News of an adaptation inspires in every book-lover an amalgam of joy and suspicion. There’s a kind of exquisite, validating thrill in knowing that people much more important and much more capable than you have also seen the beauty in something you love. But that feeling is laced with a guarded, been-burned-before skepticism, a doubt that anything could ever recreate the singular experience of reading great literature.
This was all doubly true when HBO announced it was adapting Elena Ferrante’s stunning “Neapolitan Novels” for TV. First came excitement from those of us yearning for one more jaunt through Ferrante’s Naples. Next came the fear that television could never do her all-consuming, richly textured world any justice. Could a series with such a distinct interiority, one that was very often a meditation on the power of written language — to liberate, to stimulate, to distinguish — really be translated to the screen?
“My Brilliant Friend,” an eight-part Italian-language miniseries based on the first of the “Neapolitan” quartet, answers with a resounding yes. It is at once immense and diminutive in scope, a sweeping survey of working-class life in post-fascist Italy and an intimate study of the friendship — oh, but it is so much more than that! — between two clever girls on the cusp of womanhood.
The girls are Elena Greco (Elisa Del Genio as a child, Margherita Mazzucco as a teenager), our studious and perceptive narrator, and Lila Cerullo (Ludovica Nasti as a child, Gaia Girace as a teenager), her wiry, resilient friend and rival. They are coming of age in a Naples that is vicious and menacing, where children are brutalized by their mothers, who are brutalized by their husbands, who are brutalized by other, more powerful men. Education — the tame world of Latin and literature — is the rare means of escape. Elena’s parents reluctantly let her continue her education past primary school; Lila is not so lucky. But it is she who has a freakish aptitude for learning, the resolve of an autodidact and a whirling imagination. When Lila wrote, Elena tells us, “you didn’t feel the artifice of her words.”
The first episodes of “My Brilliant Friend” operate in a similar fashion, unconstrained from the artifice of the written word. The transition from page to screen leaves the story’s narrator with less power to determine what we see and how we see it, and the result is a Naples made newly intense and visceral. Scenes of violence relayed with a desensitized passivity in the novels are depicted here with unflinching frankness, allowing us to see them for what they are. In the second episode, Lila is thrown out of a window by her father, a haunting moment given only a few sentences in the book.
Lila is prone to psychosomatic episodes she describes as “dissolving margins,” when the outlines of people and things disappear, and the world reveals to her its true violent, terrifying nature. As the events of “My Brilliant Friend” unfold, it feels as if the story’s margins themselves are dissolving, drawing every character and their motivations out of focus before plunging them back into crisp, sensuous lucidity.
Still, director Saverio Costanzo (“Hungry Hearts”) is careful to make sure that the visual radiance of “My Brilliant Friend” is deployed with discipline, deftly toeing the line between sensory and sensationalist and opting for subtlety when possible. The inner thoughts and monologues we’re privy to throughout the series now manifest on screen in meaningful glances and pregnant pauses. The second episode of “My Brilliant Friend” even begins with a wordless “previously on…” segment that relies on lush imagery and nuanced acting to shepherd the story. For maximum effect, these moments are augmented by a Max Richter score that is grand and contemporary, but unimposing.
It is, to be sure, a complex story that would sometimes benefit from extra clarity — characters and families are interrelated in ways that are not immediately obvious to viewers. One almost misses the book’s helpful index of characters, with its pithy, poetic descriptions: “Melina Capuccio, the mad widow,” “Don Achille Carracci, ogre of fairy tales.” In another sense, though, the tangle of names and faces is a testament to the hugeness of the world Ferrante has created and a sign of the deference Costanzo’s adaptation has been wise to show her.