The New Yorker: The Sweet Linearity of “My Brilliant Friend”

HBO’s small-screen adaptation dramatizes Elena Ferrante’s novel without transforming it.

On The New Yorker

Emily Nussbaum – Dec 3, 2018

In one of the loveliest sequences in Elena Ferrante’s novel “My Brilliant Friend,” two girls read “Little Women.” But Elena and Lila don’t merely read the book together. They recite it, they memorize it. They fantasize about emulating Jo March, who escaped poverty by writing. They wreck it with their love: “We read it for months, so many times that the book became tattered and sweat-stained, it lost its spine, came unthreaded, sections fell apart.”

This sequence is a delight in the TV adaptation, too, which is currently airing on HBO. On a bench in their grungy, violent Naples neighborhood, Elena and Lila lounge, bodies entwined, wearing shabby dresses, reading in unison, in Italian. (The show has English subtitles.) Excitedly, Lila recites a passage in which Jo herself reads out loud, from her first published short story, to her sisters, without telling them who wrote it. At the passage’s climax, when Jo reveals herself as the author, the two girls read Jo’s words together, their faces shining, as Lila pounds her chest: “Vostra sorella! ” (“Your sister!”) It’s a thrilling moment, which threw me back to the wild vulnerability of childhood reading. The scene is dramatic, or maybe just specific and sensual, in a way that the version on the page can’t be, and really doesn’t try to be. There’s no dialogue in the book, no chest-pounding, no description of the girls’ clothes, and no quotes from “Little Women.” Ferrante’s book confides more than it describes—that’s both its technique and its insinuating power.

A few years ago, every discussion of television seemed to be framed as “Is TV the New Novel?” It was a rivalry poisonous to both parties, not unlike the one between Lila and Elena, the top girls in their class. Not that I don’t get it: in the past two decades, technological advances have altered television in a way similar to how the modern novel—which began as an episodic, serialized, disposable medium, derided for its addictive qualities—emerged as a respected artistic phenomenon. With whole seasons released at once, a television series is now a text to be analyzed. There’s a TV-writing class at the University of Iowa. The anxiety is palpable, on both sides. What kind of art do intelligent people talk about? What do they binge on, late at night? Which art form is capable of the most originality, the greater depth, the wider influence—and which one makes you rich? (Would Jo be a showrunner?) It’s enough to make you crave a broader conversation, with respect for the strengths of each art, an interplay that’s more than a simple hierarchy.

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The New Yorker: “My Brilliant Friend,” Reviewed: A Prada Ad for Working-Class Gloom, but with Shades of Humble Tenderness

On The New Yorker

Troy Patterson – Nov 15, 2018

My Brilliant Friend” (HBO), an eight-hour miniseries adapted from the first of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, opens as the book does, with a telephone ringing in the dead of the night. Elena Greco, the book’s narrator, answers it to learn that her friend Lila has been missing for two weeks; she has also disappeared her documents and cut her own face out of family photographs.

On the screen, Elena pecks at her laptop, and the director, Saverio Costanzo, conjures her story as confrontational retrospection: a reconstruction of the love and anger of their complicated alliance. It began when they were poor girls in Naples, in the nineteen-fifties, a period made to feel, simultaneously, like the sixteen-hundreds. They’re doing the twist on the dance floor—and also there are donkeys hitched to carts in the courtyard, and the adults are speaking of blood feuds, or else just wailing, and the neighborhood class dynamics date back to the Byzantine Empire. The vowels of Enzo, the son of the fruits-and-vegetables peddler, echo around the dirt and old stone of the neighborhood with the hardiness of a town crier’s: “Oranges! Cherries! Salad greens!”

The language is Italian and its dialects. The genre is neorealist melodrama, with a sumptuous nostalgia for the Golden Age films of Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, and Luchino Visconti. The costumes and art, with their deep colors and stylized shabbiness and sumptuous austerity, are like a Prada ad for working-class gloom. The bricklayer’s son seethes about economic injustice while sporting an excellent maroon turtleneck. The atmosphere is thick in a way that sometimes verges on self-parody and sometimes feels appropriate amid the ferocity of the friendship between Elena and Lila and the intensity of the adult intrigues as the children understand them. Tales of adultery and usury roll down to their ears by way of gossip, misheard whispers, and cautionary folklore, and they snowball into thrilling myth. Beneath the show’s heavy coats of operatic varnish and prestige-TV enamel, it demonstrates a humble tenderness. Continue reading