Early in Sally Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations With Friends, the heroine has a nightmare. Frances, a college student, dreams that a tooth has come loose in her mouth, leaving a hole that pumps out so much blood, she can’t speak. “The blood tasted thick, clotted and salty,” she recounts. “I could feel it, vividly, running back down my throat.”
The dream provides a dramatic metaphor for how the reserved Frances has been feeling voiceless next to her gregarious ex-girlfriend turned best friend, Bobbi. Then again, the subconscious tends to be unsubtle—especially the subconscious of Rooney’s characters across her three books, including Normal People. Her protagonists are often aloof, even unreadable, in person. But they exhibit a cerebral interiority that has led to Rooney being hailed as “the first great millennial novelist.” Through them, she captures the way her generation strives to be cool and insightful while being laden with the anxiety of awareness.
Hulu’s adaptation of Conversations With Friends was made by some of the creatives behind the streamer’s hit take on Normal People, and thus feels much like that first venture. The limited series is atmospheric, evoking the melancholia of the not-quite-adult space in which Rooney’s characters usually exist. Sensual, realistically choreographed sex scenes abound, as do heavy silences and meaningful looks. But though that naturalistic formula allowed for a rich examination of intimacy in Normal People, it sanitizes Conversations, perhaps the trickiest entry in Rooney’s oeuvre. It misses how Conversations marks Rooney at her most darkly observant when it comes to her own age group. To read Rooney is to read Millennial malaise as interpreted by Europe’s former university-level debate champion. To watch Conversations is to watch her acerbic words detailing the agony of the Millennial experience—so performative! so insecure!—get watered down until they argue nothing at all.
As an autopsy of a ménage-à-quatre, Conversations the novel is uneasy from the first page. Frances and Bobbi meet a sophisticated married couple, Nick and Melissa, and their entanglements drive the plot. Bobbi’s flirtation with Melissa threatens Frances and Bobbi’s unresolved breakup, and Frances’s affair with Nick is a lopsided exercise in power dynamics. She’s dazzled by the older man, whose taciturn personality validates her own unsociable nature, but she has little say in their relationship. She becomes a portrait of her tech-savvy generation’s angst, hypersensitive to his every tonal shift in their digital exchanges.
Love is therefore a powerful currency and a self-inflicted wound in Conversations, a source of psychological torment that Rooney continually associates with physical pain. Frances’s period cramps worsen as the affair grows serious, leading to fainting spells. When Nick doesn’t say he loves her back, she chews the inside of her mouth until she tastes blood. “I wanted him to be cruel now, because I deserved it,” she thinks after an argument. “I wanted him to say the most vicious things he could think of, or shake me until I couldn’t breathe.” Such masochistic, piercing lines are absent from Hulu’s adaptation. The 12 half-hour episodes shrink away from ever tapping into Rooney’s grisly side, turning a biting novel into a standard melodrama that’s handsomely shot and finely acted but frustratingly sterile.
Perhaps the intense thought process of Rooney’s Millennial protagonist proved too much to handle. Frances is a chronic overthinker who struggles to express herself in person. As magnetic as the newcomer Alison Oliver is in the role, the script softens her character’s edges, making Frances’s outward iciness the result of her simply being shy, rather than of the fact that she grew up communicating on cold digital interfaces. In the book, Rooney emphasizes Frances’s dependency on instant messaging; when she feels poorly about her relationship with Bobbi (played by Sasha Lane), for instance, she rereads their old conversations, a habit that comforts and upsets her. She recognizes that she’s the product of a generation built on an insufficient form of communication and can even identify the practice as toxic, but she continues doing it all the same. The show skates past that unsettling context; it treats digital connection and distance simply as today’s reality, rather than probing how that system informs Frances’s self-doubt.
Indeed, the show recoils from examining any discomfort outside of the anxiety caused by Frances’s illicit romance with Nick (Joe Alwyn), rendering Frances’s story a more familiar tale of forbidden love than a singular dissection of the dangers of youth. Rooney carefully tracked how Frances deluded herself into justifying a difficult relationship because she didn’t know what to do about it; eventually, Frances gives up on trying to figure out the romance, getting upset over and over until she feels empty. That attitude also manifests as a pattern of self-harm in the book: When Frances grows envious of Nick and Melissa’s public display of affection, she digs her thumbnail into the side of her finger until it stings. After she goes on a Tinder date to get back at Nick, she scratches her arm until it bleeds. The show ignores all of this until a scene late in the series where Frances cuts open her thigh after a confrontation with Bobbi. By then, the act is jarring, inserted near the climax as if for shock value rather than as a demonstration of a history of intense self-loathing and confusion.
Yet even as the series shies away from the violence of Rooney’s writing, it also misses her sense of humor, a crucial element to her portrayal of the Millennial experience. Her characters are bemused by their own behavior; they know they intellectualize every interaction, and they’re burned out by it. During a scene missing from the adaptation, Frances wanders into a church and has an epiphany: “Do I sometimes hurt and harm myself, do I abuse the unearned cultural privilege of whiteness, do I take the labor of others for granted, have I sometimes exploited a reductive iteration of gender theory to avoid serious moral engagement, do I have a troubled relationship with my body, yes,” she thinks. “Do I want to be free of pain and therefore demand that others also live free of pain, the pain that is mine and therefore also theirs, yes, yes.” Immediately after having those thoughts, she faints, and when she wakes up, she buys herself instant noodles and chocolate cake. The scene is alarming, but also wryly funny. Being a Millennial, Rooney posits, is being annoyingly aware of too much—of gender, of class, of dynamics that previous generations didn’t have the vocabulary to discuss—and then being unable to deal with it. In other words, Frances just can’t even.
Hulu’s adaptation of Conversations dulls the author’s wit, depicting Frances as merely detached, not tortured by her ideas. She’s a wide-eyed ingenue, not the result of an era that trained a generation to know too much and too little at once. With its intimate close-ups, dreamlike lighting, and pleasurable pace, Conversations looks as beautiful as Normal People does. But Rooney’s debut novel—her most challenging, most brutal look at being young today—didn’t need such polished treatment. It needed to draw blood.