For the British author David Nicholls, the key to a good romantic story is avoiding the clichés. “The first kiss, the first night together, the wedding day. There are all these landmarks which are quite familiar and quite obvious,” he said recently.
Instead, his 2009 novel “One Day” follows its two protagonists, Emma and Dexter, on the same day each year for two decades, as they weave in and out of each other’s lives as friends, partners and everything in between. What has happened on the previous 364 days is revealed slowly and indirectly, with many key moments left to the reader’s imagination.
In 2011, the novel — which has been translated into 40 languages and sold millions of copies — was adapted into a film starring Anne Hathaway as Emma, and the story has now found new life as a limited series, created by the Scottish screenwriter Nicole Taylor and available on Netflix.
While both adaptations closely follow the structure and plot of the novel, the show devotes the majority of its 14 half-hour-ish episodes to a different year in the pair’s lives. The film’s shorter run time meant significant cuts, so that it ultimately became a “little synopsis of the novel,” according to Nicholls. (In a Times review, the critic A.O. Scott wrote that the film “turns an episodic story into an anthology of feelings and associations.”)
The show’s extended length allows more rounded characters to emerge for Emma (played by Ambika Mod, previously Shruti in “This Is Going to Hurt”) and Dexter (Leo Woodall, who was Jack in Season 2 of “The White Lotus”). We meet them in 1988, on their last night of college, where Emma has kept her head down and worked hard on a double major and Dexter has been a popular party guy, achieving below average grades in anthropology.
Like in the film, Dexter is rich, handsome and can be arrogant, but Taylor said didn’t want her script to make him an “archetypal posh boy,” but to emphasize his vulnerability, instead. We see Dexter on the verge of tears at a train station after a heated conversation with his father, and using a pay phone to leave a weepy message on Emma’s answering machine, begging her to pick up the phone.
“The kind of vulnerabilities that Dexter has, Leo played beautifully,” Taylor said, adding that the actor had “brought quite a different kind of a Dexter to the performance.”
In an interview, Woodall said that playing Dexter had allowed him to experience “the deep depths and real lows of someone else’s life.” In his character’s early years, “he wants just to have fun,” Woodall said, but “the booze, the drugs, and his coping mechanism for grief and escaping,” get the better of him.
“There’s a lot of sympathy that you can have for him,” Woodall added. “He makes it difficult, but when you look at it through a long lens, he’s trying really hard to stay afloat.”
For many “One Day” fans, Emma is the more relatable character: an underdog fighting for a chance to get ahead. This was also true for Taylor, who was 29 when the novel was released, living in London and desperate to become a writer. “I felt like I was trying to make something happen for myself in a world full of Dexters,” she said. As a result, she said, “there’s more Emma in the series than there has been in the film or maybe even in the book.”
In the show’s early episodes, Emma is guarded and lacks confidence, which Mod said felt “realistic” for a woman of color in her character’s situation. “Many people, when reading the book, wouldn’t have imagined a brown Emma, but I think that, if anything, it amplifies and puts a spotlight on the things that make her more relatable,” Mod said. “The world pushes us to feel small and stay in our lane, and Emma’s lack of confidence and insecurity is definitely a result of that.”
As the episodes and years go by, both Emma and Dexter grow: Dexter becomes more serious, and Emma feels more certain of herself. Taylor said she hoped that fans of the book will watch the show — which feels a little like a more upbeat “Normal People” — and “fall in love with Ambika and Leo, and feel like ‘yes, there’s my Emma and Dexter,’” she said.
Nicholls’s story has such longevity, Taylor said, because everyone has a relationship similar to Emma and Dexter’s, even if it is not romantic. “We’ve all got that one person that always brings you back to the best version of yourself,” she said.