Conversations With Friends Debuts on Amazon

The makers of Normal People return to adapt another of Irish novelist Sally Rooney's poignant, nuanced romances

The makers of Normal People return to adapt another of Irish novelist Sally Rooney’s poignant, nuanced romances

When Oscar-nominated filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson was in the process of turning author Sally Rooney’s Normal People into a limited series, it suddenly unlocked the secret to adapting Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations With Friends, which he had long been trying to turn into a feature film.  

Abrahamson, his co-producer Ed Guiney and Rooney herself, who worked as a writer and exec producer on the TV adaptation of Normal People, now came to understand that there was no two-hour version of the coming-of-age story about Irish college student Frances (Alison Oliver) and her best friend Bobbi (Sasha Lane), who develop a complicated relationship with writer Melissa (Jemima Kirke) and her husband Nick (Joe Alwyn). “[Rooney’s] writing demands space for the characters to breathe and to really understand them,” Guiney explains.  

Indeed, the love square that forces each character to look deep into their own self-delusion and vulnerabilities, takes 12 episodes to unravel, in the process opening the viewer up to Frances and her friends/paramours in a way that the first-person narrative of the book couldn’t. “It was a process of digging into parts of the book which maybe were suggested but not fully fleshed out,” says Abrahamson. “We’re approaching events in a different way, trying to find a way of getting to the meat and the core of things in a visual medium. And even though it’s a story centred on Frances, it only works if the quartet of characters—Frances, Nick, Melissa and Bobbi—are all real and if we can see Frances’ changes refracted in what’s happening with them.”  Conversations With FriendsPrime Video

As the material would suggest, the greatest challenge for first-time actor Oliver was allowing Frances to be the observer, without feeling like she wasn’t doing anything on screen. “So much of that came from Lenny and his guidance and his directing,” says Oliver. “In many senses, nothing really happens, but then actually, so much happens. And playing that, just allowing what’s happening around her, what’s happening to her and just letting it in — when you’re working with such incredible people, once you kind of just open yourself up to that, I find it such an enjoyable, exciting experience.”  

Aiding her understanding of Frances was that Rooney’s novel was, coincidentally, the first book Oliver had read during the pandemic. “I was in my final year of college and my roommate at the time was like, ‘You have to read this book.’ I’d already read Normal People, so I was familiar with Sally and her writing and just absolutely loved it,” the actress reflects. “Her writing is so intimate and sensitive. I felt so attached to the book but I also felt like I really knew the people. So, trying to find the essence of what I thought Frances was, is what I tried to do.” 

Initially, all the essence and chemistry was tested out over virtual conferencing, as the series came together during the COVID lockdown. “It’s amazing how much you can feel even across Zoom,” says Abrahamson. “I remember Alison auditioning both with Jemima and Sasha and I remember Alison blurting out at the end of the audition with Jemima, ‘You’re amazing,’ which is a brilliant sign that she had felt this thing as well. And Alison and Sasha absolutely hit it off…  [there was a] sense that they were just so tuned in to each other.”  

Conversations With FriendsPrime VideoAlwyn, who himself is in a high-profile relationship with singer Taylor Swift, says he was drawn to the material for Rooney’s thought-provoking views on modern love, which in the case of Conversations includes the idea of open relationships. “I’m obviously happy in a monogamous relationship, but one of the interesting things about Sally’s writing is that she’s exploring the ideas of happiness and love and desire and intimacy outside of those constructs that we create for ourselves, whether that’s friendships or families or relationships,” he says. “One of the reasons why people love her books is her refusal to tie things up at the end of her stories in a neat bow. As a conversation, it’s endlessly fascinating.”  

Fans of Abrahamson’s first foray into television will be pleased to hear that there are similarities between his two Rooney adaptations. “There’s a strong family resemblance between the two novels because of that special voice that Sally has and the scale of what she focuses on; small things that have big, big effects on people’s lives,” he says. “But on the other hand, it does have its own very distinct personality. It’s always about following particular characters through a particular story, and I think what we’d come out with at the other end of that is something which I think does bear the correct resemblance to Normal People, but, I hope, feels like its own thing.” 

Conversations With Friends streams on Prime Video