It’s perhaps telling that the most riveting scene of Amazon Prime Video’s new TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends is one that doesn’t even exist in the book. It’s the point at which our protagonist, 21-year-old uni student Frances, is confronted by Melissa, an older, sophisticated and accomplished essayist, over the affair Frances has been having with her husband, Nick.
In the novel, Irish literary phenomenon Rooney’s 2017 coming-of-age debut, the exchange takes place via a frenzied four-page email Melissa sends Frances, in which she berates the younger woman for naively imagining a future with her husband (Frances replies with to terse, “Lots to think about”). On the show, Melissa (Girls′ Jemima Kirke) invites Frances (Irish newcomer Alison Oliver) to her home to confront her face-to-face over afternoon tea. Rather unlike an email, the scene is tense and uncomfortable, and simmering with barely restrained emotion.
“Actually, that was my favorite scene to shoot, definitely,” says the episode’s director Leanne Welham. Penned by screenwriter Alison Birch (unlike normal peopleRooney – then in the midst of finishing her third novel Beautiful World, Where Are You – wasn’t involved in this adaptation), the scene brings vivid drama to what the book, completely told from Frances’ perspective, can only allude to.
“Jemima and Alison were both just incredible in that scene,” says Welham. “There’s so much going on when they sit down and face each other, and in a way, the series has kind of been building to this moment.
“We see a side to Melissa we haven’t seen before, and her incredible generosity of spirit and her incredible maturity, contrasted with Frances’ relative emotional immaturity, is really interesting. There’s just a lot going on in that scene, and it’s terrifying when Frances walks up to the door. If you put yourself in Frances’ shoes, it’s like, ‘oh my god, she’s brave.’”
Oliver, in his first TV role, is mesmerizing in the scene. In a neat actor’s trick, she somehow even manages to blush on command, cheeks pink as watermelon, as Kirke lays into her de ella.
“Oh, I think I was just really stressed!” Oliver laughs. “It’s such a high intensity scene, I think I was just like, ‘aargh!’ Jemima is incredible, she gives all of herself when she acts. So, like, yeah, whatever I did, it was all hers; I was just responding to whatever she was doing.”
After the phenomenal success of normal peoplewhich dominated lockdown viewing in mid-2020 and made stars out of Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, it was only a matter of time before its producers and studios BBC and Hulu returned to Rooney’s well. Conversations with Friends, filled with messy 20-something self-invention, was a breakthrough success for Rooney upon its May 2017 release, shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and Folio Prize in 2018 and earning global acclaim. At 321 pages, the book is brisk and compelling. The TV series, not so much.
The show’s best scene lays clear the challenge of adapting a novel that’s set largely in its protagonist’s head; it’s best when it swings wildly from Rooney’s literary template, which it rarely does. All the forensic psychological nuance that Rooney feeds us through Frances – her neurotic overthinking de ella, her spiky self-loathing, her overworked efforts to affect nonchalant charm – those chaotic moments that Frances lend her skewed humanity, are dulled, if not lost, on screen. What you’re left with is lingering shots of Frances staring out a rain-streaked window, presumably deep in existential thought, but who knows her?
“We weren’t trying to do the same thing as normal people,” says Welham. “They’re quite different books and we were keen to have them feel like separate pieces of work. I think, intrinsically, this story is a lot more messy and complicated and we wanted to try to dig into that.”
Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson (Room), who executive produced and co-directed normal people and again helms six episodes of Conversations with Friends, established the on-screen Rooney-verse’s arthouse aesthetic. He’s described its sedation, moody and blanched tone as “lean-in television”.
“The idea is we’re not telling the audience everything,” Welham explains. “There’s space there for people to really pay attention to what’s happening between the characters, to nuance, and to the subtle emotional intimacy.
“There are moments of silence in this show and there are moments where there’s just a look or a gesture between characters, and I think it’s that sort of detail that really allows you to get inside Frances’ head. And the pace, the pace is different from most things on TV, so you’re really allowed to sit in these moments and really absorb what’s going on.”
Oliver, for her part, is tasked with the mammoth job of making Frances’ complicated psychology visually compelling. The 24-year-old, a recent graduate of Dublin’s The Lir Academy who’s mainly appeared in theatre, inhabits every scene of the series – including the sort of pearl-clutching, intimate sex scenes that she made normal people such a word-of-mouth sensation. With actor Joe Alwyn no less, famously known to most as Taylor Swift’s real-life boyfriend (yes, Oliver’s met Swift, she tells me, and no, she hasn’t attracted the singer’s jealous wrath).
Oliver says she sought Rooney’s advice for the role not long after she was cast.
“I felt her an email just being like, ‘Oh my god!’, and I just asked could I speak with her, and we had a lovely Zoom. She was so generous and kind and just there to answer anything I was wondering about.
“I love references and stuff, so I was really big on, like, what kind of music do you think Frances listens to? Or, like, what clothes does she wear? Or what kind of books does she read? Because I think that’s so telling about a person, like, their taste and what they’re into.”
Rooney, it turns out, crafts entire playlists for her characters.
“She felt me a playlist she’d written specifically for Frances. It had, like, Astral Weeks from Van Morrison on there. And Mitski, a lot of Mitski. I loved getting that information. I found it so helpful to ease me into the feel of the character and the world. I got off the Zoom call and I was listening to it non-stop.”
When it comes to the on-screen Sally Rooney-verse, that’s a guiding hand we could all use.
Conversations with Friends premieres on Amazon Prime Video on May 16.
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