Heralded as the “voice of a generation,” critically renowned for her uncanny knack for capturing the zeitgeist of millennial malaise and certainly well-loved by the writers at this publication, Sally Rooney has quite rapidly become a household name. In what the internet affectionately refers to as the “Sally Rooney Cinematic Universe,” Rooney’s various creative endeavors include collaborations with everyone from Phoebe Bridgers to Phoebe Waller-Bridge (and no, they’re not the same person). The TV adaptation of Rooney’s debut novel “Conversations with Friends” is simply the latest addition to her already substantial imprint on contemporary literature and greater popular culture.
“Conversations with Friends” follows two university students — Frances (Alison Oliver, debut) and Bobbi (Sasha Lane, “American Honey”) — and a married couple — Melissa (Jemima Kirke, “Girls”) and Nick (Joe Alwyn, “The Favourite”) — as they navigate the relationships developing between the four of them through discussions of love, art, theory and politics.
While the success of Hulu’s adaptation of “Normal People” set the bar high for bringing Rooney’s source material to life, this second television venture remains aesthetically on par with its predecessor. The soundtrack effectively mirrors the romantic, melancholic and self-deprecating mood of Frances, floating through varying degrees of aloofness with tracks like Phoebe Bridgers’s “Sidelines” or CMAT’s “I Don’t Really Care for You.” The production design of Nick and Melissa’s house acts as a window into the character dynamics at play, as age and class differences bleed into Frances’s perception of it; the warmth it holds early on as the site of her affair with Nick juxtaposed to the later coolness of her fraught relationship with Melissa. At a granular level, the show’s energy feels authentic to the environment Rooney crafts on the page and makes the viewing experience akin to that of living inside of a Rooney novel.
The show also significantly emphasizes Frances’s relationship with Bobbi as her bold, outgoing nature offsets Frances’s more reserved disposition. Unlike in the book, the pair’s spoken word performances are actually acted out on screen; thus, the switch from page to screen allows the show to craft an additional visualization of their paradoxical friendship. They jump from being exact opposites, each a blatant foil to the other’s existence, to sharing the same mind and finishing each other’s sentences. The ebbs and flows of such a relationship make this reverberating dynamic — their tendency to be in sync in one scene and fallout over a miscommunication in the next — one of the most engaging aspects of the show.
In the book, Frances’s narration depicts the other characters strictly from her perspective — but by spending the entire time in her headspace, the reader is often left in the dark about the reasoning behind their actions. In the show, there was a chance to reorient the portrayals of Melissa and Bobbi, who tend to get overshadowed in the book by the moral ambiguity clouding Frances’s affair with Nick. Kirke and Lane really flesh out their respective characters in the show, which expands on their scenes from the book, such as Melissa’s discussion of the affair or Bobbi’s monologue about the short story. By articulating their feelings and grievances, we get to see how they’re affected by Frances’s actions in a way the book never fully offers.
The show starts to lose merit when it comes to its overall pacing. The story, although faithful to the book, was stretched across 12 episodes when it could’ve easily been told in less. The bulk of the action occurs in the first five episodes, resulting in an unbalanced character arc for Frances and choppy scenic divisions throughout. The severity of the hardships Frances faces in the second half, her repeated fights with Nick and Bobbi, declining physical and mental health, financial insecurity and self-destructive choices threaten to get swallowed by the abyss of the show’s poor structural decisions. Without an inner monologue guiding us, it also becomes far more difficult to discern the sea of thoughts swimming in Frances’s mind or to get a clear understanding of how it all culminates in her eventual breakthrough.
“Conversations with Friends” was never going to be the hit “Normal People” was. Even if it had been executed perfectly, it simply did not have the same “will they, won’t they” push and pull magnetism between the leads to move the story along, and in their attempt to adapt it episodically, this lack of momentum made a compelling read a rather sluggish watch. On a surface level, the show is faithful to the complex messiness and brilliance of the book, but by no fault of Oliver’s performance, it does not do the emotional depths of Frances’s character arc justice. As a fan of the book, it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed, but maybe the real takeaway here is that not every story needs to be told on screen … and not every story should.
Daily Arts Writer Serena Irani can be reached at email@example.com.