Should You Watch the TV Show of ‘My Brilliant Friend’ If You Loved the Book?
Should You Watch the TV Show of ‘My Brilliant Friend‘ If You Loved the Book? Now that the HBO series has concluded, we can weigh in definitively on whether it succeeds
When HBO announced its plans to adapt My Brilliant Friend, the first of Elena Ferrante’s series of Neapolitan novels, fans were equally excited and trepidatious. Television and film have wrecked many fine pieces of literature — in fact it seems like the better the original, the more disappointing the adaptation — and I heard no shortage of grumbling that our beloved books would be better left alone than made into a miniseries. This sentiment was encouraged by the unique circumstances surrounding the series’ author; since the “real” Elena Ferrante maintains her anonymity behind a pseudonym, she couldn’t show up to production meetings to veto a hack job of her text. Fear spiked when it became known that a man would be directing; the Neapolitan novels are ceaselessly described as a story of female friendship, so how could a man possibly portray them? Relief came after the first episode aired in November and positive reviews flooded in, but now that the eight-part series has finally concluded, the question is: how well did the series portray the novel as a whole? A successful TV show would not only accurately portray the relationship between the two main characters, Lila and Lenu, and faithfully follow the timeline of events, but would capture the style and tone of Elena Ferrante’s writing.
My Brilliant Friend is a long book in terms of pages, and a sprawling one in terms of content, so my biggest concern was that the TV series would shortchange the novel’s particular, unhurried cadence in an effort to jam in all the characters and their various plot points. Ferrante writes compulsively readable sentences, yet Elena, as a narrator, takes her time; she muses, reflects, explains. Somehow the director, 43-year-old Saverio Costanzo, fought against what must have been an incredible urge to move from event to event. Throughout, he lets the camera rest on faces and rooms and bodies lying in the street. Uneasy moments, like when the characters as teens are packed in the Solara’s car, seem to go on and on, he lets it seethe with Lila’s defiance, Marcello’s spurned longing, Gigliola’s contempt, Michele’s brutishness, and the discomfort of the other three girls, until you want to stop the car yourself. Despite clearly having a mandate of eight hours total, divided into one hour segments, the episodes feel like Ferrante’s novels: unrushed to tell their tale, as though each chapter could stand on its own as a short story. This feeling is explicitly encouraged in the show by the titles of the episodes: “The Metamorphoses,” for example, or “The Shoes.”
Capturing the feel of Elena’s narrative voice was only one part of the battle. The relationship between Lila and Lenu is the heart of the novels, but it’s a particularly difficult one to capture because it is always shifting. In a relationship marked by extremes, there are moments of intense closeness followed by the fraught emotions, such as jealousy and resentment, that such a closeness can bring. Costanzo relies on long, quiet close-ups to capture these moments as well; the actresses are given the time and space to emote, to subtly grapple with their feelings. In the first episodes this technique is less successful, and when the camera rests on the faces of the young actresses you can see a more obvious attempt at “acting,” but Gaia Girace and Margherita Mazzucco, who play teen Lila and Lenu respectively, both have total command of their expressions, and their faces become a visual representation of what we hear from the grown-up Lenu in the novel, her realization that our feelings are never concrete, rather they are fleeting, conflicting, and confusing. The characters’ complex relationship is also expressed by their physical interactions, which subtly evolve from two young girl’s hands reflexively intertwining in fear as they stand on Don Achille’s doorstep to two newly adult bodies joyfully yet somewhat awkwardly juxtaposed as they practice dancing in Lila’s kitchen.
The relationship between Lila and Lenu is the heart of the novels, but it’s a particularly difficult one to capture because it is always shifting.
Overall Costanzo manages to express the imperfect, fierce, complex nature of the novel’s central friendship, which is a relief given the concerns that a male director could successfully capture a tale of female friendship. Of course Costanzo wasn’t being asked to create a female friendship in a vacuum, he was given ample source material in the books and, as he’s made abundantly clear in interviews, he received firm guidance from Elena Ferrante herself. Costanzo first spoke with Ferrante a decade ago, when he received her blessing to make a film adaptation of her 2006 novella The Lost Daughter. Though that project failed to materialize, he went on to produce other critically acclaimed films which put him at the top of Elena Ferrante’s list of people to direct the adaptation of My Brilliant Friend. And though Ferrante didn’t come to set in person, she did weigh in on all of the scripts, which Costanzo co-wrote with Laura Paolucci and Francesco Piccolo. In short, if you want to argue with the choice of a male director, you have to take it up with the author herself.
Much has been made of the Neapolitan novels’ “revolutionary” portrayal of female friendship, but what people sometimes overlook (and this issue was compounded by the covers of the novels, with their children in butterfly wings and gauzily dressed mothers holding babies) is how much these books are also historical novels. Ferrante isn’t pedantic with her details, but she’s accurate enough that people have identified most places the characters go, sparking Ferrante-themed walking tours around Naples, and throughout the series she addresses everything from Naples’ political parties to the terrible working conditions in its food factories. The television show had to be both historically accurate and generous with its visual details, and it takes pains to do both. Sure, the more clumsy moments of the show come when someone, usually Pasquale, has to explain the historical background of Naples to another character, but he’s really explaining to the viewers, who need to how Naples was devastated during World War II, how the fascists begat the loan sharks, how, logistically, the mafia spreads its suffering. The sets and costumes are outstanding (reading interviews with members of the production team relay the painstaking work that went into every decision) and were brought to life by 150 actors and 5,000 extras. Indeed, it struck me how much more situated in Naples we were in the show, and how certain issues became obvious earlier — the limits and location of the neighborhood, how it compared to other areas of Naples, and the larger criminal elements of the city, for example — as though we were actively being offered a lens through which to view the story. Perhaps Ferrante herself wanted to remind us that it’s a disservice to the characters to approach them in a gendered void.
Perhaps Ferrante herself wanted to remind us that it’s a disservice to the characters to approach them in a gendered void.
One area of the television adaptation that made me pause was the violence, which seemed more intense on the show than in the first novel. Part of that may be inevitable; seeing a little girl thrown out a window, for example, or a man being almost kicked to death, is more arresting than picturing it in my head, where there is no sound, and props must be given to the sound mixer for giving us the bone-chilling auditory, the painful gasps, the thump of flesh hitting concrete, the phlegmy cough of spitting blood. Then there is the editing —this is an incredibly thorough adaptation, but things inevitably had to be cut, and the violence begins to stack up on itself in a more obvious way, while the characters are given less time to recover. This is where the series could have become problematic — it was aired on HBO, where there is never such a thing as too much violence — and as much as I worried about an adaptation that isolated the female friendship, there was also a scenario in which it became a sort of period Sopranos. In the books Lenu’s schooling gets more airtime, when she says she hasn’t seen Lila for a while, we experience what she was doing instead, while on the show we hear little of Lenu’s life away from her friends.
While the novel was streamlined in such a way that violence took more air time in any given episode, the series was ultimately a success because the relationships still took prominence the whole way through. And yes, I do mean relationships, plural, because while the two girls are the heart of the story, the camera doesn’t only have eyes for Lila and Lenu. These are epic family novels, the kind which come with an index of characters in the beginning pages, and Costanzo keeps us aware of the larger community. Take the episode with Stefano Caracci’s New Year’s party. The opening scene hinges on the tension between two characters, Pasquale and Stefano, and could easily have been shot by pushing Lila, Lenu, and Stefano through the door, yet we don’t only see the primaries enter, we see everyone, the mothers and fathers and unnamed children come in, one by one, and give their salutation to the host. Pasquale enters last. This is a small directorial choice, but an example of the important care that the show takes with Ferrante’s work, from first page to last.