The Guardian: Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend: how does the show compare to the books?

Can director Saverio Costanzo and a cast of non-professional actors do justice to Ferrante’s radical vision of postwar Naples?

On The Guardian 

Lisa Allardice – Nov 17, 2018

“Lila is overdoing it as usual,” Elena Greco begins her story, both in Elena Ferrante’s much-loved novel My Brilliant Friend and in a feverishly anticipated TV adaptation. “We’ll see who wins this time.” And thus a narrative of 50 years of friendship and rivalry opens, transporting us back to the slum Naples district of their postwar childhood.

The first in Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, My Brilliant Friend is a breathless, breathtaking love story – but not between a hero and heroine. Above all, the novels are a lingering, obsessive exercise in bringing two young woman into being. While literature is hardly short of female characters scorched on to the page by the male gaze, what makes this book so unusual is that the looking is done by another girl: and in the adaptation the emphasis is all on looking – we watch the girls watching the adult world around them. In the many passages dedicated to noticing that moment when a girl becomes a beautiful woman, Elena’s rapt description of her friend is as charged as that of any lover: “She had become shapely. Her high forehead, her large eyes that she could suddenly narrow, her small nose, her cheekbones, her lips and ears that were looking for a new orchestration and seemed close to finding it.” The reader, like everyone in the neighbourhood, can’t help but fall in love with Lila.

Elena and Lila (Lenù and Lina – even their nicknames are echoes of each other) are two sides of our romanticised selves, constantly shifting in their fragility and fearlessness. And while we know that life is giving Elena chances (all too rare given her background), that her diligence and determination will be rewarded, her insecurities overcome, it is still Lila who we want to be. (Who does not long to be bolder, brainier, beautiful and a little bit bad – brilliant, in short?) But the characters also show us our worst selves: here is true friendship, passionate, sometimes painful and often shamefully ungenerous. They might spend hours lost in Little Women, but this is girlhood as we remember it.

While Ferrante is still an enigma, preferring to remain anonymous, her fiction has become a global phenomenon, counting Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton among its largely, but not exclusively, female devotees (New Yorker critic James Wood and novelist Jonathan Franzen were early champions): her novels have sold in their millions and fans make pilgrimages to the Naples streets on which they are set. So it is a brave and lucky man, Saverio Costanzo who has been chosen to direct and help adapt the novels for the screen.

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