Opinion: Should you ever watch the TV adaptations of your favourite books?

Opinion: Should you ever watch the TV adaptations of your favourite books?
TV writers, take note: leave the really good books alone, please. Find your own stories

Let me start with a disclaimer, though in fact the disclaimer forms the centre of this entire piece: I haven’t watched any of the new BBC adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends. But that’s the point – I don’t want to.

Why? Well, I loved the book, you see.

I read a proof version of it shortly before it was published – that version is now dog-eared and water-damaged (like any proper fan of reading, I prefer to do it in the bath). It was my first introduction to Rooney’s peculiarly lilting style: her prose is poetic and unspooling, it unravels on the page like a ribboned stream of consciousness, yet the action – the plot, if you will – is sparse.

Rooney is a writer, I’ve always felt, who achieves that unique goal of hooking you in, while at the same time giving you very little – nothing much happens, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Conversations With Friends is a “quiet” book. So is Beautiful World, Where Are You – her latest, which I adored, even though I’d be hard-pushed to tell you much about what Eileen and Alice (the two main characters) actually do.

The same goes for her second novel, Normal People, which I also loved. And I did watch the TV adaptation of that one, which is exactly why I am so determined not to repeat my mistake with Conversations With Friends.

I couldn’t avoid Normal People – it came out during the pandemic, while we were all locked down. I was spending most of the hours of the day (and night) wide awake on a narrow bed in my spare room, feeling both wired and frustrated; animated yet suffocated, just like everybody else. I have never watched so many films, so much TV, in my life – and certainly not at three in the morning. I was just as weird as you were. None of us were OK.

I didn’t have anything else to do, plus, it felt like lunacy not to watch the programme everyone was talking about. I’d raved about the novel for so long that friends and family alike kept texting me about it: “That book you were on about is on TV!” I really couldn’t help myself. But do I regret it now? Yes.

My reasons aren’t groundbreaking ones, the same complaints have certainly been echoed before, but watching Normal People just hammered them home. Once you “see” the book on screen in front of you, you can’t “un-see” it. It becomes the book’s reality; the characters inhabited by the actors who play them (in the latter case, the obsession with Connell’s neck chain became one of its main talking points – yet I don’t remember feeling so stricken by a simple necklace while reading the book, do you?).

Whenever I think about Normal People now, I don’t picture Connell and Marianne the way I used to picture them, I picture Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones; both beautiful to watch on screen, but not remotely the people I had in my head before I watched it. Same goes for the setting: I’ve only been to Ireland once, so I didn’t have anything to draw on except for Rooney’s description of the fictional village of Sligo – and my own imagination. And that’s what made it so special.

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That’s what makes reading as a whole so special, in fact. The entire point is that it stirs fantasy, that it conjures up a vivid, internal non-reality. The world that develops in our minds when we read a novel can be set in deep space, or in some dystopian, steampunk landscape (high five to my fellow hard sci-fi nerds). It can be full of dragons and talking trees or take place on gritty battlefields. It can be gilded and hushed, as per Atonement. It can be bare and bleak (The Road). It can career from the sublime to the ridiculous.

The point is, it’s yours. For however many precious hours you are engrossed in a novel, it belongs to you. The characters are yours alone, the setting – a dusty library, say – is imbued with your own scent. Your footprints are the ones left like ghosts in the grass of some 18th-century stately home. Watching the TV adaptation of a book you’ve fallen in love with only ruins the magic.

Nothing gets people more het up than disagreeing over what constitutes a good vs bad reading process, as my former colleague Rupert Hawksley found out when he wrote this piece about his belief that we “owe” it to authors to finish each and every book we start – and if you disagree, that’s fine with me. It’s your world, just as (I’m sure) every author intended.

But TV writers, take note: I want you to leave the really good books alone, please. Find your own stories – stop trying to take ours.