The New Yorker: HBO’s “My Brilliant Friend” understands Its Source Material, But Its Diligence Feels Misspent

On The New Yorker

Katy Waldman – Nov 16, 2018

She took the facts and in a natural way charged them with tension; she intensified reality as she reduced it to words, she injected it with energy.” That is Elena Greco, the narrator of the novel “My Brilliant Friend,” talking about Lila Cerullo, the brilliant friend of the title and the other main character in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, a series of novels about two girls growing up in working-class Italy in the nineteen-fifties. Elena, known as Lenu, finds Lila’s way of speaking electrifying. But her analysis also applies to Ferrante, who imbues the details of chores and school with a crackling power that is difficult to describe or account for. Something happens when Ferrante reduces reality to words; the lines move like a child darting through traffic. How do you translate such forceful, hypnotic expression to the screen? That challenge both shapes and bedevils HBO’s new television adaptation of “My Brilliant Friend,” directed by Saverio Costanzo.

The Neapolitan novels follow Lenu and Lila as they support and compete with each other in a town shadowed by poverty and political strife. Lila is fierce, impossible, and uncanny. “She always did the things I was supposed to do, before me and better than me,” Lenu says. “She eluded me when I chased her, and at the same time, she kept on my heels to overtake me.” Lila, a shoemaker’s daughter, excels at school but quits to help her father at his shop, while Lenu keeps on, applying herself to Latin and Greek. Who will earn praise as a scholar, and who will inspire envy as a wife, and which option is more desirable? These are the questions haunting this first phase of their friendship.

One tenet of the Ferrante critical-industrial complex is that Ferrante’s novels have a dark, fairy-tale quality, as if some mysterious logic were at work beneath the surfaces of things. (“My Brilliant Friend” features a village, an ogre, and magical shoes.) Characters are deep and complicated; their interactions are charged. Everything feels meaningful, but the meanings are slippery and dangerous. “I had the impression that . . . many things, too many, were scattering around me without letting me grasp them,” Lenu says. This intimation of hidden, roiling histories and repressed understandings can seem like the book’s governing sensation.

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