Does HBO’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’ Capture the Elena Ferrante Feeling?

Posted December 2, 2018 4:03 p.m. EST

Can Ferrante Fever strike twice? HBO is banking on it, as last month it started running an adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s book “My Brilliant Friend,” the first installment in her wildly popular quartet known as the Neapolitan novels. Saverio Costanzo directed this eight-episode season and has signed on to direct 24 future episodes, which will be based on the other three books in the series. He also wrote the script with Ferrante, who kept her identity a secret throughout the project. (Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym.)

“My Brilliant Friend” introduces Lenù and Lila, children who live in a violent, poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples in the 1950s. The book (and the first eight episodes) follows them through their teenage years, dissecting their fierce friendship in excruciatingly intimate detail, all from Lenù's perspective.

The New York Times gathered a group of the book’s fans from the newsroom to discuss the HBO season so far.

ELEANOR STANFORD:Welcome to our watching club! I first read “My Brilliant Friend” as part of a book club, so this feels very fitting. I was nervous when I heard HBO was adapting the series, partly because many HBO shows feel so aggressively masculine to me. But I was pleasantly surprised: The show feels familiar (so far) in its nuanced look at female interiority. What did you hope for going in?

JOSHUA BARONE: Because the books are so much about a sense of place, I was hoping for that to be essential to the visual language of the series. And, in many ways, it is. The neighborhood has the look of a stage set: grand, but static and ultimately stifling. It is, after all, a studio soundstage.

ALICIA DeSANTIS: It’s said that novels are good tools for world-building, but one of the surprises here for me is the way in which this dramatization brings Ferrante’s world to life. This is partly a function of the narration, I think. In the book we are of course utterly bound to Lenù's perspective — she is our only guide. Here we’re a little freer to make up our own minds about Lila, Pasquale, Marcello and the rest. It’s also easier to see the lines between them — as independent agents, engaged in economic, political and social struggles.

We are so very, very close to Lenù in the novels — it’s interesting to be put into a different kind of relation to her. Lenù and Lila are so much at the center of the books — what did you think of their characterization here?

STANFORD: I couldn’t get over how striking-looking the young actresses playing the girls as children are. It seems like they were both cast, in part, for their staring ability: Ludovica Nasti (who plays Lila) has these eyes like glowing orbs and Elisa del Genio (Lenù) has such long eyelashes. There are lots of lingering glances as the girls try to figure out the world around them, and the actresses were so adept at conveying complicated emotions without a word, they rendered the narration in the opening episodes a little redundant. What did you think of the older actresses?

GAL BECKERMAN: As the third episode opens, we get a time jump that moves Lenù and Lila into their teenage years of burgeoning sexual awareness and acne trouble. I was impressed with how seamless the transition was between the child and teenage actresses who play the girls. It’s not just the physical resemblance. Young Lila was portrayed as a little girl possessed, almost overwhelmed by her unbridled intelligence. Teenage Lila carries this forward — never simply playing the character as insolent or irrational, but instead letting the deep frustration with her constrained world come through. Similarly for Lenù, the two actresses capture her insecurity and self-consciousness, but also her deeply driven nature.

NICOLE HERRINGTON: So much about Lila and her motivations are a mystery in the books. But as played as a teenager by Gaia Girace — it took me a few scenes to warm up to her — we understand her as a generally fearless young woman who’s brimming with a desire to learn, problem-solve and create. And this fuels the competitive dynamic between Lenù and Lila.

BARONE: Ah, the competitivity and violence. I reread the portions of the book that correspond to the first episodes, and Ferrante mentions beatings, however severe, only in passing. In the first episode, the attack outside church against Signor Peluso is prolonged and graphic; on the page, it doesn’t take up more than a couple of haunting sentences.

STANFORD: I think the graphic violence really worked. There was something almost ethereal about that scene where he’s thrown against the wall and the girls run out of the church to see. The swelling Max Richter score, the camerawork emphasizing how little the girls are, their desire to watch this really shocking violence, it all combined to create a moment that was even more powerful — dare I say it — than in the book. I do also think the explicitness might be a symptom of how the show has to set a precedent of normalized violence quite quickly.

BECKERMAN:And then, in the third episode, when we are introduced to Lenù and Lila as teenagers, the violence changes. It’s suddenly present in the threat the neighborhood boys pose to the girls, both emotionally and directly. Their physical presences — imposing, leering, pushing them toward sexuality — were more menacing on the screen, especially as embodied by those world-class bullies, the Solara brothers, one of whom (Marcello) becomes obsessed with marrying Lila.

BARONE: It was heartening to see the Solaras come to the rescue of Rino and Pasquale as they were nearly beaten to death in Naples during Episode 5. Although the boys are enemies on their own streets, a sense of hometown solidarity united them in this moment. If only the implications of it all weren’t so grim. Lest we forget, when Don Achille handed Lila and Lenù money to replace their lost dolls, he told them to remember who gave it to them. Marcello wants to buy Lila’s love however he can. What better way than by saving her brother’s life?

STANFORD: So much of Lila and Lenù's friendship is about power, and you see some of that dynamic reflected in how they navigate romantic relationships as teenagers: Lila is fierce and defies her family in refusing to entertain Marcello’s advances. Lenù agrees to go steady with Gino, the pharmacist’s son who she barely knows, mostly so she can say she got a boyfriend before Lila.

AISHA HARRIS: I really appreciate how, throughout the episodes, strangers and acquaintances, men and women alike greet Lenù or Lila, and usually the second thing out of their mouths after “ciao” is “so pretty!” or some other comment on their appearance. Their value as young girls is unconsciously tied to how they look, and at the same time Lenù is very self-conscious of her changing body and acne; this really took me back to my time experiencing puberty.

BECKERMAN: Margherita Mazzucco (who plays Lenù as a teenager) does a brilliant job of capturing that adolescent awkwardness and anxiety about trying to figure out her place in the world. The lack of self-assurance about her physicality (in contrast to Lila’s self-possession) is made visible because we actually see the girls. Ferrante only does physical description in broad strokes. Here that critical aspect of their dynamic becomes flesh and blood.

STANFORD: We see the girls as children constantly testing the boundaries of their lives (or at least, Lila does and Lenù follows her). When they set off in the second episode to see the sea for the first time, it starts as this triumphant and rebellious adventure, where they can finally see a horizon stretching ahead.

But then Lila turns back, and it’s the first time we see her scared of anything: She can handle being beaten by an older boy, being thrown out the window by her father, but leaving the familiarity of the neighborhood is too much for her. It’s a heartbreaking moment, one that really seems to foreshadow the rest of the story, as Lenù's ambitions let her travel the world, and Lila can never rid herself of the neighborhood. The fifth episode ends with Lenù headed off to a summer on the island of Ischia, to swim in the sea for the first time that she can remember, while Lila remains deeply embedded in the social politics of the neighborhood. And it’s remarkable how much of those politics take place in public.

BARONE: Everyone shouting in the street like that is an Italian cliché, but for a reason: The story in my immigrant family is that my great-grandmother, who stayed behind in her tiny Italian town, lived well into her 100s but died only because she fell after yelling out her kitchen window. I appreciate how often Costanzo shows people doing this. It’s one of the many details, like the distinct use of local dialect and not more commonly spoken Italian, that make me optimistic for how the series will build out the worlds of Lenù and Lila as they get older.