Sally Rooney’s prose, self-effacingly simple as it may appear, is most alluring because of the complexity it can contain. In the first chapter of her novel, Conversations With Friends, her narrator, a young woman named Frances, sketches out her temperament for us in quick flashes. “I couldn’t think of anything witty to say,” she says at one point, “and it was hard to arrange my face in a way that would convey my sense of humor.” Frances’ constant self-examination makes her a thrilling, vexing narrator. But what’s great on the page isn’t necessarily the best fodder for what’s great on the screen. On the heels of Hulu’s Normal People, another Rooney adaptation directed by Lenny Abrahamson (Room) that was an achingly tender take on budding and built intimacies, the streamer is back with Conversations With Friends. And the results are mixed at best.
As Frances, the wayward poet who falls for a dashing married man (an actor, of course), Alison Oliver had an understandably difficult task ahead. Frances lives in her head, constantly mulling over her actions, her words, her fears. She’s the kind of person who’d rather do spoken word for fear of jotting down anything in print and have it live on outside herself. (“I like the impermanence of this,” she confesses.) She’s an inward-looking character, a witness to her own life. To Oliver’s credit, she finds ways of making such inwardness legible throughout Conversations With Friends, managing to capture it in a sideways glance or a furtive blush. And yes, she does come alive when she meets Nick (Joe Alwyn). Suddenly, she’s no longer on the sidelines or playing second fiddle to her gregarious friend Bobbie (the always sunny Sasha Lane). With Nick, she finally feels seen, even as she knows that such glances are necessarily fleeting. He is married, after all. And perhaps just as aloof as she is. Their awkward flirtations at the start are charming and more grounded than such scenes often tend to be. “What do you write about?” Nick asks her before immediately regretting it: “That’s a terrible question.” They bumble their way into an affair where her need to be seen is so nakedly transparent that she knows she’s in too deep.
And it’s all for the affection of one man. And therein lies what makes this miniseries falter.
Nick is supposed to be the catalyst for something changing within Frances; why else would she begin an affair with a man married to the older woman her best friend is also courting? (Yes, show and novel may hint at friendly dynamics, but the intimacies here explored are decidedly more lascivious.) And ultimately, Alwyn, who is a beautiful specimen (it’s understandable why Oliver’s Frances would hesitate when caressing his naked body, afraid he’d disappear and prove himself a figment of her wild imagination), can never quite capture the magnetic appeal his character is called to project. He’s not helped by a script that is both sparse and overdetermined, one that at times makes its characters voice what would otherwise remain an inner monologue in Rooney’s words. (“You’re thinking things and not saying them,” Frances is told at one point.)
It’s no surprise the series feels most electric when it forgoes dialogue altogether. Sequences where Frances anxiously checks her phone for a lone text from Nick, or when she fidgets with her hair when she knows she’s being watched truly become ordinary moments weighted with outsized emotions. (Side note: Kudos for Abrahamson for shooting his actors actually typing on phones and not relying, as so many productions these days do, on typing on green screened props where the actual typing is added in post; it’s silly to focus on those details, but it’s refreshing to see such digital conversations have a tactility about them.)
As Nick and Frances’ relationship blooms (and ebbs and flows), Conversations With Friends offers glimmers of a fascinating proposition. Namely, Rooney’s book. “The novel is better” feels like such a tired line but there is something to be said about the expansive interiority prose allows and the way a TV adaptation can reduce rather than distill such a sensibility. Then again, as Frances reminds us, the permanence of Rooney’s words are still there, for all of us to find, even after we work our way through this adaptation wondering why those words alone weren’t enough.