I contacted the author Elena Ferrante, who chooses to remain anonymous and publish under a pseudonym, for a story I wrote for The Times about a citywide casting call for children in Naples to fill the starring roles in a mini-series based on her hit novel “My Brilliant Friend.”
Ms. Ferrante missed deadline by a good few days, but nevertheless the author had worthwhile thoughts. Below are her answers about what it’s like for a writer to have their major work adapted to the screen, to have regular kids incarnating her characters, how much she contributes to the production and whether she thinks the show will take off like “Game of Thrones.”
The first thing I’d like to know is what it feels like to have all these young kids in Naples, many from really disadvantaged sections of the city, lining up in the hopes of being Lila and Lenù? Obviously the books have had great acclaim, but I wonder what thoughts and feelings it evokes in you to actually have the works entering the lives of kids not so dissimilar to the ones you described.
For me it was a radical change. The characters, the neighborhood are all created from words, and yet they move from literature to the screen. They leave the world of readers and enter into the much more vast world of spectators, they meet people who have never read about them and people who, for social circumstances or by choice, would never read about them. It’s a process that intrigues me. The substance of the books is reworked according to other rules and other priorities, and it changes nature. The kids themselves who show up at the auditions are the first sign of this. They know little or nothing about books. They are spectators who hope to become actors, either for play or a shot at deliverance.
You’ve clearly described the characters, and the casting director, director and producers all have a clear idea of what they are looking for based on your descriptions. And they think that kids who have grown up in tough environments are best to convey the spirit of those kids. What do you think? Would you also rather have non-actors playing the roles (there is some risk there!) or would you prefer more practiced child actors?
Child actors portray children as adults imagine children to be. Children who are not actors have some chance to break free of the stereotype, especially if the director is able to find the right balance between truth and fiction.
A lot of these kids, frankly, have never heard of Elena Ferrante or the Neapolitan novels. Most of them have visions of TV stardom dancing in their heads. Are you, someone who has studiously avoided the stardom track, worried that the hysteria around the auditions could fuel the celebrity obsession so many young people now have?
They are children who take their lead from the myths of cinema, of television, definitely not those of the written word. They want to be on screen, to be center stage, to become stars, and this is not their fault — it’s the air breathed in the adult world and, as a result, in theirs. To be part of television today is one of the most powerful aspirations of the masses, and anyone, poor or well off, considers it an extraordinary opportunity. Across all the social classes, poor and rich, cultured and uncultured.
On the flip side, do you feel like this is an opportunity to introduce kids, many of them disadvantaged, to the joys of reading? I don’t mean just reading your books, but getting them interested in books in general.
Naturally, I hope that happens. But the opportunity we are talking about has little, if anything, to do with reading. Children are there to be part of show business, and that’s it. That doesn’t mean that some of them won’t discover that this all started with a book; that behind the world of show business, with its many moving parts and conspicuous cash flow, there always is, albeit in a subservient position, the evocative power of writing and reading.
What is your hope for this production as far as its impact on Naples and its image in the world, especially after the unflattering depictions in the movie and popular television show “Gomorrah”?
Do you want to sign off on the children before they are officially cast? Do you want to make sure that they are true to your vision?
I don’t have this skill set. Sure, I’d very much like to weigh in, but I would do it cautiously and knowing that it is useless to say, “Lila has little or nothing to do with that body, that face, that gaze, that way of moving,” etc. No real person will ever match the image that I or a reader have in our minds. This is because the written word, of course, defines but by nature leaves much to reader’s imagination. The visual image instead shrinks those margins. It is destined to always leave out something that the words inspire — something that always matters.
What has your involvement been with the production? The director and producers told me you send notes on the script, and have helped them design the set out near Caserta. What do you want the set to look like?
The neighborhood is a composite of different places in Naples that I know well. That’s always the case when I write, both with people or things. I don’t know what will happen on the screen. For now, my contribution to the set design is limited to a few notes on whether they look right. As far as the collaboration on the script, I don’t write, I don’t have the technical skills to do it, but I am reading the texts and send detailed notes. I still don’t know if they will take them into account. It is very likely that my notes will be used later on, in the writing of the final draft.
They have also told me that you imagine the show visually as a fairy tale, that they shouldn’t be scared to go beyond the book and depict villains as monsters, etc. How faithful do you want them to be to the novels?
No, no, it is a realistic tale. It is childhood that is colored by elements of the fantastic, and surely Lila is too. As far as faithfulness to the book, I expect a faithfulness compatible with the needs of visual storytelling, which uses different means than writing to obtain the same effects.
And lastly, HBO is involved in the production. Do you hope, or maybe fear, that this becomes the next global phenomenon, Italy’s “Game of Thrones”?
Unfortunately, “My Brilliant Friend” doesn’t provide the same kind of plot points.