In the last episode of Succession’s second season, Shiv Roy — in the midst of an argument with her husband Tom — is clutching a copy of Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, which she brought with her to read out on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. Indeed, for a show set in approximately 2018 or 2019, this would be the book to have on the beach. Rooney’s first novel, which was released in the spring of 2017, was a sensation. I once saw someone at a nightclub holding it.
That a book can and should be enjoyed at the beach has often been code for an object of derision: The novel is too casual, too feminine, too chatty, too simple. Upon rereading Rooney’s debut, I found Conversations with Friends to be anything but. The dialogue is engaging and smart, the characters talking of Slavoj Žižek and Patricia Lockwood, their words often hiding underlying power struggles and emotional tensions between them.
It’s a shame, then, that the BBC and Hulu adaptation of Conversations with Friends has been woefully dumbed down and ironed out, full of awkward silences and unearned longing. The story is that of two couples: Frances and Bobbi, college-aged ex-girlfriends who perform spoken-word poetry together, and Nick and Melissa, a somewhat notable C-list actor and writer, both in their mid-30s, both more of a name in Dublin than anywhere else in the world. Over the course of the show, Frances and Nick start and end and start and end and start and end an affair. In the novel, the reason for the affair is multifold: It’s an examination of perceived power and sexual curiosity (on the part of Frances, who has only previously been with women) as well as biting portrayal of the selfishness of young people.
The thrill of the novel was the betrayal of two passive characters, selfishly acting out against their active and unpredictable other halves. But Hulu’s version, sadly, has been stripped of dialogue and reasoning, of conversation and intellect, reduced to a blurry fog of moody and graphic sex scenes and passive-aggressive texting.
Starring newcomer Alison Oliver as Frances, Conversations with Friends follows her every doe-eyed move as she upends a long-term relationship. Oliver is unassuming, and sometimes funny, but an otherwise passive performer, purely reactive to those around her. And as Nick, Joe Alwyn takes the bait, sadly, as he trudges around gloomily. Why are these two so attracted to each other? In the book, it’s a series of flirtations, quick and direct, a sense of danger and escape from both of their all-too-normal lives. Here? Boredom, maybe, and conventional television attractiveness. There’s not even enough chemistry to sustain them through the affair’s first go-round.
Sasha Lane and Jemima Kirke, two of the last decade’s most unexpected and magnetic talents, play Bobbi and Melissa, the two significantly more dynamic characters. Lane — so surprising in American Honey — plays Bobbi bitter and biting, with none of the unpredictable spark she carries in the novel. And Kirke for the most part is altogether brushed aside as “the wife.” You don’t bring Jemima Kirke in to be the wife!
The point of adaptation is not direct transposition, of course. There’s no fun in that. Any fan of a story-to-screen adaptation who delves back into the text will find themselves disappointed in one way or another. The purpose, in turn, of adaptation is to change and morph the form or the structure, or realign the characters: to take something once two-dimensional and make it three-dimensional. A good example of this, perhaps, would be Lenny Abramson’s adaptation of Rooney’s novel Normal People. Hulu and Abramson’s version was much more empathetic and funny, removing some of the soap opera dramatics and injecting both a sense of irony and pathos throughout. Dublin, too, was a beautiful, lived-in setting, a place where it really felt like the characters lived. That this team has again adapted Rooney’s work feels like an initially good decision, but unfortunately, it falls flat. Perhaps because of COVID-19 shooting protocols, whatever they were, we don’t see much of these characters interacting together or really living in their world. The show is isolated, lonely, its Dublin sparse with Frances’ apartment, a bookstore, and the stage where occasionally the two girls perform.
The characters in Conversations with Friends, as initially written, are tropes, certainly, but ones that mash up well against each other: Frances as the wayward artsy college student, Bobbi the chaotic lesbian, Melissa the hotshot successful writer, and Nick the wimpy but handsome Ken doll. Thrust into dozens of scenes together in the book, these characters discuss politics and capitalism and foreign films and poetry and the Bible. The show, however, stops short of any of these conversations going anywhere or saying anything. Here, they sit around tables awkwardly, dialogue stilted, struggling to reach a point of conclusion before they can be released back in the wild to mope. Frances and Bobbi, both young and self-centered, love to make bold proclamations in the way that young people do, regardless of how foolish they come off. But no one questions them — they don’t even question each other, and moments of tension are often diffused by moving on to a new scene entirely. It’s as if the whole adaptation is operating in a passive-aggressive way toward them, as if none of these characters are worth seeing through.
At one point in the text conversation between Frances and Bobbi, Frances highlights the word “feelings.” She doesn’t tap through; rather she simply analyzes it, as if selecting it will provide some insight. In the book, however, she searches through their years of text conversations to dig up a back and forth in which they discuss Frances’ lack of emotionality, that Bobbi believes a person can’t just be “unemotional” as Frances claims, that that’s like being “without thought.” There’s also the question of money and status: Nick and Melissa are far more well off than Frances (though Bobbi comes from a moneyed family, she feigns a poor-student existence perhaps to better blend in socially). A conversation in the book between Frances and Nick about his clothing — worth more than she feels comfortable spending — is streamlined here to Nick’s handsomeness privilege, that he must not feel vulnerability because of how handsome he is. That’s probably true — literally look at Joe Alwyn — but the power imbalance between that of a 20-year-old woman and a 30-something man gets reduced to “He’s hotter.” There ought to be much more danger and complexity here, rather than noticing it and moving on.
What’s perhaps so frustrating about the show is that no one is really talking about anything at all. This adaptation mostly mimics the tone of Normal People and its torrid and frustrating affair between two lifelong friends. Normal People and Conversations with Friends are different novels, and it does Rooney’s writing and storytelling a disservice to treat them so similarly. Her work, often discounted for its apparent casualness, is much more in line with the works of Jane Austen and E.M. Forster, who wrote genuinely funny and class-conscious books. These were not simply marriage plots but philosophically challenging novels, ones that asked why we love who we love. Rooney’s work, too, should be considered in that vein, the ironic hypocrisies we come up against in our pursuit to love and be loved.
It is hard to judge something by the merit of what you wish it was versus what it is, but Conversations with Friends has been so stripped of anything that made it challenging and smart and frustrating and, frankly, enjoyable. What’s left is a story of a relationship with nothing at stake. Nick and Melissa not only lack chemistry but literal scenes together; Frances and Bobbi have little comfort or ease or familiarity with one another. The show wants you to read into that faux meaning, through its glum scoring and gray cinematography. But nothing can save it from its own emptiness. At 12 episodes, the limited series feels stretched thin as an unrepentant slog with little to say and less to show, like opening up a too-long text from someone you don’t know very well — worth a skim, maybe, but then back to your afternoon at the beach.
All 12 episodes of Conversations with Friends are now streaming on Hulu.