‘My Brilliant Friend’ breaks the spell

By Rebecca Harkins-Cross
The television adaptation lacks the all-consuming magic of Elena Ferrante’s novels

My Brilliant Friend. Elisa Del Genio (young Elena) and Ludovica Nasti (young Lila). Photograph by Eduardo Castaldo

In a letter from Elena Ferrante to her publisher, collected in the anthology Frantumaglia, she discusses an impending adaptation of her debut novel, Troubling Love (first published in her native Italy in 1992) a story of knotty mother–daughter dynamics, secrets and disappearing women that introduced several of the reclusive author’s enduring preoccupations. The writer says she’s curious to understand what piqued director Mario Martone’s imagination, yet also dreads what she might learn about her own work in the process.

“I foresee that I will find myself in a situation that is partly funny, partly embarrassing,” she explains. “I will become the reader of someone else’s text that is telling me a story written by me; I will imagine on the basis of his words what I’ve already imagined, seen, put down in my own words, and this second image will, like it or not, have to reckon – humorously? tragically? – with the first.”

Readers who caught what publicists dubbed “Ferrante fever” from her later Neapolitan novels, the internationally bestselling four-book series about a tempestuous female friendship, may approach the new HBO series My Brilliant Friend (now streaming on Fox Showcase) with similar trepidation. Comparing novel and series line for line, scene for scene, is always folly. And yet any adaptation of these books was destined to be viewed contrapuntally, forced to reckon with memories of the perfectly hermetic universe that Ferrante created – and that her fans, in turn, shaped in their individual imaginations.

The winter I fell prey, along with half the women I knew (and a handful of men, too), the world beyond the novel’s pages became an imposition. How dare anything interrupt our communion. The Neapolitan novels spoke to clandestine emotions – intense friendships I’d never comprehended, the private language of girls – in a way that felt deeply personal. The reading experience was voracious, akin to childhood nights spent covertly devouring Enid Blyton books by torchlight until the witching hours. That so many readers were having the same experience was both heartening and vexing. I wanted to sequester this pleasure all for myself.

Perhaps, then, I’m not the ideal audience for My Brilliant Friend. When the series trades so heavily on nostalgia, however, I suspect most Ferrante devotees (is there any other kind of Ferrante reader?) will come to the series with similarly impossible expectations. Four episodes in, the issue is not that My Brilliant Friend deviates from the original novels. To the contrary, its fidelity is flawless – co-written by the author herself – yet whatever spell that so enchanted me is broken.

Filmed on location in Neapolitan dialect, My Brilliant Friend is the epitome of prestige television. 1950s Naples is rendered with a paradoxically lush austerity. For Lenù and Lila (as girls, Elisa Del Genio and Ludovica Nasti), the borders of their neighbourhood are the edges of the world. Poverty and its corollary hurts are woven into the tapestry of everyday life, rendered here in washed out shades of grey. The girls’ shabby cotton dresses – presumably hand-me-downs from their many siblings – blend into the pallid facades. Against this spartan landscape tiny bursts of red coming from the produce of the Achilles’ grocery store or the signage of the Solaras’ bar hint at these families’ distinction – something that Lila and Lenù are too young to understand but instinctively perceive. The warring families’ fortunes are built on blood money, spilled from the neighbours they continue to extort.

While the Neapolitan novels are enmeshed in class and gender politics, at their heart is a love story: a female friendship that, from girlhood, is inextricable from rivalry. The series successfully captures the feuds of the classroom, where Lenù’s dedication is overshadowed by Lila’s apparently innate gifts – a defiant child who, to their teacher’s shock, arrives at school having taught herself to read, a small miracle in this destitute neighbourhood. Their covert glances, Lenù’s constant longing for approval through Lila’s gaze, has all the yearning and desire of a great romance.

The girls are partially united by the fact that nobody else is a worthy opponent, but as they grow older their games quickly surpass spelling and equations. Instead they become bound by shared transgressions, where it is always Lila urging Lenù further into the shadows, and by competing for the fickle attentions of boys, who begin sniffing around as soon as Lenù and Lila start to bloom (played as teenagers by Margherita Mazzucco and Gaia Girace). For the women here, sex is a form of currency and power often stolen: Ada forced into the back of a car by the Solaras brothers, or Melina driven mad by her affair with the ticket inspector-turned-poet Donato Sarratore.

In this milieu violence is commonplace, erupting between green-eyed women in stairwells or between pugnacious men in the streets. As girls, Lila and Lenù think all danger stems from Don Achilles, whose power radiates through the neighbourhood. In the novel, Ferrante transforms him into “the ogre of fairytales”, as seen through a young Lenù’s eyes, but how do we find a visual language for the monsters of childhood, looming preternaturally large in our imaginations? In the TV series, Lila and Lenù’s first test of boundaries, when Lila tosses Lenù’s beloved doll into the supreme darkness of Don Achilles’ basement, fails to transcend the literal.

To muster the novels’ oft-plaintive tone, the series relies heavily on voiceover narration from an adult Lenù. Like the novel, the show begins with Lenù in the present day receiving a call from Lila’s adult son who says she’s disappeared – something Lila told Lenù she would do decades ago, it was only a question of when. Counter to Lila’s longing for erasure, Lenù begins writing their story as an act of resistance, even vengeance. To write their story means bringing Lila back without her permission.

In the series, Lenù’s voiceover becomes a way of capturing nostalgia and uniting an accelerated chronology that spans a lifetime. When director Charlie Kaufman’s stand-in is struggling to write a screenplay in Adaptation, he memorably attends a workshop by the guru Robert McKee. “God help you if you use voiceover in your work, my friends. God help you!” McKee intones. “That’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write voiceover narration to explain the thoughts of the character.” Rules were made to be broken, but this holds true in My Brilliant Friend, where voiceover consistently violates the maxim of “show, don’t tell”.

Ferrante’s critics denigrated the Neapolitan novels as melodrama, apparently the antithesis of capital-L Literature. Yet when these dramas play out on-screen, the words of recurrent detractor Tim Parks, who called the novels “wearisomely concocted, determinedly melodramatic, forever playing on Neapolitan stereotype”, ring in my head. Sentimentality is subtle but ever-present in an overwrought string section. Instead of female rage, we get jealous catfights. Instead of ancient feuds, macho posturing.

Ferrante’s writing has some strange alchemy. There’s barely a quote I want to lift, the sentences seemingly unremarkable when divested from the novels’ whole. Together, the sum of their parts is bewitching. It’s the only way I can describe the disappointments of My Brilliant Friend: the joy of that original reading experience returns in snatches, but when Ferrante’s propulsive storytelling is dismantled for television, her sentences isolated as narration for a scenic medium, it’s just a series of well-made vignettes strung together. The magic is gone.

When the identity of Elena Ferrante was forcibly revealed by a relentless male journalist, fans responded with disgust. The unveiling of the woman who wanted to remain hidden felt perverse, even violent. There’s something about this adaptation that feels comparable, an attempt to lift the curtain on the Neapolitan novels’ mystery: a once-private joy made public, forced to reckon with another’s interpretation. Perhaps My Brilliant Friend’s failure to fulfil expectations was a fait accompli.

Those encountering Lila and Lenù for the first time may see a different show entirely, though I suspect they’ll still perceive the ache for an absent referent. Seeing a story that so moved me told through another’s eyes, I come up against the worst of all possible outcomes. It’s neither humorous nor tragic, but leaves me feeling nothing much at all.


My Brilliant Friend is now streaming on Fox Showcase.

Rebecca Harkins-Cross

Rebecca Harkins-Cross is a writer and cultural critic. She has received several awards from the Australian Film Critics Association.

My Brilliant Friend. Elisa Del Genio (young Elena) and Ludovica Nasti (young Lila). Photograph by Eduardo Castaldo

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