In 'Conversations between friends', it's complicated

Alison Oliver couldn’t help but get fangirl last summer, when she called Zoom with Sally Rooney to discuss her starring role in ‘Convers...


Alison Oliver couldn’t help but get fangirl last summer, when she called Zoom with Sally Rooney to discuss her starring role in ‘Conversations with Friends,’ an upcoming adaptation of the director’s debut novel. author.

Rooney – and his work – seems to have that effect on people.

“I was such a fan,” Oliver, 24, said. “I think she’s such an amazing writer.”

Rooney’s popular novels certainly reflect the sensibilities of a particular cohort: She’s been dubbed “the Salinger for the Snapchat generation” and “the first great female millennial author.” And his stories were met with a kind of frenzied anticipation. (See: The feverish Advertising campaignand the illicit — and profitable — resale of early copies of his 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. Still, Rooney’s cult status isn’t the only thing hanging over the show, which drops May 15 on Hulu. The series must also deal with the success of “Normal People”, a popular BBC and Hulu TV adaptation of the book that Rooney wrote next.

“Normal People,” a love story between two small-town Irish youths, was a critical and award-winning darling after its spring 2020 release, earning Emmy, BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations. He also offered a beacon of hope for the BBC amid a youth ratings slump and garnered a passionate following online. (A silver chain worn by one of the characters now has its own Instagram account and the fans carry on post and set snippets of the show to music online.)

“Watching it from this takedown now, it feels a little unreal,” said Lenny Abrahamson, executive producer and director of both adaptations. He added that he was wary of comparisons between the two shows. “It would be a grave mistake to imagine or expect the same thing to happen again,” Abrahamson said. “I want this show to get out into the world, get its best airplay, and let it be its own thing.”

“Conversations” explores a complex web of relationships between four Dubliners. 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 thirties. Melissa introduces the couple to her husband Nick (Joe Alwyn), a moderately famous actor.

The two students enter the couple’s world of fancy dinners, vacation homes, and book launch parties. Frances begins a tense and exhilarating affair with Nick. Bobbi develops a romantic interest in Melissa. All the while, an air of intensity and indecisiveness hangs over Frances and Bobbi’s relationship. Although they separated a few years before the events of the series, they remain close and painfully sensitive towards each other.

The show is a meditation on interdependence that shows “relationships don’t exist in a vacuum,” said Meadhbh McHugh, an Irish playwright who adapted five episodes. The relationships between the four characters are so delicate that changes in one relationship always affect the others. “It’s messy and tangled, and it can be painful for those involved,” McHugh added, “but it captures something real about any relationship.”

Finding a way to make this house of cards emotional made the adaptation process more complicated than “Normal People.”

“It was a lot more intense and a lot more difficult,” said Ed Guiney, executive producer of both shows.

This time, the writers and producers of the series 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 participated in the casting and read the first scripts. She also helped the team answer questions, where there were things that we were really debating or playing with,” Abrahamson said. (Rooney declined to be interviewed for this article.)

“We would have been very happy to have him,” Guiney said. “But she too, as you know, has a very heavy day job.”

Even on “Normal People”, which was Rooney’s first screenplay, his desire to return to writing fiction “was very important”; during the filming of “Conversations With Friends”, she wrote “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 movie, but struggled to figure out how that story could unfold as a feature film, Guiney said. When they secured the rights to “Normal People,” however, it was immediately clear to them what form that would take—a half-hour-per-episode television series.

Tackling “normal people” first was a clarification: On screen, Rooney’s “low-key” stories are best told in episodic form, Abrahamson said.

His characters also get a longer runtime. The people who inhabit Rooney’s world, Guiney explained, can appear privileged: In “Conversations,” audiences witness the emotional turmoil of a famous actor, a best-selling writer, and two college students in one of best universities in Ireland. “Their issues are really important and important to them,” Guiney said, “but to empathize with these characters, you have to spend time with them.”

Here we are invited to sympathize with Frances. The archetypal Roonian protagonist, she is highly intelligent and observant, yet unbiased and self-aware, with a habit of ruminating rather than communicating. She is played, with depth and innocence, by Oliver, a recent graduate of Lir Academy, the same Irish theater school that produced Paul Mescalthe star wearing a chain of “Normal People”.

Oliver’s portrayal may surprise some fans of the book. The screen Frances seems friendlier – less cold and arched than she appears on the page, and perhaps more anxious and quietly overwhelmed.

“I think her archetype may be a type of defense mechanism,” McHugh said, “but onscreen we don’t have access to Frances’ inner thoughts like in the novel, and so you want to see the vulnerability from which it operates.”

It was this performance vulnerability that drew producers to Oliver when they saw his audition tape, Abrahamson said. “She gave the character so much meaning,” Abrahamson said, and “not in an obvious way.”

In her Zoom chat with Rooney, Oliver recalled, the author wasn’t too pricey about how she should portray Frances, leaving Oliver room for interpretation. Rooney did, however, respond to Oliver’s request for cultural reference points so she could better understand Frances, including a playlist Rooney created for the character while writing “Conversations With Friends.” Oliver’s favorite song from the playlist, she said, was “Too darkby Frankie Cosmos, a song she felt like she wrote just for Frances. (The song begins: “I wish I had a little control / You completely embarrass me / I feel weak, weak, weak.”)

Rooney may have taken a step back creatively, but his hands-off approach, Oliver said, could also have come from a place of trust. “I guess after doing ‘Normal People,’ she knew it was in good hands,” she said.

It was a sentiment shared by the showrunner. “We had such a great time working together on the first one,” Guiney said, adding that he thought Rooney was happy with how the series went.

“It’s really important to us,” he said, “that she feels like we did a good job.”



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