Frances and Bobbi share a laugh in

BBC Three and Hulu’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s debut novel Conversations with Friends arrived last month, and despite being led by the same creative team behind 2020’s Normal People television adaptation, it has yet to reach the same level of cultural impact. 

It should be established that Conversations with Friends is not Normal People and therefore, director Lenny Abrahamson and writer Alice Birch faced unique challenges in bringing Rooney’s first novel to screen. Unlike Normal People, Conversations with Friends is told from the first person point of view of Frances, a 21-year-old student at Trinity College in Dublin. Her perspective is so singular, as anyone’s point of view is, that it’s unreliable. As a reader you have very little understanding of how other characters perceive Frances, and it’s hard to know what to make of the other characters outside of Frances’s heady narration.

Rather than having two central characters, like Normal People, Conversations with Friends has a cast of four. Frances and her best friend and ex-girlfriend, Bobbi, befriend a writer named Melissa and her handsome actor husband, Nick. The two young women are drawn into Melissa and Nick’s upscale world filled with dinner parties, European holidays, and literary events — and Frances becomes enamored with Nick, and Bobbi to a lesser extent, Melissa. 

Overcome by Nick’s earth-shattering good looks and his surprising preference for her over Bobbi, Frances initiates an affair with him over email. The novel tracks their affair and its impact on Frances and her other relationships. But more importantly, the novel uses the titular conversations between friends to examine how class and age shape political beliefs. Unfortunately, the best part of the novel doesn’t translate to screen. 

Here are some of the biggest changes the TV show made in adapting the beloved book.

Conversations with Friends, but make all the conversations different

The 12-episode series chooses to fill the void left without Frances’s narration through expositional dialogue. Instead of having nuanced discussions about the Catholic Church, Patricia Lockwood, “pay gap feminism,” and police brutality in America — to name a few of the many topics Conversations with Friends examines — conversations in the show instead reveal surface-level character details like how they met, where they are from, and what they studied in school. 

If you compare the conversations between characters in the novel to the same ones in the show, you’ll find that most are condensed before they reach their emotional peak.

In the adaptation we are left with vague, brief conversations that are more characteristic of Normal People. It’s as if the creators of the show saw the success of Normal People and altered Conversations with Friends accordingly. While both stories are explorations of class in Ireland told through relationships and intimacy, Conversations with Friends is distinct. The novel is funnier and more overtly political, which is lost on screen.

The altering of the conversations in Conversations with Friends is maddening given the title of the series, but it’s even more frustrating because one of Rooney’s greatest strengths as a writer is her ability to write painfully realistic dialogue.

Love in the age of email 

Rooney conveys the confusing nature of modern relationships that exist both on and offline through Frances and Nick’s online correspondence. In the novel, Frances and Nick’s relationship begins over witty emails and instant messages exchanged at odd hours of the night. Frances and Nick foster a unique digital intimacy that doesn’t always translate to their in-person interactions. 

Frances and Nick talk on the beach in Croatia.

Without their email correspondence, Frances and Nick’s relationship is much slower paced.
Credit: Enda Bowe/Hulu

The series almost entirely omits Frances and Nick’s online communication, making their relationship slower paced and more awkward. For example, in the third episode, after their affair is in full-swing, Frances and Nick eat dinner together and Frances says, “I know practically nothing about you.” Whereas in the novel, they lay the foundation of their relationship and cover the basics of getting to know each other over email. The decision to exclude the emails from the show makes Frances and Nick’s affair seem based on physical attraction alone, largely ignoring their banter and fascination with each other. 

Frances, no longer a committed communist

Conversations with Friends, the novel, is at its most compelling when it’s exploring the class conflicts these multi-generational relationships pose. The novel seeks to answer questions like, What happens when a 21-year-old communist has an affair with a wealthy, married man 11 years her senior? What about when her alcoholic father stops paying her allowance and her older lover begins buying her groceries and loaning her money? In the novel, none of these dynamics go unexamined. Instead they play out through fascinating conversations between the characters.

In the show, Frances renounces her communist beliefs in the first episode. Nick asks her, “Are you a committed communist?” Frances replies, “Not really, no. I mean I don’t do anything about it at all.” In the novel, Frances tells Nick she wants to destroy capitalism, and Nick replies that he’s “basically” a Marxist and asks Frances not to judge him for owning a house. 

Nick and Frances’s wealth and age gap 

Like it tosses aside Frances’s communist beliefs, the adaptation completely skips over Nick bringing Frances groceries and loaning her money when he finds out she’s broke. Additionally, while in the novel we are repeatedly reminded of Nick and Frances’s 11-year age gap, many of the explicit mentions of their age difference —  including those by Nick, Frances’s mother, and Melissa — are left out of the series entirely. These omissions alter the complex power dynamic between Frances and Nick making their relationship less thought-provoking. 

The politics of the novel 

Many conversations in the novel return to capitalism. For example, Frances and Bobbi exchange emails about love’s role in upholding capitalism, while the show opts to only include their exchange about Frances’s inability to convey her feelings.

While there are moments in the show that hint at the novel’s refreshing conversations and political lens, the most interesting parts of Frances and Nick’s conversations are cut, which results in a watered down exploration of the characters’ identities and beliefs. 

If the politics are what you enjoyed about the novel, you might find yourself disappointed in the series. However, if you’re looking to indulge yourself in a complicated love story, the screen adaptation eventually builds to the novel’s emotional heights in the second half. But the first half of the show largely concerns itself with stage setting, and it isn’t until the seventh episode that you feel connected to the characters and invested in their relationships.  

Justice for Bobbi and Melissa

But the TV adaptation takes advantage of being freed from Frances’s perspective by treating Melissa and Bobbi with more compassion than Frances’s book narration allows for, allowing for a catharsis that isn’t present in the novel. 

Melissa and Bobbi share a conversation.

Freed from Frances’s first person narration, Melissa and Bobbi are allowed to be fuller characters in the television show.
Credit: Enda Bowe/Hulu

Over the course of the story, Frances wrongs both women. Frances conducts an affair with Melissa’s husband behind her back and publishes a story about Bobbi without her consent. 

In the novel, the confrontation between Melissa and Frances takes place on the internet. Melissa writes Frances a deliciously scathing email that points out all of Nick’s flaws rather than condemns Frances. The show elects to have Frances and Melissa have tea. As a viewer you don’t have the distance you had in the novel of reading an email through Frances’s point of view; instead, you see Melissa grapple with the affair and the emotional devastation it caused her. 

Bobbi easily forgives Frances in the novel, but in the show they give Bobbi the opportunity to share how Frances’s story made her feel. 

Without the constraints of Frances’ first person narration, Melissa and Bobbi have the chance to be fuller, more realized characters. 

While the complexity and politics of the novel are lost in the adaptation, the series manages to draw the viewer into these characters and relationships, filling them in in ways that are impossible in the novel. 

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