“People can be in love and have meaningful relationships, it’s not some kind of finite resource.” – Sally Rooney
Sally Rooney is known for writing about deeply flawed and misunderstood people. Normal People, Rooney’s bestselling novel, which was also adapted for television, tells the story of Marianne and Connell, a pair of friends and eventual lovers navigating their on and off again relationship throughout high school and college. Similarly, Conversations with Friends, Rooney’s debut novel, focuses on two young college aged friends, who happen to also be exes. In Hulu’s television adaptation of the novel, Frances (Alison Oliver), a talented writer and poet, and Bobbi (Sasha Lane), a charismatic performer, become platonically and romantically involved with a married couple, Melissa (Jemima Kirke), an intimidatingly skilled writer and her reluctantly famous husband, Nick (Joe Alwyn). The four of them are thrown into a tumultuous relationship when both Melissa and Nick visit one of Frances and Bobbi’s poetry readings. As compliments soar and guards go down, the series charts the tricky and complicated terrain of what it means to be in a relationship.
While Hulu’s Conversations with Friends doesn’t shy away from focusing on the tense and intimate elements of Nick and Frances’ blossoming relationship, it seems to lack an understanding of who these characters are, and what drives them to make these choices. In the novel, Frances is self-conscious and lost to what she believes to be a debilitating degree. She sees Bobbi as someone living life uninhibited by anxieties and as someone whom most people want to be around. In reality, however, people love Frances. She’s intelligent, beautiful, and witty, all the traits she believes that she lacks and that Bobbi has. The show takes a different approach to their personalities. Alison Oliver’s Frances is slightly more awkward than Rooney’s version, and it appears that the series portrays Frances’ internal anxieties as intrinsic to who she is, as opposed to mere self-doubt. However, her anxieties become less prominent as the show progresses, as Frances becomes more herself while easing into her new relationship with Nick. Differences in characterisation aside, Oliver does a great job with the role, and her performance is a highlight.
The first episode sees the four of them over for dinner at Melissa and Nick’s. Melissa is drawn into Bobbi’s loud and charming demeanour, and their bond sparks off immediately. They are both bold and unflinching in their beliefs, and hence tend to overshadow their counterparts both in volume and conviction. They leave Frances and Nick out metaphorically and literally as the two of them go outside to smoke. The tension between the Frances and Nick as they sit at the table all by themselves is palpable, but whether that tension is sexual or because of the uncomfortable situation of being left behind is unknown both to the viewer and the characters. Alwyn and Oliver have undeniable chemistry, and the tension that’s visible in the first few episodes really builds up in a way that makes it impossible to ignore the fact these two performers have an intense connection onscreen.
When Frances and Nick first sleep together, she bursts into tears. She explains to Nick that she has cried after sleeping with Bobbi before and that these are happy tears, before joking that Bobbi has said it’s part of her “repressed nature”. Nick and Frances both laugh, but this recurring theme of Frances being unsure of herself and searching for a sense of self through her relationships with others is something that we have seen happen with both her and Nick quite a few times. In the book, this passive indecision makes sense, since we get to see more into Frances’ mind, but the television adaptation of Frances comes off as more immature than in the novel.
Much like Normal People, Rooney’s Conversations with Friends comes alive in those silent, lingering shots that follow the characters everywhere they go. A majority of Conversations with Friends is spent zoomed in on screens, as emails and texts play a large role in the story. The way Frances and Nick communicate is extremely guarded and timid at times, and while this does a lot to characterize both of them, it unfortunately does not always make for gripping television. This isn’t to say that all shows have to be action and dialogue packed dramas, but Normal People shined in moments of solitude between characters. Conversations with Friends doesn’t quite pull it off in the same way.
The show finds its groove in the back half of the season, as the characters begin to realize the consequences of their actions inevitably are going to affect their lives. There’s a short scene between Alison Oliver and Jemima Kirke in episode ten, an honest and tense conversation, and while it’s great, it’s frustrating to see the show kick into a higher gear and immediately fade back into its previous slow pace. Conversations with Friends is a passionate and complicated story, and the characters’ desires make sense in the novel, but the show falls short in translating the fascinating allure of watching these people exist and make the same mistakes over and over. Nevertheless, it’s a treat getting to watch these actors. Sasha Lane, Jemima Kirke, Joe Alwyn, and Alison Oliver are all especially fantastic, but the show leaves you wishing there was more for them to grip on to.