HBO’s “My Brilliant Friend” Shows The Life-And-Death Stakes Of Elena Ferrante’s Novel

As a reader, it’s easy to gloss over the violence and chaos in Ferrante’s story of two girls growing up in mid-century Naples. Onscreen, it’s much more urgent.

What does a bad neighborhood look like in Naples, circa 1950? Monochromatic, drab, with dark soot and graying plaster and baked dirt puffing up in clouds when a cart or motorcycle or the rare automobile goes by. Laundry flapping everywhere, not quite clean. No greenery, no water, even though Naples is on the coast. Men clump in idle groups of three and four outside while indoors the women scream — at each other, their children, to no one at all. Brutal fights break out, three or four against one; the victim slumps bloody in the gutter and eventually his children help him up, crying, limping.

“We lived in a world in which children and adults were often wounded, blood flowed from the wounds, they festered, and sometimes people died. ... Our world was like that, full of words that killed: croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection,” Elena Ferrante writes in My Brilliant Friend, the first in her quartet of novels about the coming of age of two girls in postwar Naples, which has now been adapted by the Italian director Saverio Costanzo into a miniseries for HBO, which began airing Nov. 18.

The adaptation is obsessively faithful to its source material; it’s even in Italian, with English subtitles, a mimesis of the fact that, for non-Italian speakers, the translated books themselves are a kind of adaptation. But Costanzo’s most striking accomplishment is the visual life he brings to those “words that killed” and the neighborhood that engendered them. Without spectacle and without gratuitousness, the screen gives the pervasive violence of the novels a substance and permanence that’s more physical than what your reading imagination can produce, and thus much more urgent.

An abundance of more or less prestige literary adaptations have been brought to TV screens in the last year or two: Sharp Objects, the Patrick Melrose novels, I Love Dick, Alias Grace, Big Little Lies, The Handmaid’s Tale. There are obvious practicalities in adapting popular novels — ready-made characters and story beats, a built-in audience — but one wonders what kind of relationship an adaptation is trying to build with its viewers. What can it improve on? Is it trying to please existing fans and hope that’s enough (Game of Thrones did, after all, transform decades-old and deeply nerdy plot speculations, previously found in only the grungiest corners of Reddit, into the subject of normal watercooler/Twitter conversation), or create new ones?

I had not been able to clearly grasp the drudgery and chaos of their youth until Costanzo made it impossible to ignore.

There’s a great deal of pleasure in seeing a world you’ve spent many hours visiting in your imagination brought to physical life, and Costanzo has done so with an almost maniacal perfectionism that’s compelling on its own. Which is to say, this show will no doubt win new fans who haven’t read Ferrante’s novels: The attention to period detail, the cinematography, the outstanding performances from a stellar group of perfectly cast unknowns (including children! A feat indeed), will be enough for people who like that sort of thing, i.e., most HBO viewers. Max Richter’s score is gorgeous and evocative but not unduly burdened with advancing the narrative, like many soundtracks are (I am coughing in your direction, Sharp Objects).

This world building is excellent as an aesthetic exercise, but also underscores the everyday desperation that comprises the coming of age of the two protagonists, Elena and Lila. I had not been able to clearly grasp the drudgery and chaos of their youth until Costanzo made it impossible to ignore. Perhaps this is because the Neapolitan novels are a little boring (and I say this as a fan; many of my favorite novels are “boring” ones). Not much “happens.” In the world Ferrante writes about, people are born, they grow up or they don’t, they go to school or they don’t, they marry, or they leave the neighborhood, or both, or neither.

Most of the other high-profile novel-to-screen series that have aired recently rely on a more obviously juicy premise. But here there are no mysterious prophecies about parentage and destiny, or unsolved murders, or even a queen riding a dragon. The only dystopia the books portray is the reality of a sad, dreary, poor neighborhood in Naples at the middle of the last century, where the passage of time is marked not by flowers blooming or leaves changing color or montages set to a classic rock stunner, but by funeral processions, one after another — all the same except for the faces of the mourners.

The joy of reading these books is found in the way they capture the rhythm of life in all its ordinariness, interspersed with the occasional devastating observation or character snapshot and the precise distillation of one or two events that, unbeknownst to us at the time, steer our destinies. Elena and Lila are both scrappy, canny, and gifted, but it is Lila who is the dark heart of both the novels and the series. It is Lila who first captures Elena’s attention, who spurs her on to acts of childish bravery and one-up(wo)manship.

In the first episode of the adaptation, we see Lila (perfectly embodied by Ludovica Nasti; they really did find a girl who looked like a “skinny sardine” but cute) throw Elena’s cherished doll down a cellar window, inaugurating their adventures together. Eight-year-old Elena (Elisa del Genio) immediately retaliates, tossing Lila’s doll into the darkness too. “What you do, I do,” she says.

It is also Lila who opens Elena’s eyes to the possibilities of a world outside the neighborhood and Lila’s story that Elena is compelled to tell, 60 years later, when she learns Lila has disappeared, even cutting herself out of all her family photographs. We’ll see who wins this time, adult Elena (Elisabetta De Palo) says in voiceover during the opening sequence of the HBO series; the camera shows her sitting alone in an unlit room, hanging up the phone, opening her computer, and beginning to peck out the words of their shared history. In a dark corner sits a rocking chair, and in the rocking chair sits a small girl. Does Elena see her too? Perhaps, this scene suggests, Elena sees her all the time.

As a viewer your attention is monopolized; there’s nowhere else to look, and you can’t skip a page.

But after this relatively subdued opening scene (which is a near-direct transposition from the novel), we are transported back to the Naples of Elena’s childhood, where death and destruction are everywhere. In the novels, Ferrante’s matter-of-fact style gives those constant companions no special regard, even as she calls them out: “I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence,” Elena writes. As a reader, it’s easy to gloss over this: okay, violence, check. But as a viewer your attention is monopolized; there’s nowhere else to look, and you can’t skip a page.

The camera stays close, and most of what we witness is intimate and hands-on, people just beating the crap out of each other because that’s what they’ve always done. In the first episode, we viewers are stuck in a claustrophobic stairwell while two women fight, screaming obscenities. A little girl cowers in the corner, the balustrade near her shaking with the force of their pushing and shoving, until one of the women falls down the stairs. A child faints; babies wail; the woman slowly sits up, bleeding from a cut on her forehead. Later, Lila’s father hits her brother when he suggests she might be smart enough to continue in school, and in another episode, a different fight, the entire family struggles to separate father and son, enclosed by their tiny kitchen. Sharp knives and heavy pots are everywhere, and the pair throw whatever they can get their hands on; it’s excruciating.

The children are also brutal to each other. When the neighborhood boys throw rocks at Lila, she retaliates but can’t avoid being hit herself, and gets knocked out, blood trickling from her temple. When Lila’s father comes to collect her, she begs Elena with her eyes: Don’t tell him what happened, and Elena understands immediately. Doing so would only lead to more trouble at home. Neighborhood disagreements are handled with blows to the stomach. When Lila pulls a knife on one of her tormentors and threatens to kill him, the scene doesn’t read like a childish threat; we know she’ll do it. This is the sort of place where death happens, and it’s the screen that brings that threat to life.

That’s the ultimatum hanging over the story Costanzo has fully realized, in a way that perhaps only film could: You must leave this neighborhood in order to live. All it can offer is poverty, bloodshed, dark spaces, too many children and not enough money. “It’s so dreadful to be poor,” the girls read aloud from their shared copy of Little Women, comfortable in the easy embrace of childhood. “It makes me cry,” Elena sighs. (Me too — this scene, Elena and Lila reciting together the words they know by heart, arms around each other, is achingly gorgeous.) They make plans to write a book together so they too will be rich.

As Lila describes how books come from a pail of words in your head, one of the schisms in the neighborhood social life splits open around them. The shopkeeper kicks the bartender’s enforcer over and over, eventually enlisting his adolescent sons to take over. Each blow is audible. The man rolls over, bleeding everywhere. “Too many bad things are happening,” Lila says, but she wants to stick around and learn more, while Elena, scared, wants to go home immediately.

“She always did the things I was supposed to do first, and better than me,” Elena recalls in the novel; it’s a pointed, half-bitter observation that stands out among the quotidian recollections of daily life. In the series, Elena says the same thing, meaning, someone will write the books and make enough money to leave the neighborhood. Who will be the one who writes, and who will leave the other to die? It’s not boring. The little girl in the rocking chair is watching. The stakes couldn’t be higher. ●

Ruth Curry is a writer whose work has appeared in Bookforum, n+1, the Paris Review Daily, Esquire, Nylon, and Brooklyn Magazine. She is, with Emily Gould, the cofounder of Emily Books.

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