Can ‘My Brilliant Friend’ bring foreign language TV to the mainstream?

Lucy Scholes

Lucy Scholes reviews the hotly anticipated mini-series adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel

18 November 2018 18:46

Italian author Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet was a global publishing phenomenon. This kind of literary fiction success story is rare, but the incredible popularity of these particular four books – My Brilliant Friend (2012), The Story of a New Name (2013), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014), and The Story of the Lost Child (2015), all published in the English translation by Europa Editions – was even more astonishing because they’re works in translation, that subcategory of publishing that’s more often than not under-appreciated and overlooked. On the one hand, Ferrante’s narrative was quintessentially Italian – the story begins in a tight-knit, poverty-stricken community on the outskirts of Naples in the 1950s, a world of machismo and misogyny, where local kingpin Don Achille still wields the power he obtained from black-market dealings under Mussolini – but her captivating portrait of a life-long female friendship struck a chord with readers far and wide.

At the heart of the novels is the tempestuous relationship between the introspective, ever watchful Elena (Lenù) Greco and the fiery, mercurial Rafaella (Lila) Cerullo. Initially drawn together by their intelligence – they find themselves in competition at school, Lenù’s studiousness contrasted with Lila’s precocious innate intelligence – despite their diverging lives, the two are bound together, drawn back to the tough, working class neighbourhood into which they were born. It was an entanglement that resonated with readers across the globe. ‘Ferrante Fever’, as it became widely known, gripped Britain and America in particular. The author and, to a slightly lesser extent, her English translator Ann Goldstein were catapulted to the dizzy heights of international literary stardom.

This was complicated, as many readers will already know, by the fact that Ferrante insisted on remaining anonymous. Her intention was that her fiction would speak for itself. ‘I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors,’ she wrote to her Italian publisher just before her first novel, Troubling Love, was published back in 1991. ‘If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t.’ It’s a brave writer who refuses to be a part of the machine in today’s publicity-led industry, but Ferrante has stayed true to her word, avoiding the limelight even at the height of her fame. She was also proved right: although her early works weren’t well known outside of Italy, the Neapolitan Quartet found millions of readers both domestic and international. Such spectacular success, however, only served to drive the rumour mill, and journalists pored over what snippets of information were publicly available about Italy’s most notoriously private literary superstar.

As James Wood summed it up in The New Yorker in 2013, ‘we learn that she grew up in Naples, and has lived for periods outside Italy. She has a classics degree; she has referred to being a mother. One could also infer from her fiction and from her interviews that she is not now married. (“Over the years, I’ve moved often, in general unwillingly, out of necessity….I’m no longer dependent on the movements of others, only on my own” is her encryption.) In addition to writing, “I study, I translate, I teach.”’ These titbits were all that was needed for the Quartet to be read as auto-fiction, presumed to be based on Ferrante’s own experiences of growing up in post-war Naples. As such, it soon became commonplace for people to speak about the reclusive Italian author in the same breath as the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård, whose My Struggle – a series of six autobiographical novels – had also taken the international publishing world by storm.

‘My Brilliant Friend’ (Saverio Costanzo, 2018)

At the same time, there were those who refused to believe that Ferrante was a woman. Speculation abounded that the real author of these novels that were being hailed as some of the very best literary depictions of female friendship was actually a man, possibly even a group of men. When asked about this in an interview that ran in Vanity Fair in the run-up to the publication of The Story of the Lost Child, the fourth and final novel in the Quartet, Ferrante lambasted the chauvinism of such criticism. ‘Have you ever heard anyone say recently about any book written by a man, it’s really a woman who wrote it, or maybe a group of women?’ she wrote furiously, before going on to highlight a few uncomfortable home truths. ‘Due to its exorbitant might, the male gender can mimic the female gender, incorporating it in the process. The female gender, on the other hand, cannot mimic anything, for is betrayed immediately by its “weakness”; what it produces could not possibly fake male potency. The truth is that even the publishing industry and the media are convinced of this commonplace; both tend to shut women who write away in a literary gynaecium.’ When, in October 2016, the Italian journalist Claudio Gatti used financial transactions relating to real estate and royalty payments in order to supposedly track down the real Elena Ferrante – whom he claimed was actually the Italian translator Anita Raja – rather than being commended for his investigative skills, the general consensus was that his actions were a gross violation of Ferrante’s privacy. Whether or not he was correct has never been confirmed one way or the other, but the speculation about Ferrante’s gender hasn’t ceased.

‘We know how to think, we know how to tell stories, we know how to write them just as well as, if not better, than men,’ Ferrante ends her answer to that particular question in the Vanity Fair interview. And anyone who’s read the Neapolitan Quartet will realise that it’s the conditions she’s describing here that give rise to the story narrated therein. The first novel in the Quartet, My Brilliant Friend, opens with a phone call. More than sixty years has passed since Lenù and Lila first became friends, and Lila’s son Rino has contacted Lenù (who’s since grown up to become a successful writer) in agitation: his mother has disappeared without a trace, walked out of her life, erasing all evidence of herself in the process. Lenù isn’t surprised, her friend’s been threatening to do this for years, but she is angry: ‘We’ll see who wins this time, I said to myself. I turned on the computer and began to write – all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.’

This same scene, almost word for word, opens the first episode of the HBO-RAI original mini-series adaptation of My Brilliant Friend (Saverio Costanzo), which airs on Sky Atlantic at 9pm tonight. The series makes history in that it’s HBO’s first foreign language project. Rather than follow the example of, say, the popular Danish police procedural Forbrydelsen (Birger Larsen, 2007), which was then re-made as the American show The Killing (Veena Sud, 2011), My Brilliant Friend was conceived from the outset as an international project, a collaboration between the American network and the Italian broadcaster RAI. Given that the books had already proved their universal appeal, a certain verisimilitude was integral to the adaptation, particularly when it came to the use of both Italian and Neapolitan dialect – though those of us who aren’t fluent in the former won’t pick up on the subtle but important shifts between the two, something that’s more easily indicated in the course of Lenù’s narration in the book.

Although there’s never been any doubt about the basic appeal of the story, what did look like it could present a problem was the interiority of the novels. Everything is seen through Lenù’s eyes, filtered by her consciousness; this is a story narrated in the past tense, a lifetime of meaning often distilled into a single moment. The adaptation uses voiceover in order to maintain the novel’s structure, the commentary of the older Lenù (Elisabetta De Palo) accompanying the visual rendering of her memories on the screen in front of us. Does it work? Well, yes and no. Voiceover always strikes me as problematic, even when it’s employed with the upmost elegance, its inclusion evidence of precisely what the visual medium is unable to achieve. But on this occasion, it’s perhaps more necessary than usual, especially as what struck me the most after watching the first episode of the eight-part series is just how faithfully the screenwriters – Saverio Costanzo (who’s also the director), Francesco Piccolo and Laura Paolucci – have stuck to the original material. This perhaps isn’t surprising since Ferrante herself is also credited amongst them – though she apparently only consulted via email, rather than joining them in the writers’ room; despite her integral involvement in the project, even Costanzo didn’t meet her. Even the ‘Index of Characters’ that precedes the text in the book has been reproduced on the screen: the backdrop to the opening credits is a series of family portraits of everyone in the neighbourhood. It’s an odd aesthetic, more reminiscent of a low budget Lifetime Movie than one of the most hyped TV productions of the decade, but it reminded me of all the fuss that was made about the books’ unexpectedly twee cover designs – unremarkable, generic photos of women – themselves more suggestive of cheap, mass-market romance paperbacks than one of the foremost literary achievements of the twenty-first century. I detect a hint of the same transgressive upending of expectations at work here too.

‘My Brilliant Friend’ (Saverio Costanzo, 2018)

My Brilliant Friend tells the story of the girls’ childhood and adolescence, and the action of the first episode plays out in relative confinement – scenes are either in the girls’ classroom at school, their homes, the local church or the surrounding streets. Community life is at the fore, women shout gossip to one another as they hang their washing out on the tiny balconies outside their flats, or peer over the bannisters in the building’s communal stairwell in order to get a better view of what’s going on either up above or down below. The claustrophobia of this world is palpable. Everyone knows everyone else’s business, everyone sees what everyone else is up to all the time. The apartment building in which all the families live, each apartment looking down onto a dusty central courtyard, features as something of a panopticon – not least because life continually spills out into the public spaces. Fights erupt in the streets, in the stairwells, a woman mad with rage and grief hurls her belongings into the courtyard below through an open window, a death amongst the community means open house. Along with the other children, the young Lina (Ludovica Nasti) and Lenù (Elisa Del Genio) watch these dramas unfold – more often than not quite literally above their heads – with wide-eyes. In one especially clever scene, the camera spins upwards through the air around the courtyard so that, as seen through the children’s eyes as they gaze upwards, the structure is transformed into a coliseum, complete with theatrics all around.

First and foremost, what comes across is that this is a world of violence, a point that was dealt with incidentally in the text. For Lenù, none of what she saw was shocking, it was just reality. ‘I feel no nostalgia for our childhood,’ Ferrante has her narrator write in the novel: ‘It was full of violence. Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, but I don’t recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad. Life was like that, that’s all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.’ Rendered on the screen though, it’s harder to ignore. The audience finds deplorable what the characters do not, whether it’s the actions of the violent bully Don Achille, who drags a man who’s been badmouthing him from the church and beats him to a pulp before tossing his broken body against a wall like it’s a rag doll, or the blistering fight two women engage in on the stairs in their apartment building. Lenù’s imaginings of ‘tiny, almost invisible animals’ that arrive in the night and enter the water, food and air turning their mothers and grandmothers ‘as angry as starving dogs’ are realised on the screen as nauseating swarms of black, cockroach-like insects that teem up from the drains and into the mouths of the women while they sleep. So too the grimness of the environment is highlighted, the screen a palette of muted browns and greys. The children wear many-times-mended hand-me-downs; there are holes in their jumpers and their shoes are scuffed and dirty. Hair is greasy and unwashed, cheeks are streaked with dirt, knees are covered in scabs. It was gleefully reported that the production team auditioned thousands of girls – both trained and those with no acting experience – in their search for the perfect actors to play the central roles. The seriousness with which they tackled this task seems to have paid off, not only are Nasti and Del Genio visually perfect for their respective roles, but the fact they’re both untrained gives them a welcome air of guilelessness, Del Genio’s tentativeness thrown into sharp relief against Nasti’s wildness. Whether the older actors who replace them in episode three – Margherita Mazzucco as Lenù and Gaia Girace as Lila – are as good, I can’t yet judge, but I’m expecting them to be.

I have to admit that before I watched the first episode, I didn’t have especially high hopes. Like everyone else I know who came down with an acute case of Ferrante Fever, Lila and Lenù already existed in my mind’s eye, and in such a visceral, fully realised form that I doubted whether anyone else’s vision of them could live up to my own. I was genuinely surprised then to find myself transfixed by the action unfolding on the screen. It’s slow, for sure, partly because it sticks so closely to the text, and partly because much of Lenù’s interior monologue has been replaced with scenes that now depend on the visual rendering of emotion – much of the time we’re watching Lenù as she watches the world around her. But there’s something hypnotic about this. Whether the series will prove as popular as the original novels, I’m not so sure – when the first two episodes were screened at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year, it was reported that many in the audience of the press screening walked out before the end, bored. But if it does do well, it’ll open up the market for foreign language TV in America. Is Ferrante the woman to both revolutionise a country’s reading habits and their watching habits too?