'My Brilliant Friend' Is a Magical Book and a Mediocre HBO TV Show

It's gorgeous and well-acted, but loses the emotional impact of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels.

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Dec 7 2018, 11:04pm

Photo via HBO

For years, Elena Ferrante's true identity has remained a mystery, even as she wrote prolifically and gained international renown as the author of the Neapolitan novels—a series famous for its transcendent insight into lifelong female friendship. The quartet of books traces the relationship between Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo and is set in 1950s Naples, a city crawling with abuse of all forms: intimate partner violence, child abuse, sexual assault, and street beatings to name a few. By all accounts, it's profoundly difficult for a young girl to flourish in that environment. This is what makes the perspective of the Neapolitan novels so powerful: They dare to center womanhood in a time period that was toxically misogynistic.

Today, the series is considered a masterpiece of contemporary literature, with more than 10 million copies sold in more than 40 countries. And Ferrante’s success has motivated a number of pointed attempts at uncovering who she really is. Most famously, in 2016, Italian journalist Claudio Gatti tried to pin her down as a Roman translator named Anita Raja. This rumor was never confirmed, but became a literary scandal that further propelled the books’ already flourishing sales. Ferrante’s identity is still known only by her publisher, Edizioni E/O. The rest of us only know her pen name. This mystery, paired with the incredible critical reception of her novels, has given Ferrante an almost godlike status among fans and in literary circles.

It’s no surprise, then, that HBO’s TV adaptation of the novels, titled My Brilliant Friend after the first book in the series, is meticulously loyal to its source material. The network spared no expense in bringing Ferrante's story to the screen—the season features roughly 150 actors and 5,000 extras and boasts a 215,000-square-foot, 14 block set, making it one of the largest television productions to have ever been filmed in Europe, according to The Hollywood Reporter. It is told entirely in Italian and Neapolitan dialect, which necessitated a cast that hailed mostly from Naples. And, ironically, this obsessive loyalty may be what doomed the adaptation.



HBO’s My Brilliant Friend hits every one of Ferrante's story beats, foregrounding the wrong details. The novels are radical because the reader sees everything through Elena’s eyes (known by her nickname Lenú), and what happens in real time is less important than how these events shape her life and influence her relationship with Lila. The novel is structured around her waves of adolescent emotion, and a young Lenú interprets her surroundings in a far different way than an adult viewer. She avoids the town antagonist Don Achille, because he’s a scary-looking adult with a terrible reputation, and the idea of him continues to be an affecting force in her life even as she grows older. Through Lenú, town violence is flattened as a means of survival. And through Lenú, we come to understand how something that seems small, like your best friend pushing your doll down a grate, is actually a formative memory that helps you understand your friend is a manipulative jerk.

The HBO adaptation is, instead, structured around very literal events happening in the town. Episodes tend to climax around specific instances of physical violence and animalistic despair—we focus on the street beatings rather than the effort Lenú exerts to cope with them. We immediately see Don Achille is a local loan shark and fascist leader, rather than an intimidating force that is young Lenú’s symbolic proxy for “evil.” This focus on hitting story beats minimizes big ideas and emotions and gives day-to-day events outsized importance. We end up with a show about what goes on in Lenú’s life, rather than a show about how these events feel. It's much less impactful.

This is true of Lila’s experiences, as well. The concept of “dissolving margins” is described with painful clarity in Ferrante’s works as a version of spaced-out dissociation that comes from coping with intense trauma. It’s pretty universal, that feeling of vacating from your own consciousness when you’re overwhelmed. But the show introduces “dissolving margins” during a fireworks montage, where the local boys are trying to shoot rockets at each other. It feels much less relatable and almost campy.

Lila and Elena, teenage age, in the kitchen

All of this doesn’t make the show bad per se, and it’s unfair to measure the series' worth exclusively against the books they’re based on. Ferrante’s narratives are still masochistically pleasurable to watch, and the decision to center these stories around two young girls is still revolutionary. It’s a bitter thrill, watching Lila’s manipulative behavior. She’s fearless, brutal, and utterly captivating—whether pushing the beloved doll down a grate, dancing in a crowded room as though alone, or holding a switchblade to a young man’s throat. HBO’s Lenú is dutifully quiet, studious, empathic, and eager to please. Her performance of awkward reservedness gives us excellent context for her attraction to Lila, someone so unlike herself. And the girls who play Lenú and Lila in adolescence and as young teens (Elisa Del Genio, Margherita Mazzucco, Ludovica Nasti, and Gaia Girace) are miraculous at performing the incredibly challenging material.

This project was ambitious for so many reasons. Director Saverio Constanzo apparently spent two years corresponding with Ferrante (mostly through email) to workshop the script and to provoke the right performance out of the young actresses. Ferrante’s feedback, much like her Neapolitan novels themselves, turned out to be a bit difficult to decipher. Reading interviews with her highlights the ephemeral and winding quality of her correspondence—her writing rings true to the human experience and makes for brilliant fiction, but it’s probably challenging to tackle in the edit booth. The New York Times explains that Ferrante asked for the young actresses to portray what she calls “density.” Constanzo describes it through a metaphor of a river with two currents running in opposite directions—one calmly on the surface, and one rushing wildly beneath. Every performance must reveal just a “hint” of the river below. How one would direct based off of this feedback is hard to imagine.

But these moments where you can see the “river underneath”—or, more simply, the inner lives that Ferrante’s novels focus on—really are the moments Constanzo nails it. The shots between narrative beats give the girls space to perform their emotions rather than deliver lines. Lila and Lenú lock eyes and share wordless conversations between windows in the housing complex, from desk to desk in the classroom, or at the designated meeting spot at school. And in these moments, the adaptation ceases to feel like an impoverished version of its source material. They evoke every wordless conversation you've had just by looking at someone—the moments where you share the things you could never say out loud. These moments demonstrate why Lenú and Lila’s relationship feel so universal and timeless.

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