When Conversations With Friends debuted on Hulu two weeks ago, it did so into a flurry of true crime shows and high-drama reality series. This Emmys season, in which the adaptation of Sally Rooney’s debut novel is hoping to compete, is currently dominated by frontrunners like Squid Game, Ozark and The Dropout. Lenny Abrahamson and his team at Element Pictures are betting on audiences willingness to take their time with a television show — viewers who have the appetite for quiet, complicated interpersonal stories, and where the most suspense comes from a heated email exchange.
But Abrahamson has made this exact magic before, with 2020’s adaptation of Normal People (Rooney’s second, but higher-selling, book). That limited series became a critical and commercial success, dominating the cultural conversation and pulling in both Emmy and BAFTA nominations. Abrahamson says he stays away from reviews of his work, but he’s as hyper-focused on the overall success of his projects as anyone else — especially since Conversations, like Normal People before it, must also answer to Rooney’s cadre of dedicated and very opinionated fans. He joined The Hollywood Reporter via Zoom from his offices in Dublin to discuss the stakes at play this time around, why he almost changed the ending of the show, and how he hopes the Rooneyverse will change television.
As you were making the show or preparing for it to release, did you feel like you had a good sense of what fans would be looking for? Did you imagine that the audience would be the same as for Normal People?
Something surprised me about the audience for Normal People, which is that it was very broad. I thought we would find the hardcore fans of the novels, and that it would skew older because the filmmaking is quite slow. It’s quite low-key compared to what is out there in the TV world. But I was so happy to see that we had a younger audience. I think we’ll find something similar with Conversations, and my hope is that they’ll find it similarly powerful.
Do you think anything about the way you made Conversations With Friends was a direct result of what you learned making Normal People? How would the show have been different if you’d made them in the opposite order?
What we learned making Normal People is that the audience is much more willing to sit with characters and watch life moving at something closer to the pace of real life than the television industry would have you believe. That’s no criticism, of course. But we made this in a much more low-key style. With Normal, what we said was, we have this intense love story and we know that if we get it right, we can be slow and careful and bring people towards these characters — rather than having them shout out of the screen at the audience.
And with Conversations, we said we believe we have a complicated story, with all these interconnected relationships and all these uncertainties and that we can stay with the instinct to be slow. If we’d done it first, we might have felt a fear, or had that little voice that says, you need to speed it up and make it sexier and glossier and bigger. That voice would’ve been harder to resist if we’d done Conversations first, and that it benefits from being the second of the two adaptations.
Did you have to fight with the studio and streamer to make the show in that slower manner?
Far be it for me to be full of praise for a studio (laughs) but we had a brilliant time with Hulu. We were fully expecting to get a call saying, here’s this long list of notes. But it didn’t happen, even though the studio personnel changed from the first show to the second. I do remember that with Normal, there was a lot of attention paid to episode one. Everybody in the streaming space is afraid that people will only give something 10 minutes and that if they don’t love it, there are 50 other shows they’ve been meaning to watch. It’s a hard place to be in as a storyteller — my way of telling stories is to bring people in slowly and be quiet and confident and take my time. I don’t have a car chase to hook people. But we did think really hard about those first 10 minutes on both shows.
You kept the final scene of Conversations With Friends incredibly true to the book, which could be difficult for some viewers to see Frances making that split-second decision to go back to Nick. Did you consider softening the ending?
We did talk about it. Everybody has their different feelings about the end of the book, and I remember reading it and thinking, has she chosen one person over the other? And does that feel like a dismissal of this other deep relationship that she has with Bobbi ? But what I hope the show does is convey that she’s opening her life up rather than choosing one thing over the other. It’s the question the characters ask of, can you love more than one person at the same time? Frances feels like she’s answering: yes. The novel had an iconic ending and we all felt we must keep it but also give it a nuance. I hope we earned that ending, meaning that you don’t doubt her feelings for Bobbi even as she let Nick back.
It seemed like there was an element of suspense over whether the phone call was going to play out the same on the show as it did in the book…
We wanted to have that exact last line of “Come get me.” There’s such pressure on that ending. We actually waited to shoot that scene so that it was Christmas in Dublin. We’d finished filming a few months before and then came back for that scene. Joe [Alwyn, as Nick] was so brilliant and raw on his end of the scene too.
What do you think Frances and Nick’s rekindling means for Nick and Melissa’s marriage?
What you imagine happens afterwards is that Melissa is going to really think wow, I can’t believe this. But she’s strong. And even in that last conversation she has with Frances, when they have that showdown on the phone, you get the feeling that Melissa has managed to make sense of a possibility of a more poly relationship. She was open to that. And even though she was furious with Frances, she still cares about her. I reckon that Nick will be honest with her; I don’t think the intention will be for Nick and Frances to keep this a secret.
So much of this drama plays out in the final episode, with Frances and Bobbi getting back together and then the potential whiplash of that final scene. Was there a discussion about drawing out any of that?
Absolutely there was. I could see a world in which maybe an entire episode is dedicated to what happens between Frances and Nick’s breakup and getting back together. But that could get people really invested in Bobbi and Frances to the point that they feel hurt by Frances’ decision in the end. What you don’t want to do is show Frances with Bobbi but somehow still longing for Nick. I didn’t want people to think that Bobbi wasn’t enough for her. And we didn’t want to have to problematize the relationship with Bobbi. I think Frances just loves them both, and she was prepared to let Nick go because of how much she fucked things up and how much she hurt Melissa, but then when she speaks to him again she realizes almost spontaneously, I still really love this person. It’s the beginning of another complex relationship, but that part isn’t our story to tell.
I understand the instinct for people to feel bad on behalf of Bobbi in the end, but it does seem like Bobbi doesn’t want a relationship that veers in any way towards normative or even monogamous…
That’s absolutely right. For example, that conversation Frances and Bobbi have in the kitchen the morning after they sleep together, they talk about how people think in couples and you have to work hard not to do that. I think all that Bobbi wants is honesty, and for Frances to be honest with herself, too. And Sasha [Lane] is so genius in how she plays her, because you really believe her.
The sex scene between Frances and Bobbi was shot so much more intimately than those between Frances and Nick, which were quicker and cut away more. What were you trying to achieve with that difference?
When Frances and Bobbi got back together, we wanted it to feel like home. There’s loads of laughter and they’re talking to each other — even though the audience doesn’t hear what they’re saying. Bobbi is Frances’ closest person and will always be that, so the lovemaking had to feel distinct from that of Nick. Frances and Nick are always either coming or going, there’s risk and uncertainty. Whereas Frances and Bobbi are about joy and we wanted that joy to be unimpeachable.
We’re almost five years out from the publication of Sally Rooney’s first book, and it’s clear how she’s shaped the trends of literature. Do you think these adaptations will have an impact in the kind of television we see?
Just anecdotally, I’ve heard that there are a lot of comparisons to our shows in the pitch process. DPs and directors are putting photos of the show on their boards and such. But I do hope that these shows will open the door for risks to be taken by streamers and broadcasters, and that they’ll realizes audiences are more clever than they might give them credit for. They’re more adventurous than they give them credit for. Small stories can have massive impact.
I also hope that this arms race of sort to make everything bigger and fancier starts to slow down. There’s a bit of a flattening effect when you try to make everything glossier. I’m not working in this world, of course, but I see it in sci-fi and action flicks. Nothing, no amount of effects, can shock the audience anymore. I hope more attention is paid to storytelling in its purest form, and that shows and movies are allowed to be quiet and still stand out from the crowd.
Have you learned any lessons insofar as the best way to adapt a book successfully?
There’s no one way, the only thing you can do not settle. You need studios who are prepared to sit back and let the talent find the best way to make the best product. With adaptation, you have to keep going until it’s just right. But also, I do want to step away from adaptation for a bit. There’s kind of an IP frenzy right now, which I get and I’m of course guilty of participating in. And it’s hard when people give you opportunities to make incredible things like this. But I do want to see original, out-of-nothing stories being told without the studio needing the comfort of an existing book.
‘Conversations With Friends’ EP Lenny Abrahamson on the Value of Slow TV and the Future of Adaptations