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HBO’s My Brilliant Friend adaptation is a knockout

Even if you’ve never read Elena Ferrante’s novels, this new eight-episode series will have you gripped.

My Brilliant Friend
Elisa Del Genio and Ludovica Nasti play Elena and Lila, the twin heroines of My Brilliant Friend.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

I haven’t read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, the best-selling, heavily acclaimed quartet of books that form the basis for HBO’s new My Brilliant Friend. (Each book will be an eight-episode season of the show; I’ve seen seven of the eight episodes of season one, based on the first book, called, well, My Brilliant Friend.)

I know, I know. This is horrifying. Didn’t everybody read those books a few years ago? And pass them along to their friends with hushed admiration and excitement for everything the mysterious Ferrante (whose real identity is — at least officially — a secret) accomplished? And feel the tremendous power of Ferrante’s evocation of a bygone era in Italy? Well? Didn’t they?

It’s not that I had anything against the books — I always meant to read them, I swear — and I present this fact as the basis of what I’m going to say next: Freed from the hype surrounding the titles, and the questions on Ferrante’s identity, and everything else, this new series is a knockout, excavating the core story of the books and creating a beautiful coming-of-age tale, brimming with nostalgia, sorrow, and humor.

(I also say this because critics who have read the books seem to believe the series is a good adaptation, but perhaps too direct of an adaptation. So take that for what it’s worth, book fans.)

I never felt like I was missing out on something having not read the source material. I always felt like I understood what it was people adore about Ferrante’s world. And for me, at least, it is a triumph of world-building, as potent and richly realized as any sci-fi or fantasy show.

My Brilliant Friend brims with love for a place almost all of its audience will have never been to

My Brilliant Friend
As the girls grow into adolescence, new actors take over the roles. Margherita Mazzucco stars as teenage Elena.

For its first season at least, My Brilliant Friend is the story of two girls growing up in a lower-class neighborhood somewhere in the Naples area. (And, yes, the whole thing is in Italian with English subtitles — but would you want this story told in English?)

Elena (played by Elisa Del Genio as a child and Margherita Mazzucco as a teen) is a bit quieter than her friend Lila (Ludovica Nasti as a child; Gaia Girace as a teen), who is the “brilliant” friend of the title, but we also know from the very first scene of the series that Elena will grow up into someone whose life has some degree of comfort, while Lila does not seem to have done so.

The adult Elena who worries for her friend narrates the series, which jumps from that first scene back into the 1950s and stays there, to chart the years the girls spend as children and teenagers, first coming to understand everything from class to sex to the brutal gender politics of their world. Lila might be the smarter of the two — though Elena’s intelligence isn’t to be diminished (especially when it comes to writing) — but she’s also the one growing up in the more conservative, regressive family. Early in the series, Elena’s family makes the decision to continue her education. Lila’s family does not. And from there, the story spins outward.

Even a cursory glance at the dust jackets of Ferrante’s books reveals that the story continues to follow the two women into adulthood and old age. But for this first season, at least, the pair remain young, still brimming with potential and possibility. The larger question the story raises is about the vagaries of fate, about how someone like Lila can be artificially held back by the accident of which family she was born into, while Elena receives more chances, even though both girls share a rough social class.

But it’s also about the strange, woozy discombobulation that is the connection between the two. Lila is impetuous and possessed of a slightly devilish streak, as likely to throw Elena’s doll into a creepy cellar neither girl wants to enter or to be fascinated by a local murder as she is to stand up for herself and her friend against the local boys. Yet the bond between the girls is unshakable, just one of those things no one could possibly dislodge. To its credit, My Brilliant Friend doesn’t try to answer why this friendship exists. It simply is, and there’s something both terrible and wonderful about that.

The girls also provide a handy window to the world the series is set in, and director Saverio Costanzo (who helms all eight episodes) turns the little plaza the girls’ shabby apartment buildings surround into a microcosm of the world at large. By the third or fourth episode, you’ll know every nook and cranny of the place, but Costanzo keeps finding new ways to illuminate how somewhere that seems big and full of adventure to two very young girls begins to feel like a prison once they grow older.

For as much as the series filters its point of view through the eyes of the girls, there’s another level of remove. This story is being told by the older Elena, after all, and the whole tale has a filter of nostalgia that retains just enough skepticism to avoid curdling into schmaltz. The tale might remember the crisp beauty of a New Year’s night spent on a rooftop — but it’s not going to forget the barely suppressed violence among some of the teenage boys who attend, or the way those same boys seem to represent an inevitable finale for Lila, who just might be doomed to end up one of their wives.

That violence also marks the one slight demerit against the show, which is to say that there are a lot of characters, many of whom are associated with various organized crime families and other illicit organizations, and keeping who’s who straight can be tricky since so much of the story isn’t about that but, rather, Elena and Lila’s interpretation of their world. (In a weird way, that aspect of the series reminded me of the limited focus of a very different HBO series, True Detective.) In this regard only, book fans may be at a slight advantage, since if you’ve forgotten who someone is in a book, you can always go back a few pages.

That is a minor complaint in the face of a series that gripped me from frame one, despite telling a very small, intimate story that occasionally amounts to two girls learning lessons about how the world works and little else. It made me feel sad for the loss of a place I’ve never been, and for people who never lived.

In one shot, Costanzo pans across a room of people watching a band perform on TV, nodding their heads to the music. Many of them are looking right out of the screen, right back at you, as though they are watching you, and you are watching them, and all of this might be real, just waiting somewhere to be discovered. It feels less like a TV show than a place.

My Brilliant Friend debuts Sunday, November 18, at 9 pm Eastern on HBO, then airs a second episode Monday, November 19, at 9 pm Eastern. It will continue to air two episodes a week — one on Sundays and one on Mondays — through Monday, December 10. The series will also be available on HBO’s streaming platforms.