THE HBO ADAPTATION OF ELENA FERRANTE IS A REFRESHING CHANGE
Emily Temple – Nov 12, 2018
The most anticipated literary television event of the season—and maybe the year—has to be HBO’s eight-episode mini series adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the first book in her Neapolitan series, and the original germ that gave you and everyone you know a bad case of “Ferrante fever” a few years back.
But apparently, when the first two episodes premiered at the Venice Film Festival, all that eager anticipation quickly turned to “general sighing” and widespread boredom. “To say the advance press screening was a muted affair would be generous,” Emily Yoshida wrote in Vulture. “I witnessed more walkouts throughout the two hours than I did during Luca Guadagnino’s bloody, polarizing Suspiria.” She wondered if the problem had something to do with the unpracticed young actors (Elisa Del Genio and Ludovica Nasti) but wrote that “[director Saverio] Costanzo’s direction is so ponderous and slow that I have to wonder how much of a difference it would make.”
I have now seen the first six episodes of My Brilliant Friend, and I can tell you: it is slow. But its slowness is part of what makes it great television. And for the record: I found all four actresses to be phenomenal, especially for being untrained, but also probably because of it. Gaia Girace, who plays teenage Lila, is particularly striking; it’s hard to look away from her when she’s on screen, which surely tracks with Ferrante’s vision.
The show, overall, is very loyal to its source material—it had to be, lest the fans revolt—and so let’s be real: the book is also slow. I don’t mean this as a criticism. My Brilliant Friend is slow, particularly at the beginning, because it is dealing with the minutiae of children’s lives. It has lots of characters whose names and ages and relationships to one another you keep forgetting. It is a thorough, detailed account of the consciousness of one girl living in relative poverty. Like Knausgaard’s My Struggle, with which Ferrante’s works are often paired as an example of “autofiction,” the slowness is part of the point. It’s what makes it feel like life.