“Ferrante Fever” is coming to television, but can a male director successfully capture the author’s tale of female friendship?
Joy Press – Nov 9, 2018
one of her fans know who Elena Ferrante is or what she looks like, but her pseudonymous novels have inspired the kind of obsessive worship most writers can only dream of. Since the publication of her novel My Brilliant Friend, a kind of literary delirium has engulfed Ferrante in the U.S. and across the globe—particularly among women ravenous for her complex depiction of female friendship and creativity. This “Ferrante Fever” spawned midnight release parties for her Neapolitan Quartet novels, a mini-industry of Ferrante-centric tourism in Italy, theatrical versions of her work, and a documentary about the author’s success.
The cult of Ferrante should expand exponentially with HBO’s eight-part adaptation of My Brilliant Friend, which premieres November 18. Like the novel, the series winds itself around the friendship of Lenù and Lila. Tucked away in a crumbling, impoverished quarter of post–World War II Naples, the girls are expected to leave school before adolescence and take up wifely toil. Lila stands out from her drab surroundings—a “terrible, dazzling girl,” as Ferrante describes her, who is almost as ferocious as she is brilliant. A life of the mind is not on the menu of options for these girls, yet Lila’s rabid desire to be a writer inspires Lenù and binds them together in a lifelong friendship, even as their paths diverge.
When it was announced that the HBO series (co-produced with Italy’s Rai network) would be directed by a man—Saverio Costanzo, the Italian director of the 2014 movie Hungry Hearts and the Italian adaptation of the HBO series In Treatment—many fans were surprised. Why not ask a woman to dive into the tangled emotional web of female intimacy?
Sitting on a bed in a Pasadena hotel suite this summer, Costanzo tried to explain how he ended up as the Ferrante whisperer. It was the middle of the Television Critics Association press tour, and Costanzo looked exhausted. Shooting on My Brilliant Friend had just wrapped a few days before, and here he was in California trying to explain this series to roomfuls of journalists. “It’s hard for me to focus exactly what I’m doing, what I’m saying,” Costanzo told me in fluent, heavily accented English. Usually filmmakers have finished editing their work before having to talk about it to press, “so you have time to understand what’s the journey, you know, what was meaningful for you.”
Costanzo said his relationship with Ferrante originated in failure. In 2007, he inquired about optioning her novel The Lost Child, and received a very short note from the author saying, “I like your way. . . . So work on that novel if you like, and it’s for free,” Costanzo recalled. “I tried to work on the novel, but I didn’t find a way to make a film out of it.” He said he sent his apologies to Ferrante, but heard nothing back. Until nine years later, when Ferrante’s publisher called to tell him the novelist had suggested he direct My Brilliant Friend. “I read two of the books and I was very in love with them, so I couldn’t refuse,” Costanzo said.