The Times: How Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend became a TV drama

As the international bestseller comes to Sky Atlantic, Tom Kington meets the cast on set in Italy

On The Times

 Nov 10, 2018

Working with one of the best-loved authors in the world on the TV adaptation of her intensely personal novels is not easy when you are banned from meeting her.

“It was like writing with a ghost,” says Saverio Costanzo, the director of the new, keenly awaited adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. The novel is the first of Ferrante’s four “Neapolitan” novels, which have drawn global acclaim, fuelling the guessing game over the identity of the Italian author, who writes under a pen name and clings fiercely to her privacy.

At least Costanzo got to swap emails with Ferrante — via her publisher of course — but he claims that left him none the wiser about her identity.

“I started off thinking she was a he, then I decided she was a she, then a we,” he says. “Then I decided I didn’t care.”

The Italian director is sitting at the counter of a café on a €6 million set in Caserta in Campania, where 14 blocks of a postwar Naples neighbourhood, the backdrop for My Brilliant Friend, have been faithfully recreated.

His job is to bring to the small screen one of the finest studies in female friendship, as Elena, the narrator, looks back on growing up in the neighbourhood with Lila, the incredibly smart, inscrutable, moody and proud companion she adores, emulates and resents.

The magnetism between the girls, which builds as the male testosterone of down-at-heel, early 1950s Naples swirls around them, drew fans from Zadie Smith to Hillary Clinton and pushed sales to more than ten million copies in 39 countries, while landing Ferrante on Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people.

“The two characters have become icons and I feel under great pressure doing this job, but there’s no fear — just excitement,” says Costanzo, who was handpicked by Ferrante to direct the eight-episode adaptation.

Ferrante wrote dialogue and “sculpted our ideas”, he added, but kept her distance from the director and his team of writers, using the formal “lei” version of “you” when addressing them in her emails. “I can’t say we are friends — it was rather 19th-century,” he says. Ferrante has clung to her anonymity despite constant speculation over her identity, which peaked in 2016 when an Italian journalist claimed she was Anita Raja, a Naples-born translator who works for Ferrante’s publishing company. Checking the company’s payments, the journalist claimed Raja’s wages looked a lot like author’s royalties rather than translation payments.

No one on the production team will admit knowing when it happened, but they say Ferrante has paid an incognito visit to the 12-acre set, built from scratch on the site of a shuttered glass factory in Caserta, 35km from Naples — close enough for Neapolitan actors to commute.

The author will have wandered the dusty, washing line-festooned streets she depicted in her books, past the spot where Lila, aged about seven, cruelly drops Elena’s doll down a ventilation shaft into the basement of a building, prompting Elena to do the same with Lila’s doll.

That pivotal scene, in which the girls throw down a challenge to each other, but also forge a lasting bond, precedes their daring day trip out through the tunnel passing under the railway embankment bordering the neighbourhood, and into countryside beyond. On the set, a long, tall blue screen awaiting a dash of CGI takes the place of the tunnel and embankment, contrasting with the drab greys of the fascist-era Naples tenements.

“Getting the right kind of shabby grey was our hardest task,” says Giancarlo Basili, the set designer. “I wanted the colour used by Picasso in his Guernica painting and I drove the painters mad before we ended up creating ten different shades.”

Basili spent time in Naples’s chaotic Luzzatti neighbourhood, where the book is based, and brought one 80-year-old resident over to the set to gauge his reactions. “He got very emotional,” Basili says. “We couldn’t film in the neighbourhood itself because the buildings now have aluminium window frames.”

Read more