There’s a striking difference between the first sex scene in the TV version of Normal People and the book, written by Sally Rooney. The moment comes early on in the plot when Marianne and Connell, two high-school students in small-town Ireland, are keeping their hookups a secret. He’s a hot, popular jock and she’s the kind of dowdy know-it-all that guys mock on their way to Gaelic football practice.
After making out a few times, Connell invites Marianne over when his mom’s not home so they can get naked. In the book she wears “cheap black underwear” for the big day, her underarms are “chalky with deodorant” and “her nose is running a little.” She’s shaved her legs, a notable fact only because her hairy stems are the subject of high-school gossip.
In short, she looks kind of gross, and Connell is ashamed of his attraction to her, a key tension that makes Marianne’s character, and the way she behaves in their relationship, so compelling. Yet this element of physical repulsiveness is whitewashed from the show.
On the day Marianne loses her virginity onscreen, she wears a low-cut shirt, which showcases her purple bra straps, tucked into a very cute corduroy miniskirt. Her hair is the platonic ideal of a messy bun, a symphony of strands perched atop her head with two dangly pieces and a glossy fringe that harmoniously frame her face. She looks hot. So hot, that instead of looking over his shoulder to make sure no one sees him letting Marianne into his home, as Connell does in the book, he looks like he sprung a boner.
The fact that TV Marianne is a smokeshow may seem like a run-of-the-mill, everyday sexism-style disappointment. We all know women aren’t allowed to be ugly onscreen, haha sad! But in Normal People, while the actress Daisy Edgar-Jones’s doe eyes, flawless skin, and stylish clothes may have been a ploy to draw in more viewers, it is one of the many ways the show ruins her character. Despite being created by a young female author, Marianne’s the most disappointing part of a series that will otherwise make your heart and loins remember what it’s like to be a horny teenager in love for the first time.
In the book, Rooney is deliberate about establishing Marianne as a weird, kind of feral teenager who is considered an “object of disgust at school.” She wears ugly, thick-soled flat shoes, has crooked front teeth and a face that “lacks definition around the cheeks and jaw.” She’s the kind of girl who licks her teeth when she flirts with Connell, harbors masochistic fantasies and is rumored to have a “mental illness.”
This is all important context for understanding, and sympathizing, with the heart of Marianne’s struggle: She feels fundamentally unlovable. While she seems unconcerned with how people think of her, in reality, she’s protecting herself from the painful thought that she is not worth caring about. On the surface, Marianne seems content being an outcast, but on the inside she wants to be part of the in-group, sing along with the school chants at football games, and be embraced by the very people who demean her.
This duality comes across so sharply in the novel, but TV Marianne is a flattened version of her literary self. She’s a foil to the more interesting contrasts of Connell’s personality — his deep repression and flood of emotions, how he’s universally loved but feels alienated from everyone —rather than someone with a rich interior life of her own, as she was in the book. Of course, inner thoughts are more difficult to show onscreen, and it’s worth noting that Rooney did co-write the series. But basic facts about her character’s attitude and looks were erased.
Instead of being ugly and off-putting, Edgar-Jones’s Marianne is all pouty lips and stylish chunky knit sweaters too fashionable for any social outcast. The French braid she wears to school feels like some producer’s last-minute attempt to take her down a few notches. The more crude parts of her personality have been neutered, like when she and Connell visit an abandoned house and she asks, “If I wanted you to fuck me here, would you do it?” And key moments meant to evoke disgust — like when she spills yogurt on her shirt in the school lunchroom and scoops it up with a spoon — just seem cute, like a sweet cat lapping up spilled milk.
The fact that Marianne’s being harassed everyday in the hallways comes across like an unfortunate high-school reality rather than a reflection of how she feels broken inside. And instead of harboring a secret desire to join a clique, TV Marianne seems to be biding her time, already wise enough to know that the bullying goons will soon be irrelevant. She’s too normal! She’s not messy enough! When Marianne delivers one of the book’s best lines after seeing Connell for the first time in Dublin — “It’s classic me. Came to college and got pretty” — it doesn’t feel true. All she did was put on some eyeliner and big earrings, more of a day-to-night transformation than ugly duckling to swan.
Yet one of the most painful parts of the novel, and the reason that line is so powerful, is because of how Connell initially sees Marianne. In the show, his desire to keep their relationship a secret stems from external pressure: He doesn’t want to be mocked by his friends. But in the book, he shares some of his peers’ feelings of disgust toward Marianne. The second time they have sex, Connell thinks about how some people consider her the ugliest girl in school. “What kind of person would want to do this with her?” he says to himself, and describes his attraction to Marianne as “perverse.” She thanks him after they first have sex, an acknowledgement that he must feel debased for being with her.
So while the apex of humiliation comes when Connell asks another woman to the deb ball after sleeping with Marianne for months, the real sting is that a part of him has felt ashamed all along about their relationship. It’s easy to understand why Marianne is filled with so much self-hate when she’s considered vile by her classmates and the people who say they love her.
But in the show, all that emotional terrain feels unexplored. Instead, Marianne’s issues are reduced to her abusive family life, the intensity of which isn’t developed quickly enough. In the book, her menacing brother grabs her arm within the first ten pages, but in the show, it’s not until halfway through the season that he wrings out a soapy sponge on her head and her mother refuses to punish him. By the last few episodes, when he throws a glass at Marianne and she becomes estranged from her family, it feels like an attempt to cram in too much trauma, rather than explore the myriad reasons for her self-hate throughout the entire season.
The show oversimplifies the darker realities of Marianne’s personality that make her seem nuanced and real in the book. She’s given more agency in her BDSM relationships, like telling the Swedish photographer she wants to be treated badly, whereas the novel leans into the blurred consent in this rough sex. Whatever desire she might have to be hit and choked, and how this desire might stem from years of being degraded by so many people in her life is diluted.
In one of the final scenes, when Marianne asks Connell to hit her during sex and he says it would be “weird,” the emotional devastation of that word loses it’s impact on the screen. “You think I’m weird?” she asks, knowing that word was used like a weapon against her in high school, even by Connell, who calls her “strange” in the book. But her fear of being a social pariah, of once again becoming that repulsive girl with crooked teeth and hairy legs who people viewed with disgust, doesn’t land in a show that never portrayed her this way in the first place.
Oh well. At least TV Marianne has really nice bangs.