The Guardian

The epic task of bringing the enigmatic Elena Ferrante’s books to life

Naples, the setting for Ferrante’s book series

Francesco Piccolo will collaborate with the pseudonymous novelist to turn her books into an Italian TV drama – but not in person

For Francesco Piccolo, being given the job of transforming one of the most exciting works of contemporary literature into a television drama is the professional challenge of a lifetime.

But the deal to dramatise the four-book series by the pseudonymous writer known as Elena Ferrante comes with a peculiar catch. To protect the closely guarded secret of Ferrante’s true identity, the award-winning novelist and screenwriter will have to collaborate with Ferrante, who retains some creative control over the project, entirely by email.

“She will not literally write the script but she will read – I believe – everything. Every single draft, every single scene. She will go through it and by email she will express her thoughts, suggestions, advice,” said Maurizio Dell’Orso, who handles television rights for Ferrante’s publisher, Edizioni E/O. “She is not the kind of person who says: ‘I wrote it, now you go do the rest.’”

Asked whether Ferrante – whose first book in the series is called My Brilliant Friend – might widen the circle of people who know her identity in order to more freely collaborate with the writers and director who will be reworking thousands of pages of her text, the answer was decisive: no. All communication, including with Piccolo, a famous novelist in his own right, will likely pass through her editors Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola, as it always has.

“It will not be very easy, probably,” said an official at Fandango, the Italian production house that is co-producing the series with Wildside, before quickly adding: “The books are so good, maybe it doesn’t matter.”

For lovers of Ferrante’s story, an epic tale that follows the story of two friends, Elena and Lila, growing up in impoverished post-war Naples, the TV series, which is in development but is unlikely to be aired until 2018 at the earliest, represents an opportunity for the books to come to life and reach an even broader audience.

Detail from the cover art for The Story of the Lost Child, by Elena Ferrante
Detail from the cover art for The Story of the Lost Child, by Elena Ferrante. Photograph: Europa editions

While the city of Naples will likely be a centrepiece in the 32-episode drama, other locations in Italy and abroad will also have important cameos, such the island of Ischia, as well as Rome, Pisa, and Milan.

Like any favourite novel-turned-movie, it will also face heavy scrutiny from fans, and both Ferrante’s publisher and Fandango acknowledge that the quality of the writer’s work, coupled with the adoration of her readers, mean they are under great pressure to succeed. It also means finding the right international partners who will carry the series around the world, including the US and UK, where Ferrante is even more popular than in Italy.

Dell’Orso seems in awe of the creative decisions that have yet to be made, in part because a director has not yet been selected: will the characters speak in the Neapolitan dialect or strictly in Italian? How many actors will be cast to depict the characters as they age over 60 years? Will the main actors be plucked from obscurity or will they be well-known?

While Dell’Orso said it was always “complicated” to make a movie or TV series out of a book, he said there was something about Ferrante’s work – the detailed description of emotions, inner thoughts, actions – that “might make it kind of easier”.

“It is going to be a big help, I believe for scriptwriters and actors and directors. There are books, novels, that leave much hanging. But also things can be misinterpreted. It is not that way with My Brilliant Friend. It’s all there, you see it,” he said.

The project might also provide an opportunity to showcase positive changes in Italy’s TV landscape, which unlike cinema has not had a strong reputation for creating compelling series that are popular abroad. Two Italian series – Gomorrah, based on the Roberto Saviano book, and Romanzo Criminale – are seen as having elevated Italian TV to a new level.

The forthcoming series The Young Pope, an eight-part English-language drama starring Jude Law and Diane Keaton, directed by the Italian Oscar-winner Paolo Sorrentino, is seen as paving the way for Ferrante’s series.

Paolo Sorrentino.
Paolo Sorrentino. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

Dell’Orso said he was hopeful and confident that Fandango’s production would be high quality and would attract international interest, pointing to the success ofthe Netflix series Narcos, which included subtitled dialogue in colloquial Latin American Spanish. He put it forward as proof that subtitled series can do well in the US.

Could the series be remade in English? Dell’Orso breaks out in a sly grin: “There might be a remake, but it is a little too soon to speak about that … we will see.”