The desire to escape the confines of one’s hometown is an urge familiar to anyone who’s ever listened to a Bruce Springsteen song or dreamed of moving to a new city in search of a bigger life. The heroine of novelist Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, also named Elena, is no exception, and HBO’s exquisite adaptation of My Brilliant Friend brings this concept of fleeing one’s all-too-familiar homeland, to life.
The series, set in the 1950s, overwhelms with a visceral sense of how oppressive Elena’s little corner of Naples is. Articulating what we already vividly see just feels like being hit over the head with ones of the pots an enraged neighbor throws over the side of her balcony. No need.
I come to My Brilliant Friend as a devoted fan of the Neapolitan Novels series. I’ve read the author’s standalone books and her Guardian column, and I’ve read much of the speculation about who the mysterious author writing under the pen name Elena Ferrante really is, including the maddening takes in earlier days when critics (mostly men) guessed that Ferrante was actually a man. All the while, in the back of my head, I started to think of My Brilliant Friend as the setup book, the one you needed to get through in order to properly enjoy the other, better books to come. Book One was about being introduced to the friendship Elena and her soulmate and bitter rival, Lila, share; getting a sense of Ferrante’s anti-capitalist ideologies; and trying to keep track of the many different Italian names and nicknames.
“Children don't know the meaning of yesterday, or even of tomorrow, everything is this, now,” writes Ferrante in My Brilliant Friend. “The street is this, the doorway is this, the stairs are this, this is Mamma, this is Papa, this is the day, this the night.” The adaptation makes children out of the viewing audience, forced to be in the moment and take in details that might not have fully processed while tearing through the book. The stakes feel higher upon seeing the literal gloom and doom of Elena’s formative years in the 1950s: all muted tones, gray skies, dirty streets, shoddy clothing, the claustrophobia of the scrutiny from gossipy neighbors all of whom have dark circles under their eyes—even the children.
Persecution via cinematography is dreary enough, but the omnipresence of violence in the neighborhood is a more urgent threat. There are few safe spaces in Ferrante’s Naples, where domestic violence is a staple of family life and street brawls are commonplace. Fights tend to break out at the slightest provocation and they quickly escalate from yelling to punching. It’s one thing to read about the brutality that can pop up anywhere in a book, but quite another when you can see the blood trickling down an injured person’s face, hear the screams of the victims, and their terrified family members.
The joy of watching My Brilliant Friend comes from witnessing small slices of hope, in seeing Lila and Elena’s friendship based on their intellectual prowess, break out in such a bleak setting. If Springsteen’s heroes dream of riding off in a car, Elena and Lila earnestly believe that education is the most effective escape vehicle. The idea that literature can save is both exciting and true in their eyes, and there’s no happier moment in the series than when they save up money to go to the store and buy a copy of Little Women, which they read together until they have it committed to memory.
I’d forgotten how much books matter in My Brilliant Friend, and I enjoy the irony of needing a TV show to remind me of how much literature means to the girls. In Elena and Lila’s Naples, if a girl wants to better her station in life, she has to marry well (i.e. Lila and Stefano) and, (spoiler alert for season two), hope her husband doesn’t beat her. Counter to the status quo, their younger selves cling to the idea that becoming an author and selling tons of books can make you rich and powerful and not beholden to any man. Capitalism at its best! And yet, even as they desire money above all else, they’re also introduced to one of the most egalitarian of institutions: the library. Elena is lucky enough to continue her formal education, but the library allows Lila, the insatiable reader, to become an autodidact even as she must abandon school to work in her family’s shoe shop.
There are many acclaimed, historical television shows in which women struggle to find agency within their own lives: Mad Men, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, GLOW. But My Brilliant Friend breaks ground by presenting the harsh truths of agency and feminism in spaces of oppression. Can Elena escape her neighborhood’s vortex? Physically, yes. But neither education nor money is powerful enough to mitigate the oppression of being a woman in a systematically patriarchal society. As Elena and Lila continue to struggle to make their way in the world and choose increasingly diverging paths, it’s difficult not to feel a bit of dread for what’s in store. But I’ll eagerly be watching next season.