The Nation: HBO’s Hauntingly Faithful Adaptation of ‘My Brilliant Friend’

The TV series is just as unflinching and intimate as Elena Ferrante’s novel.

On The Nation

Sarah Marshall – Nov 20, 2018

In the first episode of My Brilliant Friend, the feverishly anticipated HBO adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel of Neapolitan girlhood, the story’s child protagonist, Elena Greco, hardly speaks. As the series begins, we see Elena at 60, and then at 6; the youthful Elena is played by Elisa Del Genio, an actor whose performance is mostly reactive, her angelically mournful face offering viewers an empathetic keyhole into her world. When she speaks, we are primed to pay close attention. From its first moments, My Brilliant Friend dedicates itself to the high drama—the joy, trauma, and mystery—of what many would call an unremarkable life, which is to say, in many ways, a woman’s life, and a girl’s.

In the bleak, impoverished neighborhood of her 1950s youth, the older Elena reflects in her voice-over, mothers were “as angry as starving dogs…. The men were always getting furious, but then they calmed down, whereas the women flew into a rage that had no limit and no end.” The viewer, watching young Elena react silently to a vicious brawl between the mothers in her building—a fight over the scarce love of men; a contest between the starving—is given a chance to see the darkness of the world that she is hurtling toward. There will be many other moments that afford a similar view.

The viewer experiences this scene as a hauntingly faithful gloss on the novel: Elena imagines tiny, swarming animals crawling up the stairwell of her building and into the apartments, the beds, and finally the women, a cockroach-like infestation of rage. Elena’s narration about these furious women, lifted directly from the book’s text, is now dramatized. The series itself feels like an exploration of where language can take us in such a medium, and where we must leave language behind and let the images do the work—and every viewer who was once a reader of Ferrante’s novel will have different answers to this question.

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