Review: Conversations with Friends
Sophy Cullington dives into the latest Sally Rooney TV adaptation, considering its mixed reception, frank depiction of polygamy, and Alison Oliver’s debut performance
When I first came across Normal People (2020), the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel, it was during lockdown. I recall bingeing the whole series in just over a day. For a nation amid a pandemic, starved of human contact and connection, this intimate, refreshing depiction of young love couldn’t have come at a better time and held an unprecedented appeal. After Normal People’s mass success, it’s no surprise that Hulu’s subsequent adaptation of Rooney’s first novel, Conversations with Friends (2022), arrived on our screens with a certain degree of hype. However, the show’s reception so far has been hugely varied. So-called ‘second album syndrome’ certainly rings true here, however unfairly.
Set primarily in Dublin, the plot centres around Frances (Alison Oliver) and Bobbi (Sasha Lane), two college students who also happen to be ex-girlfriends. At a spoken word evening, the pair befriend Melissa (Jemima Kirke), a thirty-something writer who takes them under her wing, inviting them into her home and introducing them to her husband, a professional actor called Nick (Joe Alwyn). Over the ensuing months, Frances begins an affair with Nick, the relations between the tangled foursome becoming increasingly complex as they are all forced to confront their inner desires and the extent of their loyalties.
The show’s reception so far has been hugely varied
Both Conversations with Friends and Normal People share Lenny Abrahamson as their lead director, meaning they have many stylistic similarities. Both shows, for instance, noticeably prioritise close-ups and move the action along at a deliberately naturalistic pace.
However, one key difference is that Sally Rooney played an active role in Normal People’s production and screenwriting process. This involvement no doubt contributed to how authentically the adaptation portrayed the book’s key themes and characters. By contrast, she didn’t write the screenplay for Conversations with Friends, playing only a minor role in its production. This difference could explain why the tone felt lost in the book to show translation, especially regarding Frances and Nick’s relationship.
In the book, they were two intrinsically insecure but quick-witted people; it’s partially Frances’s humour, displayed in her meandering emails, which attracts Nick to her. Whereas in the show, their interactions appear excessively awkward and stilted. For example, when Nick asks, “I thought you were attracted to my personality”, Frances replies, “Do you even have one?” Rather than taking on a joking tone, as suggested by the book, she comes across as blunt, to the extent of almost being rude. The show also omits the book section where Nick financially supports a struggling Frances. I was surprised by this omission since it removes the power imbalance integral to their relationship’s nuance.
Despite this, I believe that an adaptation’s fidelity to its source material should not determine its merit. Conversations with Friends is a hugely challenging text to adapt to the screen. Given Frances’s position as primary narrator, the book allows for far more introspection than on-screen. In the show, Frances comes across as enigmatic and cold, sometimes making her inherently unlikable. Whilst in the book, Rooney constantly grants readers access to her internal dialogue, enabling a far more sympathetic interpretation of her character and emotions. Moreover, as readers, we only get Frances’ perspective of what Nick is like and build a portrait of him accordingly. By contrast, the show portrays him as he actually is – far less romanticised than Frances’ version, and hence somewhat disappointing for audiences.
An adaptation’s fidelity to its source material should not determine its merit. Conversations with Friends is a hugely challenging text to adapt to the screen.
I feel that much of the criticism levelled towards the show is unfair. It’s hard for the show to be taken as a piece of art on its terms without being overshadowed by the pervasive social media backlash. By removing the excessive comparisons, it becomes possible to appreciate the compelling performances delivered by the cast and the many strikingly poignant scenes within the show. The final phone call between Frances and Melissa was a stand-out moment for me. Jemima Kirke delivers a fantastic monologue, breaking the restrained cordiality maintained thus far when she attacks Frances in a tone of raw fury before visibly suppressing her anger, then becoming more gentle after sensing Frances’ desolation. The entire scene felt a welcome release of the emotional tension built up throughout the show, reminding viewers of the pair’s stark age gap and highlighting Melissa’s maturity over Frances’s naivety and vulnerability.
Through her expressive countenance, Alison Oliver conveys Frances’ interiority exceptionally well; it’s hard to believe this is her debut performance.
Whilst the slow burn of Conversations with Friends may not be to everyone’s liking, its languorous moments are crucial to the erotic tension pervading the show, and the lingering silences simmer under the strain of everything unsaid. And, if you hadn’t guessed, yes, the title is hugely ironic; you’ll find yourself screaming at the screen for the characters to communicate with one another, for god’s sake! But what the show lacks in pace, it makes up for in its portrayal of real, visceral emotion. Part of what makes the Sally Rooney universe so mesmerising is its intimacy with everyday pain and lust, positioning the audience as voyeurs. And if I still haven’t convinced you of the show’s appeal, then consider the bonus of its fantastic soundtrack, featuring artists such as James Blake, Mitski, and a stunning original track from Phoebe Bridgers.
I sincerely recommend you give this show a chance, regardless of whether you’re a devoted fan of Rooney or are coming to this with no prior knowledge of her work––if anything, the latter may enjoy it even more!