The many admirers of Elena Ferrante’s novel “My Brilliant Friend” — the first in her smash series of four books about a pair of Neapolitan women moving through life — likely have two questions about the Italian-language TV adaptation. The first is how faithful it is to the source material, and the second is how well it matches the novel’s effortless ability to move within its protagonist’s mind, tracking subtleties of emotion.
The answers are mainly good news: In the limited series’ first two installments, screened at the Venice Film Festival Sept. 2 before a November bow on HBO, the story closely tracks the movement of the novel. And while achieving the internality of the book is too high an order for this series, its ability to conjure up the world of children confused at the happenings around them is its own achievement. “My Brilliant Friend” is an impressive effort, a translation of novel to screen that preserves certain of its literary qualities while transmuting others into moving and effective TV.
Elena (Elisabetta De Palo), seen briefly in a framing device, receives a call that her old friend has gone missing, and, knowing that this disappearance had been a long time coming, finally sits down to write the story of their intertwined lives. We shift back in time to the dusty and sun-drunk Naples of the 1950s, where Elena (played as a child by Elisa Del Genio) spent her girlhood, in the perpetual company of the bright but troublesome Lila (Ludovica Nasti). Later in the series, we’ll see them as teenagers.
As we see young Lila throwing crumpled paper at teacher’s-pet Elena, De Palo’s voice intones, “She impressed me at once because she was so bad.” The voice-over device seeks to accomplish the same thing as did the narration of the novel, documenting every childish thought with the wisdom of adulthood. But this device is less than necessary. Young Del Genio and Nasti have the unforced chemistry of the kids from “The Florida Project,” the last great entertainment about kids left largely unsupervised. And their frolics in a community whose rules they barely understand make far more potent points about the innocence of youth, and how it falls away, than the voice-over ever could.
In one striking scene, the pair are reading “Little Women” together as a fight breaks out; the viewer has been able to track the complicated social dynamics leading up to it, but to the children, it’s just noise, one among many interruptions that must be endured as a part of a childhood ending too quickly.