“I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: It was full of violence.”
So says narrator Elena Greco near the beginning of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. The bestselling novel is now an HBO series, and the screen adaptation drives home one of the book’s core messages: For Elena (Elisa del Genio), her best friend/double/nemesis Lila Cerullo (Ludovica Nasti), and all the children growing up with them in working-class postwar Naples, violence undergirds every interaction. (Spoilers for the first two episodes of the show, and mild spoilers for the books, follow.)
It’s not just the violence of the men in the neighborhood, who beat their wives and battle each other for dominance. As the show’s first two episodes, which aired on Sunday and Monday, make clear, Elena and Lila are involved too, fighting with boys and, later, conducting a war of words with one another that stretches across decades.
“While men were always getting furious, they calmed down in the end,” Ferrante writes; “women, who appeared to be silent, acquiescent, when they were angry flew into a rage that had no end.”
My Brilliant Friend and the other three novels in Ferrante’s wildly popular Neapolitan series have been hailed as modern-day feminist classics, telling the often forgotten stories of girls and women. But as the HBO series makes clear, these are not uplifting tales of female empowerment. The story of Elena and Lila is a story of friendship, yes, but also of hate, and of anger that’s not always righteous. The novels, and now the show, remind us of an uncomfortable truth: Girls and women have always been just as capable of violence as men and boys. It’s just that for a long time, nobody was watching.
Violence permeates the world of My Brilliant Friend
HBO’s My Brilliant Friend begins, like the novel, with Elena, now a woman in her sixties, receiving a call from Lila’s adult son: Lila has disappeared. The story then flashes back to the 1950s, when Elena and Lila met as girls living in a drab Naples neighborhood.
The Neapolitan novels center on the evolution of Elena and Lila’s friendship across time and place, and the novels are famous in part for the way they probe a complex and tumultuous relationship between two women. But the novels — and, presumably, the series, which so far hews to them very closely — make clear that even as the girls become women and grow apart and together again, they are never far from the influence of their Naples neighborhood and its feuds, both petty and serious.
As many reviewers have already pointed out, the ever-present violence of this neighborhood is evident from the show’s first episode. The streets where Elena and Lila play and the shops where their parents buy food are controlled by small-time criminals, and their power struggles are a constant undercurrent in both the show and books.
In part, the violence of Ferrante’s stories mirrors the real-life rise of organized crime in Naples beginning in the mid-1950s. And, in part, it’s a kind of anti-nostalgic approach, as Elena might put it, to a coming-of-age story. Ferrante shows us childhood as it is for many children: not idyllic, but often frightening and sometimes bloody.
In the first episode, the neighborhood squabbles turn physical again and again. After the carpenter Alfredo Peluso publicly criticizes local strongman Don Achille Carracci (by yelling about him in the street), Carracci drags him out of a funeral and slams him against a wall. Women feud too — Melina Cappuccio and Lidia Sarratore get into a fight over Cappuccio’s love for Sarratore’s husband, and Cappuccio ends up tumbling down the stairs.
The neighborhood children, meanwhile, play out their own versions of their parents’ quarrels. When Lila beats Alfonso Carracci in a school competition, his brother attacks her. And in the episode’s climactic scene, Enzo Scanno (also bested by Lila in the school contest) and his friends hurl stones at Lila, knocking her over and bloodying her head.
In the show’s second episode, violence erupts in the Greco household, as Elena’s mother beats her savagely with an umbrella for skipping school. When Elena’s father comes home, her mother demands he beat Elena too: “You don’t even know how to hit your daughter,” she says, challenging his masculinity. He snaps, savagely slapping Elena while shouting at her mother — the whole episode is a power struggle between the two parents, who have been arguing about whether Elena should be allowed to take the admissions test for middle school. In the end, she is — but her parents’ battle leaves her with a face full of bruises.
The language of the show is violent even when its action is not (the actors speak Italian and the Neapolitan dialect, and the English subtitles draw heavily from the English translation of the novel by Ann Goldstein). Lila describes Don Achille as having “sucked the blood” out of another man, presumably with his predatory lending practices. And Maestra Oliviero, Elena and Lila’s teacher, warns the girls that they must prove themselves against their male schoolmates intellectually: “If we don’t start showing the boys now that you’re like them, better actually, they’ll crush you.” In the context of the neighborhood, this feels both literally and figuratively true.
Elena and Lila aren’t just victims of violence. They’re participants.
The violence around the girls clearly affects them, and not only when they’re being actively bloodied. As Hillary Kelly writes at Vulture, “Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo’s loud, crowded lives are small and insulated, and they’re always seconds away from a tragedy around which the entire town will gather to gawp.” Their world, as she puts it, “clamors and echoes with shrieks, bellows, and the sounds of violence.”
In director Saverio Costanzo’s imagining, even the colors of the neighborhood hint at the emotional effects of constant violence — everything is dull, dusty, and dark. The dangers of their neighborhood limit Elena and Lila’s lives, and seem to limit even the spectrum of their vision.
But the girls aren’t passive victims of the violence around them. They’re active participants, as when Lila hurls stones back at the boys who attack her — and Elena steps in to help. Lila isn’t merely defending herself in this scene; she’s fighting back with gusto. The whole episode, as Sonia Saraiya writes at Vanity Fair, “seems to have built the scene around showcasing her indomitable will.”
Even when they’re not fighting, the girls are always watching violence unfold. When the adults in their world beat each other up, Elena and Lila look on in open fascination. Del Genio and Nasti, both newcomers, can communicate a lot with a gaze. Elena is more of a blank slate, her wide eyes taking everything in — Saraiya calls her “open and vulnerable, like a cracked-open raw egg.” Lila, meanwhile, has already developed an opinion on — even an appreciation for — the violence of her neighborhood. As she watches Cappuccio and Sarratore scream at each other, a smile plays across her lips, though it disappears when the fight turns physical.
Later, Lila appears to lay a trap for Elena, luring her to skip school in the hopes that Elena’s parents will get angry and bar her from taking the middle school test. Lila must know that her friend will probably get a beating, and yet she’s willing to take that risk. It won’t be the last time Lila tries to manipulate someone else to get what she wants, regardless of the consequences.
If the show continues to stick close to the books — one season per novel is planned — Lila and Elena will experience, in ever more serious ways, the brutality of their neighborhood. They’ll survive domestic and sexual violence, and their clashes with the men who rule the neighborhood will come back to haunt them in devastating ways.
They won’t commit the same kinds of violence they experience, but they will wage other kinds of warfare. This future is evident from the very beginning of the show. As Sophie Gilbert notes at the Atlantic, we learn as the series opens that Lila hasn’t just quietly disappeared. She’s vandalized her own past, cutting herself out of all family photographs, even those of her and her son as a young child.
Elena, meanwhile, isn’t sad to hear that her old friend is missing. She’s angry, and as revenge, she decides to write the story of their childhood together. The very narration we’re listening to is a form of emotional violence, the forcible documentation of someone who wanted to be erased.
Part of the popularity of the Neapolitan novels has to do with their close and clear-eyed examination of women’s inner lives. Men’s thoughts and feelings have always been presumed to be an interesting subject for literary fiction, but women’s stories have frequently found themselves shunted into a variety of genres that tend to get less acclaim.
Ferrante’s work has been groundbreaking in that it has been received around the world as a literary triumph, even as it chronicles the lives of people often pushed to the side in art and history. At the Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg recommends watching My Brilliant Friend alongside the Godfather movies in order to appreciate “what we gain when we see the world both from the center and the margins.”
What we learn from My Brilliant Friend, though, is that the margins can be just as brutal as the center, if in different ways. Ferrante pulls back the curtain on the inner lives of girls and women, and what she reveals is dark — just as dark as anything perpetrated by men.
“Lila appeared in my life in first grade and immediately impressed me because she was very bad,” Ferrante writes. And Lila is bad — not badass, though she is that too, not plucky or feisty or spirited, but hateful and spiteful and sometimes cruel.
Costanzo’s adaptation makes even clearer what already came through in the books: that one of Ferrante’s greatest skills lies in showing us the full range of women’s emotions and all they are capable of — love and friendship, but also destruction.
A certain kind of feminist criticism once focused on whether a particular artistic creation was empowering to women. (The Onion perfectly skewered this tradition in 2003, with the headline “Women Now Empowered By Everything A Woman Does.”) More recently, female characters in fiction have been given the freedom to be “unlikable.” (Earlier this year, Vox’s Tara Burton deconstructed the entire question of likability.) What Elena Ferrante has done is to create characters who are hateable — who sometimes hate each other and sometimes deserve to be hated — and to remind us that women are worthy of depiction in art not because they are better than men but because they, too, are human.