Paste Magazine: Elena Ferrante, HBO’s My Brilliant Friend, and the “Unadaptable” Novel

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Amy Glynn – Nov 16, 2018

As I’ve noted more than once, I was a latecomer to The Handmaid’s Tale when it came to Hulu. I was not interested. I understood why the novel was popular but I always considered it the most pasty, two-dimensional and politically irritating of Margaret Atwood’s many admirable literary works; I might never have seen it at all if I had a different job. To my surprise, and despite its significant flaws, I loved the show. I can quibble about any number of narrative choices, but artistically I think it’s absolutely top-drawer—and, interestingly, considering it uses the novel as a springboard more than a template, I consider it an unusually high-fidelity adaptation. Even in its second season, which begins after the novel ends and takes off into pure speculation, Bruce Miller and his strikingly talented ensemble cast wring full-fledged contemporary characters from the Pilgrim’s Progress-style cardboard cutouts that populated the book. The book had a legitimate and coherent style, to be sure, but it would not have made good television had it been replicated precisely “by the book.” Some of Atwood’s hallmark stylistic traits—extreme interiority; contemplative stillness; a cool, painterly prose sensibility—would have failed in a medium that places a high value on action and chemistry.

Now, HBO has brought an adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s lauded novel My Brilliant Friend to the screen. And there’s a funny little metaphor lurking in, of all places, the subtitles. The subtitles are in English. The original novel is written in Italian. But the characters speak Neapolitan, an Italian-oid language that’s largely (though not completely) mutually comprehensible with Italian and also has roots in Greek and an extinct language called Oscan. Why is this funny, or metaphorical, or remotely relevant? Well, language is everything in this book, and I mean both Ferrante’s stunning prose and the fact that within the story, languages are plot devices, character designators, and shorthand for very important threads of class and education and mobility, without which there’s relatively little story. The two main characters, Elena Greco (Margherita Mazzucco in childhood; Elisa Del Genio as a teenager) and Lila Cerullo (Ludovica Nasti and Gaia Girace) are bright young girls with an intense friendship based largely on competition, specifically academic competition and the acquisition of languages. Whether characters in the book speak “proper” Italian or Neapolitan is a marker of belonging, a political statement, an implied story about the character’s position in an often brutal and violent hierarchy. So much of this is both figuratively and literally lost in translation when you lift the story out of its native medium that it might be an especially burnished example of a novel that cannot be rendered faithfully and well at the same time.

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