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How HBO’s My Brilliant Friend translates Elena Ferrante’s beloved book to TV

One writer who’s read the novel and one who hasn’t discuss the miniseries’ first two episodes.

My Brilliant Friend
Elena and Lila prepare to embark on an epic journey across several decades. Like you do at that age.

This week, critic at large Todd VanDerWerff (who hasn’t read any of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels) and culture writer Constance Grady (who has read the first one) got together to discuss the first two episodes of HBO’s adaptation of the first book in that series — My Brilliant Friend. Beware! Spoilers follow!

Todd VanDerWerff: As someone who’s never read the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan quartet that inspires the new series My Brilliant Friend, what most surprised me about the series’ first two episodes was how borderline pulpy they were.

Don’t get me wrong. This is still a show that puts its best “coming of age story” foot forward. It is, above all else, the story of Elena and Lila growing up as poor girls in an out-of-the-way Naples neighborhood. But mixed in there are darker, pulpier elements, like murder and horrifying cellars with strange shadowy figures in the corner and hints of organized crime. I’m starting to see why these books were such a phenomenon — they both capture certain truths about female friendship that aren’t always well portrayed in culture and they wed those truths to storytelling elements that carry an air of popcorn fiction.

I mean, I assume! Again, I haven’t read the novels. And every single one of the pulpy elements I’ve listed above turns out to have a completely logical explanation that mutes it somewhat. That shadowy figure in the basement? Just the local pawnbroker! Though as you learn about said pawnbroker, you start to realize that he, too, is a story in and of himself.

That sort of realization is what the first two episodes of My Brilliant Friend evoke so well, I think. When you’re a certain kind of literary-minded kid, everything that happens to you feels like the start of some fantastical story or voyage. Elena and Lila are that kind of kid: intelligent, but also too young to fully understand every aspect of the world around them. So they fill in the gaps with stories. What they don’t yet realize is the most important story they’re involved in is the one centered on their friendship.

Constance, you’ve read the book that My Brilliant Friend’s first season is based on. One thing that some critics who’ve read Ferrante’s novels have said about the show is that it can occasionally feel like a perfunctory adaptation — taking bits that sang on the page and literalizing them onscreen in a way that works for those who don’t read much, but falling just a little flat if you know what’s coming. How do you feel about the series’ adaptation choices? And can we talk about how remarkable its child casting is?

How the TV adaptation makes the novel’s darkest horrors even more clear

My Brilliant Friend
Run, Lila, Run: A film by Tom Tykwer

Constance: I am ready to talk about those child actors all day. You get such a strong sense of their personalities from the way they’re shot, and the continuity between the child actors and their teen counterparts is honestly astonishing.

In terms of the adaptation: I think that the pulpiness you pointed to is actually one of the biggest changes we see from page to screen. On the page, Elena describes the murder and violence and horror around her so matter-of-factly that it doesn’t quite register as violence.

We know that Elena is afraid of Don Achille, for instance, and that she thinks of him as a monster — but she writes about that fear as though he’s just a creepy old neighborhood man who the local children have made up some stories about. When I was reading the book, it wasn’t until Elena was well into her teens that I finally put together that oh, okay, Don Achille is a local crime boss who got rich off the black market during World War II. He runs the neighborhood like it’s his private fiefdom, and he is ultimately killed by another local crime family who want to get rid of the competition. In the book, Elena just doesn’t think of her neighborhood in such terms, so I didn’t either.

But the TV show makes it clear who Don Achille is almost immediately. There’s a kind of doubled vision here: We see Don Achille as Elena and Lila see him, as a fairy tale ogre who goes around stealing dolls and putting them in a black bag — but we also see him as he is in “reality,” as a petty crime boss.

The TV show also makes the rest of the violence around Elena and Lila a lot more vivid and concrete. There’s a scene in the second episode in which Lila’s father throws her out a window in a fit of rage. Onscreen, it’s horrifying: You hear voices shouting and crescendoing, and then you see Lila’s tiny child’s body crashing through the window to thud painfully on the ground, shards of glass everywhere. It feels like a monstrous act of violence.

But on the page, the violence of that scene is muted. You have to dig for it. It’s almost comic: “Suddenly the shouting stopped and a few seconds later my friend flew out the window, passed over my head, and landed on the asphalt behind me.” Listen to how peaceful those verbs are! Lila is flying, passing, landing; you don’t get a strong sense of brutality from this language. The horror here is subdued, below the surface, and it only dawns on you gradually how terrible and violent the thing you just read was.

As a result, the TV show feels a lot bleaker and more harrowing than the book does in its beginning. Elena and Lila still have their sense of childish wonder and delight at the world, but now overlaying it we can always see the reality of how terrible their world is, and how difficult it will be for them ever to escape. In the book, you have to work for that realization. The shift in emotional register isn’t necessarily bad, but it is noticeably different.

Todd: That’s really interesting to me! As more and more acclaimed novels are adapted into TV shows instead of movies, and as those TV shows tend to streeeeeeetch everything ooooouuuut, I’ve been thinking a lot more about how onscreen depictions have a tendency to make everything blunter than it would be on the page.

To be sure, that’s not always the case. No Country for Old Men is magnificently blunt both on the page and on the big screen. But your highlighting of Ferrante’s verb choices makes clear that a mini-arc within the book must be Elena’s slow realization of how the world around her actually works, as she loses her childhood innocence and observes more nuance as she gets older. (Obviously, this is something all of us experience.) That’s difficult to portray onscreen, where a small girl flying through a window is hard to depict as anything other than brutal and horrifying, unless you’re deliberately going for comedy.

That also speaks to another adaptation problem I think My Brilliant Friend gets around beautifully — namely, even though Elena is the point-of-view character and one of the two leads of the story, she doesn’t really do much throughout the first two episodes, which makes Lila feel like the more dynamic and engaging character.

I sometimes think of this as the Harry Potter problem. In the first few books of that series, Harry is the point-of-view character, which means that we’re getting a fairly vivid portrayal of the wizarding world through his eyes. But onscreen, the point-of-view character is almost always going to default to the camera. A skillful director can change the audience’s relationship to point-of-view (as Alfonso Cuarón did in the third Harry Potter film and Chris Columbus... pointedly did not in the first two), but they’re always working against the way the audience on some level just wants the camera to be an impartial, unseen observer. So how does My Brilliant Friend avoid this issue?

Well, director Saverio Costanzo (as well as writers Ferrante, Costanzo, Francesco Piccolo, and Laura Paolucci) is always cognizant of how we understand the world through Elena’s point-of-view. When she first becomes aware of Lila in class at their school, Costanzo films the revelation in close on actress Elisa del Genio’s face as it cycles through frustration, irritation, and intrigue. Who is this person? Who does she think she is? And more importantly, when we see Lila, it’s from the perspective Elena would see the girl from — seated at a desk.

Costanzo returns to these filmmaking tricks throughout, at moments of emotional importance, so that we are firmly with Elena. Even when we see things that Elena couldn’t possibly have seen — like the murder of Don Achille — they’re presented almost abstractly, as a small child might imagine them. (The murder is revealed via a knife popping in from offscreen to sink into a neck that gouts blood. Not only does it obscure the identity of the murderer, but it also underlines the way a little kid wouldn’t quite understand how all of this works.)

Adult Elena is telling us this story via narration, which also shoulders some of the point-of-view burden, because we’re always reminded that these are her memories. Elena’s narration also subtly frames the story as something of a mystery about who Lila is. (It would seem something bad happened to Adult Lila in the present.)

When Kid Lila takes those dolls and pitches them down the chute into the cellar, it’s presented as impetuous and rude, but also as something almost impossible to understand. The moment underlines one of My Brilliant Friend’s themes, and one of the reasons point-of-view is so important to its success: No matter how well you know someone, they’ll always be a mystery to you on some level.

This theme also extends to how the little plaza where the girls live is presented almost as an entire fantasy kingdom when they’re kids, full of odd nooks and crannies and adventures just waiting to be uncovered. How do you feel about the “world-building” of the show, for lack of a better word? And do its places match up to the ones in your mind’s eye from the book?

How the world-building of the TV show matches up to the world-building of the book

My Brilliant Friend
Elena and Lila enjoy reading Little Women, another realistic fiction novel that employs wonderful world-building as it follows girls from childhood to adulthood.

Constance: The world-building is another great example of how My Brilliant Friend has to reconcile the reality of the larger world with Elena’s childish understanding of it. In the book, the neighborhood doesn’t really register as filthy and squalid until Elena has a chance to get out of it and catch a glimpse of the rest of Naples; she’s just living her life in the only place she knows. And we see that onscreen, we see what it is about this neighborhood that would be fun for a kid to play in. But we also see that it’s cramped and impoverished and the light is always gray — and in a way, that raises the stakes. We want these girls to go to school so that they can leave this place, before it seems to have fully occurred to them that they might like to.

One of my favorite things about the friendship between Elena and Lila is just how much of it revolves around their shared desire to escape. Elena first decides to befriend Lila specifically because she can see that Lila is smart enough to get out, and if Elena follows her, she’ll be able to leave as well. She won’t live the life her parents lead, and, as she puts it, her mother’s limp will stop chasing her. (What an image that is!) And Lila, in her turn, seems to be drawn to Elena both because she can see that Elena is the only one in the neighborhood who is almost as smart as Lila is, and because Elena has an ability to please the people in charge who can be useful to Lila.

Their teacher, meanwhile, deliberately sets them against each other as friendly rivals, because she can see that they motivate one another to do better — and when it becomes clear to her that Lila is a lost cause, that her parents will not allow her to go to middle school, she drops Lila, and encourages Elena to do the same.

So much of this friendship is built around utility, around the idea that this person, this one, can be an escape route, a way out of the neighborhood. But what’s fascinating is that even as it becomes clear that even if both Elena and Lila are getting out, they’ll be taking very different paths, the friendship never quite curdles. There are moments of profound resentment — that scene where it becomes clear that Lila orchestrated Elena’s punishment for going to the ocean in the hopes that her parents would be too angry to send her to school is just heart-stopping — but there is never any question of the friendship breaking apart.

They mean too much to each other for that to happen. Each one is the other’s “brilliant friend,” and so their bond keeps evolving and mutating but stays forever intact.

Todd: In my review of the season overall, I described Lila as the “brilliant friend” of the title and was met with a degree of pushback from readers who feel that each of the girls is the other’s “brilliant friend.” And, yes, that is obviously where the series is heading (though it feels to me like it will take several seasons for Elena to get over her Lila-themed inferiority complex), but it also strikes me as something very true about friendships between kids and teens.

We’re so often drawn to people who mirror the things we value most in ourselves, and we’re so often drawn to people who — to us, at least — seem to do those things just a little bit better, to the degree that we can make it to adulthood and still be racing against our childhood best friend just a little bit. I mean, I’m sure there are some people who don’t have this complex, but Lord knows I do, and lots of the people I know and love do as well.

Every brilliant friend, on some level, is also a brilliant rival. Elena and Lila seem to have a pretty good balance right now, but I wonder how that will change as the two are separated by their parents’ decisions, by aging, and by time. They can make each other better, but they can also make each other worse. That dynamic is bound to pay dividends the deeper we get into the show.

My Brilliant Friend airs Sundays and Mondays at 9 pm Eastern on HBO. Previous episodes are available on the network’s streaming platforms.

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