Phoebe Reilly – Nov 16, 2018
hen it was first published in 2011, My Brilliant Friend resonated with readers worldwide in a way that few contemporary novels without magic or dragons do. The first of Elena Ferrante’s four-book series introduced a premise that was deceptively simple: Two gifted girls, Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco, growing up in post-WWII Naples, bring out the best and worst in each other. “It happens, sometimes, that your best friend is also your best enemy,” says director Saverio Costanzo, who was selected by the pseudonymous author to write and direct an eight-episode adaptation of the book, premiering November 18 on HBO. “It’s a little secret that we keep for ourselves: Friendship is not just the story of love, but also the story of hate.”
Adapting beloved books to television is always a tricky business, particularly when the plot largely revolves around Latin scholarship and a pair of shoes, in a setting where families can barely survive without putting their children to work. It’s fitting, then, that My Brilliant Friend, which deeply privileges its characters’ love of literature, should have made it to television precisely because it incited a similar passion within its readers. When executive producer Lorenzo Mieli (The Young Pope) finished the books three years ago, he immediately began chasing the rights.
“Think back to what neorealism has done — Bicycle Thieves became one of the most important movies in the history of cinema,” he says, citing Vittorio De Sica’s classic 1948 drama as a defense against My Brilliant Friend’s arguably uncinematic narrative. It took Mieli six months to convince a producer friend of his, who had been planning the adaptation for Italy’s RAI, to think internationally. In 2016, Mieli approached HBO to come onboard with Italian production house Fandango, making My Brilliant Friend the network’s first foreign-language series. (All told, the show will be broadcast in more than 50 countries.)
Given the book’s nuanced exploration of female friendship, it’s perhaps a little surprising that a woman isn’t at the helm, a point Costanzo hesitantly concedes. “I feel privileged to take part in Ferrante’s wonderful and profound universe, but if my being a man has indeed been a limit [to the story], I hope that my feminine side came to the rescue,” he says.
Costanzo, whose work includes the indie drama Hungry Hearts, starring Adam Driver, and an Italian version of In Treatment, had reached out to Ferrante via her publisher several years ago to see if he could secure the rights to her 2008 novel The Lost Daughter, but a film never materialized. As My Brilliant Friend started to come together, Ferrante — who is rumored to be a translator living in Rome — invited her compatriot to get involved. Costanzo was already a huge fan of the saga, which he sums up rather poetically: “The girls do a romantic dance that at times may seem like a violent fight. They run after each other and overlap, but tenaciously share the goal of becoming, one through the other, two whole individuals.”