The HBO adaptation scrubs off the books’ girl-power sheen and returns them to the gritty streets of Naples.
Willa Paskin – Nov 15, 2018
At a certain point, any wildly successful piece of art takes on a cocktail-party tag line. There’s the work, with its many meanings, and then there’s the sticky idea that can be passed around with drinks. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels—a four-book literary phenomenon that’s sold 2 million copies in the United States alone and inspired the sort of frenzy usually reserved for series about supernatural teenagers—was, at the peak of its popularity, discussed over drinks more than most books—or TV shows or movies or anything in our niche-culture age—can dream of. It was pressed by avid readers on family, friends, and strangers, a mass happening that felt personal—or at least that’s how it felt to me, as I raved about these novels to family, friends, and strangers who usually raved about them right back.
The novels, which tell the story of Raffaella “Lila” Cerullo and Elena “Lenù” Greco, women born into the endemic brutality of postwar Naples, Italy, are an addictive personal narrative and a rich social history about the difficulty of transcending one’s class, sex, and home. They are books about degradation, machismo, misogyny, fear, violence, escape, and friendship. But it’s a quirk of our current moment that it’s less compelling to sell the Neapolitan novels as the big honking revelatory literary project that they are than to celebrate them for their portrait of complex best girl friendship—just look at the books’ chick-lit covers.
Connecting Lila and Lenù and their idiosyncratic bond—a relationship full of rivalry and devotion as similar to most ordinary female friendships as a saber-toothed tiger is to a house cat—to all of pop culture’s difficult women, the new class of “unlikable heroines” permitted to behave in gnarly, unfeminine ways, was a way to establish the novels’ timeliness and urgency. But while the books are a fascinating exploration of Lila and Lenù’s bond, any compliment repeated often enough can become distorting. As my colleague Laura Miller, in her review of the series’ final novel, observed, the books are often described as being about “the ambivalent wonders of ‘female friendship,’ which makes them sound like a tonier version of Sex and the City, only with a lot more fights between the heroines.”
Funnily enough, it’s HBO’s My Brilliant Friend, the eight-episode adaptation of the first novel in the series, that effectively scrubs the slightly cheesy girl-power sheen off the novels’ reputation. Directed by Saverio Costanzo and adapted with Ferrante’s input, the show, which premieres Sunday, is slavishly faithful to the source material. If this doesn’t make it a particularly inspired or creative adaptation, it does at least restore the books to themselves rather than their talking points. Without shortchanging the bond between Lila and Lenù, the series makes it impossible to gloss over, block out, or ignore the particular environment in which the girls are born and raised: the grit and grime, the fear and the violence, the omnipresent, omnipotent machismo surrounding them. It’s not an ode to best girl friendship, but a harrowing survival tale.