From the courtyard of a Naples tenement block, Lenù, age 10, calls up to the flat of her best friend. She can hear Lila shouting at her father for not letting her take exams for admission to middle school. And hear Lila’s father unleash a string of obscenities back at her before unleashing his fists. And then: “Suddenly the shouting stopped and a few seconds later my friend flew out the window, passed over my head and landed on the asphalt beside me.”
When I first read this scene from the novel My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante, I was shocked. Yet when I saw it in the Italian television adaption of the eight-episode series that recently aired on HBO, I recoiled in horror. To see the scrawny child sail out the window and hear the thud of her impact on the ground caused me acute physical pain. Such is the difference between word and image.
I love novels, and I love movies. As for cinematic adaptations of beloved books, not so much. It is rare that the actors on the screen are as nuanced as the characters on the page. And often, so as not to offend fans of the book, adapters shoehorn virtually every scene from the novel into the screenplay and don’t give the characters space to breathe or time to ripen.
Happily, this is not the case in the exceptional series My Brilliant Friend, based on the first of four Neapolitan novels by the pseudonymous Italian author. In the world of books, the quartet has inspired Ferrante fever, the kind of literary fandom that attends the work of Jane Austen. Ferrante’s four novels comprise an intimate epic of 20th-century Naples. The books track Raffaella “Lila” Cerullo and Elena “Lenù” Greco, daughters of the working class, from ages 6 to 60ish—spanning a period from the early 1950s to roughly 2010. The first season of the HBO series takes its lead characters from 6 to 16, and from casting to cinematography, from screenplay to set direction, it is nearly flawless.
The actresses are finds. Lila, willful, raven-haired, and short-fused, is played by the preteen Ludovica Nasti and the adolescent Gaia Girace; Lenù, jumpy, dirty-blond, and timid, by the preteen Elisa Del Genio and the adolescent Margherita Mazzucco. Lila is the kind of insolent girl who narrows her eyes and stares you down, while Lenù’s eyes are either averted or downcast.
Lenù, who narrates the saga, is the good girl, intelligent but something of a plodder. She tells us that Lila “appeared in my life in first grade and immediately impressed me because she was very bad.” Not bad as in evil, but as in mischievous, fearless, and action taking—smarter and quicker than Lenù, who spends her life trying to catch up to her brilliant friend.
The conflict in the books and in director Saverio Costanzo’s addictive series (which will run for three more seasons, one for each of Ferrante’s books) is the relationship between these two girls, who have the same roots but mature into, respectively, an academic and a flamethrower. They are many other things, too, but unlike in many television shows and movies about women, they are never Madonna or whore.
While devouring the novels a few years back, I regarded their heroines as the Thelma and Louise of midcentury Naples. Yet the TV series, which is faithful to its source but not slavishly so, helped me see that Ferrante was thinking more along the lines of Dido and Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid.
Virgil’s epic poem is what comic book fans might call the origin story and exaltation of Rome; Ferrante’s tale is a critique of the corrupt forces, the moneylenders and crime families, that prey on the poor, especially girls and women, in Naples. The one comparable American piece of fiction I can think of is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, likewise about the decisive importance of education. While there are no trees in the girls’ dusty, dun-colored corner of Naples, My Brilliant Friend is a double bildungsroman about the flowering of consciousness. Together, Ferrante’s four books are the origin story of modern feminism Italian-style.
Lenù and Lila are many things to each other: friends, confidants, rivals, conspirators, frenemies. In the way that one often loves the person one wants to be—and be better than—theirs is a platonic female love, though one unlike any that I have experienced in other books or movies. Their circumscribed lives encompass a few forlorn blocks far from the Bay of Naples. In fact, not until episode 4 does Costanzo show us the sparkling bay, symbol of Lenù’s broadening horizons.
The great event of their youth is the day Lila accuses the neighborhood moneylender, the despised and despotic Don Achille, of stealing the dolls that she and Lenù intentionally dropped through a basement window. So confrontational is tiny Lila that the Don gives her money just to get out of his face. With his cash, they buy a copy of Little Women and read it until they break its spine and have every line memorized.
Typical of their difference, Lenù reads books for the story; Lila, to learn how to write them. It is Lenù, though, who advances to middle and high school. Lila’s parents don’t see any need for a girl to get an education. So she assists her cobbler father in his shop and in secret designs and creates deluxe shoes. In a magical reverse-Cinderella moment, she kneels to fit a loafer on her Prince Charming.
Initially, I was put off by the series’ tinkly piano, harp, and violin music. By episode 3, however, I realized that the score characterizes the girls. The piano is Lenù, the grade grind who plunks out notes, and the violin is Lila, the intellect who smoothly connects them into a melody. In other words, Lenù knows the notes; Lila hears the music. Lenù knows things; Lila sees the pattern in things.
As Season 1 progresses, the washed-out greens and grays of their neighborhood are incrementally accented with pastel colors. And by episodes 7 and 8, the cherry reds of Italian cars and the vivid turquoises of Italian fashion—products of the country’s economic miracle of the 1960s—brighten the screen. Visually, the moods of the episodes telegraph the passage of time by echoing the neorealism of Italian postwar movies like Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and the lush color of mid-60s Federico Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits.
With an education and the prospect of college, Lenù can escape the fruit vendors and mechanics she grew up with, “the plebs” that her teacher and her parents want her to stay away from. Lila’s only way of escaping her parents’ home is to marry. Her suitors are the wealthy sons of a moneylender and of a mob-connected bar owner.
I can’t tell you how, exactly, Costanzo adapts Ferrante’s work so that it has both the resonance of opera and the enjoyable vulgarity of soap opera. But I can paraphrase Emerson, who put it in the masculine, and tell you this: Costanzo illustrates Ferrante’s insistence that other women are the lenses through which we read our own minds.
- My Brilliant Friend
- Season 1 (eight episodes)
- Directed by Saverio Costanzo
- Based on the novel My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante
- Available on HBO
Three Outstanding Coming-of-Age Films Adapted from Books
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), directed by Elia Kazan. The great American story of an adolescent girl and her family.
My Brilliant Career (1979), directed by Gillian Armstrong. A classic Australian tale of a country girl yearning for a better life.
Ciao, Professore! (1994), directed by Lina Wertmuller. A professor from northern Italy comes to Naples to teach schoolchildren.
Carrie Rickey, film critic emerita of the Philadelphia Inquirer, received a 2018 Los Angeles Press Club award for a series about female filmmakers for Truthdig.