Lara Zarum – Nov 15, 2018
The moment that sold me on My Brilliant Friend, HBO’s effective adaptation of the pseudonymous Italian author Elena Ferrante’s best-selling novel, wasn’t a shocking twist or suspenseful cliffhanger. Instead, it’s a quiet, almost banal truth near the end of the first episode. Elena Greco (Elisa Del Genio) and Lila Cerullo (Ludovica Nasti), two girls growing up poor in Naples in the 1950s, sit against a wall in a neighborhood courtyard, playing with dolls. When Lila suggests they swap toys, Elena confers with her doll, announces that she has agreed, and, rather than simply hand each other the dolls, the girls act out, with perfect kid logic, the dolls’ journey, making them walk over to each other on the dusty ground.
It’s just exactly the sort of thing little girls do — endow their toys with the kind of free will they themselves so rarely get to exercise. Premiering on Nov. 18, My Brilliant Friend, the first of the wildly successful four-book series known as the Neapolitan Novels, is full of such details. The story of two girls who are too smart for their circumstances, one of whom will manage to transcend them, the show casts the minutiae of their tiny world as high drama. The stakes are high for narrator Elena and especially Lila, a child prodigy whose father becomes so irate at her insistence that she continue onto middle school that he throws her out the window, breaking her arm.
The miniseries, a co-production with Italian networks Rai and TIMvision, is the first non-English language series to premiere on HBO. It has the formidable task of adapting a work that is not only hugely popular — the books have sold more than 10 million copies worldwide — but is largely concerned with the inner lives of its lead characters, one of whom eventually grows up to become an author. Part of what makes the books remarkable is their elucidation of the process of developing an individual consciousness, and the expression of that consciousness through increasingly sophisticated language. The series honors this as much as it can. In one scene, the voiceover of a grown Elena reflects on a brilliant story that Lila wrote as a child, and remarks, in hindsight, “You didn’t feel the artifice of the written word.” As old Elena reflects, director Saverio Costanzo films young Elena on the rooftop of her apartment, surrounded by flowing white sheets hanging on a line, gazing at a glistening hilltop in the distance — as if to suggest that language is the key to growth, to freedom, to escaping one’s circumstances.