The reclusive author’s Neapolitan novels have been devoured by millions. Now the first one is about to hit TV screens in an ambitious adaptation made on location in Naples
Kathryn Bromwich – Nov 11, 2018
Earlier this year, a Brazilian tourist was wandering around Ischia, a picturesque volcanic island just off the coast of Naples in southern Italy. She was retracing the steps of Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, the characters at the centre of the four-book series by Elena Ferrante that begins with My Brilliant Friend. Perhaps she was thinking of the scenes in the first novel, where Elena leaves home for a few blissful weeks of reading and swimming; perhaps of the more dramatic romantic entanglements that happen on the island in the second volume.
One evening, the tourist stopped at a local restaurant for dinner, and, to her surprise, found Elena Greco eating there, along with railroad worker and poet Donato Sarratore and his family. Or, at least, the actors playing these roles in the forthcoming television adaptation of the first novel. “It was very funny – she recognised every one of them,” says Saverio Costanzo, director of the series. “She told us that many, many people from South America are going around Naples to see places from Elena Ferrante.” In the past few years, thousands of tourists have visited the area because of the book series, a double bildungsroman about a pair of friends which spans the decades between their 50s childhood and the present day. A thriving industry has sprung up to meet demand: Ferrante tours ranging from half a day to six days take people around the book’s locations, promising an authentic Neapolitan experience.
But today the Naples that so ignited readers’ imaginations lies a little further afield. A 45-minute drive from the city, hidden down an unassuming but well guarded driveway, is a set of tall, dusky apartment blocks. In these streets, drying washing hangs from the balconies, and street vendors sell milk bottles, mismatched pots and pans, and ragged-looking clothes. The location is a former glass factory, disused since the 80s, which over the past year has been meticulously transformed into the “rione”, or neighbourhood, that provides the main setting for Ferrante’s four novels.
It is June 2018 when I visit the set of the much anticipated TV series, joint produced by the companies Wildside and Fandango. Filming is in progress; we are frequently silenced to avoid interrupting scenes. Extras with dour expressions and austere period costume eye us suspiciously as they chainsmoke, looking as if they have come to life from a black-and-white postwar film. Here are the familiar sights from the books: the tunnel under which the girls pass on an ill-fated trip to the sea, the grate where they throw their dolls, the Carracci grocery store. Inside the tobacconist’s, fresh prosciutto legs have been taken out of the fridge, and are displayed alongside 50s newspapers.
The scale of the project is staggering. It is one of the largest sets in Europe, spreading over two hectares. An enormous warehouse contains recreations of several characters’ apartments; all windows, doors and furniture are period originals. The casting process took eight months; more than 9,000 people from the area auditioned. The eight-episode series – an HBO, Rai Fiction and TIMvision co-production – is the first foray into foreign-language television for HBO (not only is it in Italian, but large parts of the dialogue are in 50s Neapolitan dialect, which most Italians will need subtitles to undertand). Lila’s wedding dress and the pair of shoes she secretly makes for her father’s shop have been designed by Pierpaolo Piccioli, the creative director of Valentino. This is a prestige Italian production, assembling the great and the good of the country’s cinema and TV; one of the press officers, I am later told, is married to celebrated director Paolo Sorrentino.
Pulling all this together is Costanzo, a 43-year-old director from Rome with a handful of fairly well received feature films under his belt. His history with Ferrante goes back to 2007, when he wrote to ask whether he could adapt her short novel The Lost Daughter – which prefigures many of the themes and characters of the My Brilliant Friend series – for the screen. He worked on a screenplay for six months, but in the end the project didn’t work out: Ferrante had been disappointed with previous adaptations of her work and wanted nothing more to do with cinema. And then, silence – until, last year, he got a call. He was told Ferrante had put his name forward for the TV adaptation of the books, and he had got the job. “Maybe Elena Ferrante is my mother,” he jokes. Sharply dressed, though he looks a little tired at the end of a long day of filming, he answers questions thoughtfully and with authority. He’s easy and natural around the young lead actors; it’s clear they have spent a lot of time together and there’s a sense of mutual trust.
Costanzo had been wary of adapting novels for the screen – over-fastidious fan reactions to his 2010 film of the Italian bestseller The Solitude of Prime Numbers had put him off – but in this case, it felt right. “I was in love with the book,” he tells me. “I had read it a long time before that phone call. I was very familiar with the work of Ferrante, the way she understands writing, dramaturgy, her characters. So I jumped in.”