fear drags you down a road of exhaustion to a place where you finally no longer care (a talent which will come into full play later in the series).
When I heard Jemima Kirke had been cast as Melissa, I was taken aback by how perfect a decision it was
Lane is brilliantly forward and presumptuous as Bobbi, always being the one to lead conversation and constantly presume she knows everything about everyone (a habit which will soon be challenged as Frances and Nick’s affair begins). When I heard Jemima Kirke had been cast as Melissa, I was taken aback by how perfect a decision it was. Having seen her as new headmistress Hope in Sex Education Season 3, it was clear she’d bring the perfect hint of slyness and superiority to the role, while gently balancing this with a more vulnerable tone. Equally, Alwyn does a good job to maintain Nick’s subtly timid nature and his constant dislike for his own existence seems always on his mind.
The characters themselves are well-developed and interesting and the relationship between Frances and Nick is explored with detail and care. The first scene where all four main characters interact (a dinner party at Nick and Melissa’s house) is particularly enticing; Bobbi and Melissa lead the conversation and, had the camera not taken time to linger on Frances and Nick, we could be forgiven for assuming that the former rather than the latter were the primary characters in the show. Instead, this scene highlights the inconvenience of Bobbi and Melissa, and the subtle communication that goes unnoticed when louder conversation brews. The relationship between the two introverts is clear for the audience to see, despite it going so unnoticed by the other characters in the show.
Conversations with Friends is also a story that asks many questions; can someone love more than one person? Is polygamy fair? What secrets should you tell, and which are best kept hidden? Quite where it goes with these complex themes remains pretty vague. The story (much like life) fumbles a little and ends up being slightly dissatisfying (quite a bit like life, too). While the original book is equally open, it at least has the space and the complexity (thanks to France’s internal monologue) to explore these themes with more interest and intrigue.
This, really, must be the failed corner stone that leads to this slightly limp adaptation of Conversations with Friends. Like Frances, so much of the source text is internal. We need Frances’ thoughts, her fears, her hopes, and her worries to pour into us throughout the story and there’s simply no way to create this on the screen. At times, elements of this are pulled from the book and forced into new conversation, leading to instances of rather jarring and awkward dialogue.
Similarly, in the book, the early stages of Frances and Nick’s affair is allowed to grow and develop through the quiet and safe environment of emails and online messaging (perfect for two introverts). Yet the show mainly skips over this, perhaps due to the awkwardness of displaying this written communication on screen. In-turn, this leads to a great lack of stakes in the show; throughout the affair I couldn’t help but keep thinking ‘who cares?’ While some scenes (such as the dinner party where all four characters are first together) hint at that buzz between Frances and Nick, things seem to develop too quickly and as a result the initial pull into their morally ambiguous relationship is lost.
It must also be acknowledged that the set-up here is incredibly unrelatable; two twenty-year-olds (who used to date) very quickly become very close friends with a married couple in their thirties. Then one of the twenty-year-olds has an affair with one of the thirty-year-olds. And the other two kind of have an affair with each other, too. And they all go on holiday to France. And did I mention that the two thirty-year-old are also both slightly famous?
Compare this to the plot of Normal People which, at it’s core, is incredibly normal (surprise, surprise). Yet, somehow, Normal People is so much more exciting. There’s a tension and a fear and a well-communicated feeling of ‘we all think this matters much more than it really does, at the end of the day.’ Perhaps this is also where Conversations with Friends falls a little flat; Normal People accepts its characters take things a little too seriously (they’re young, after all) and exploits this as a way for them to develop. In contrast, Conversations with Friends creates a scenario which is a little too extreme, and a little too poorly executed on the screen, to really feel important to us.
despite being so similar in pace, style, and execution, this is no Normal People
Perhaps those who watch Conversations with Friends without the context of the original book will find a thrill in there somewhere. Maybe it’s only when viewed in comparison that the show struggles to find a foothold. However, no matter what, and despite being so similar in pace, style, and execution, this is no Normal People. More so, its fairly forgettable cousin. It’s worth a try, if you feel you have the time, and there’s definitely some good in there somewhere but, overall, it’s a real shame this show fails to capture the same intensity as the book, a failing which means this adaptation of Conversations with Friends might be one to pass.
Featured image courtesy of Alex Watkin. Permission to use granted to Impact. No changes were made to this image.
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