By Lily Owen
Image credit: The Atlantic
The much anticipated adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People has delivered BBC Three with its best ever week for programme requests, overtaking Killing Eve and thriving amongst a whole list of things to define lockdown 2020. It speaks to our love of binge-watching, relationships, and investment in the lives of fictional characters. However, what has really captured our attention is what it denies us: a typical happy ending. Something that we perhaps take for granted, the classical happily-ever-after trope has us demanding the happiness of our characters in order to satisfy our own. Without it, the story can simply not be over, surely? If she has not found the one, if he has not realised his true feelings, if they do not get married, then there must be a sequel in the works. But this is not normal life and these are not normal people – everything cannot be that simple. Rooney’s text and the adapted script, with all of its unanswered questions, tumultuous plot, and complicated characters, captures normality because real life is not perfect.
Normal People is refreshingly modern in its depiction of ordinariness. To describe its plot as defining of the ‘new normal’ – experiences of insecurity, vulnerability, depression – would be naive: this is a normal that society has repressed and refused to discuss in the name of ‘keep calm and carry on’ British manners. We are always cautioned against expecting happy endings in real-world crises for fear of setting high expectations that are likely to be shattered. Yet, in the literary world, a pattern emerges that when times are extraordinarily chaotic, we seek comfort in the satisfying resolutions of fiction.
Finlo Rohrer has attributed a process of “happyendingification” to 1930s Hollywood. Following the Great Depression, a time of great uncertainty and poverty emerged and, alongside it, a series of new film adaptations. The endings to classical stories became “happyendingified” as they made it to the silver screen: Frankenstein, where his wife is killed by the monster, was adapted to show the doctor and his wife living happily-ever-after. The Hunchback of Notre Dame saw Esmerelda hanged and Quasimodo dying alongside her body, but in the film they both survive. Cinema and popular culture became a way to inspire and uplift people in times of hardship; if these characters can overcome great monsters and the gothic supernatural, then society can overcome as well. Even in the historically euphoric swinging 60s, Breakfast at Tiffany’s sees Holly Golightly leave for Brazil in the novella and ending up with Paul in the cinematic adaptation. The expectation to end stories with love and happiness has become so ingrained that it now doesn’t matter what society is going through, we demand the peace of closure.
Famously, Disney fairy tales have been heavily edited from their originals into the childhood canon we all treasure. Sleeping Beauty did not awake by true love’s kiss, but by the birth of her newborn twins with whom she was impregnated while she was unconscious and ends up marrying her rapist. Cinderella actually kills her stepmother; the Little Mermaid throws herself into the sea and dissolves into foam, having watched her prince betray her and marry another woman; and Snow White is made to dance wearing a pair of red-hot iron shoes until she falls over dead. The concept of a happy ending has been corrupted as some sort of propaganda for a society fearful of the darker side of our emotional spectrum. These classical tales, twisted and adapted to promote reassurance and comfort, have created a nostalgia that sees us crave happy endings in whatever we watch, crying and lusting after sequels if we are not granted one.
What is more bold and powerful is to deny society this escapism: life isn’t always destined to be happy and resolute, at least not consistently so. I am a sucker for rooting for love, investing in characters that I know aren’t real and who’s lives will never continue beyond the final page or rolling credits. If a couple doesn’t end up together, then the film is ruined and dead to me forever – I still haven’t brought myself to re-watch La La Land or attempt the film of One Day, having been scarred by the book’s ending. However, it is the humility and reality of these types of endings that help to make sense of life and resist our expectations for a world of Disney and happily-ever-after that is unrealistic. The push and pull relationship of Marianne and Connell plays to the appeal of the will-they-won’t-they fascination in pop culture and, in the middle of a global pandemic, now is the perfect time for some of that escapism. Yet, its inconclusiveness, destructive passion, turbulence, and toxicity keeps us grounded. On-off relationships are fascinating and addictive to observe, but they are also toxic for our mental wellbeing, often abusive and lacking commitment. The dysfunctionality of Marianne and Connell does not shy away from this in an exploration of the overlap between love and desire whose confusion is normal.
Normal is constantly redefining yourself in search of an identity; encountering differences based on privilege; asking for protection before sex; confusing love and lust; not knowing what to do with your life; loving someone so much that you lose who you are without them and would do anything for them. These are not always the happiest moments of life, although they are certainly some of the most real and definitely some of the least talked about. The much talked about sex scenes are such a point for discussion, not because of their sex appeal and fantasising depictions, but because of their successful escape from the male gaze. Their love is not typically romanticised as effortless and right, but accurately painful and a form of compulsive obsession with one another that is rather unhealthy, whilst also perfectly normal for a first-love experience. Love becomes a kind of social capital, straying from the classical, romantic lens we often identify it through. Marianne’s more typical privilege comes from her family’s wealth, compared to Connell being privileged to come from a loving and caring home, which she seriously lacks. It is a love of affection, though also one of advantage, with Connell offering Marianne the validation she longs for and her not requiring him to be overly emotional, which he struggles with. As they begin to grow more as individuals, Marianne sips wine over intellectual debates on Marxism or European art and Connell struggles to keep up, questioning his belonging. They are wildly different, yet share the same feeling of pain, misdirection, and undeniable sexual chemistry that always brings them back. The fact that their love for one another might not be enough in the end is excruciatingly real.
Normal People is not an epic romance, it is an everyday one: one that is relatable, where we can recognise ourselves, making it all the more painful. With a history of TV and film conditioning us to expect a return on our emotional investment in drama – the happily-ever-after – it is refreshing to witness this break from tradition. Marianne and Connell are us and it is easy to wallow in the sadness of their break-up – potentially for good this time – as a break-up of our own. Nonetheless, the ending also sees Connell accepted into a writing program in New York, finally recognised for his work, and Marianne putting her own wishes before his for the first time by choosing to remain in Ireland. The story, more than anything, is about personal development, shaping ourselves and being shaped by others. To compare the Connell and Marianne from episode 1 to their positions in episode 12 is to truly appreciate how much they have achieved in themselves. Having relied on each other throughout their adolescence, they are finally able to negotiate and embrace a separation in this final scene: an example of the very communication that has so far been their downfall. There is a happy ending of sorts if we really want to find one, but it is its precariousness and the unconventional means of getting there that is a greater triumph – It’s normal and it is good for us to finally accept that.