In most respects, HBO’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend is merely serviceable. It’s a re-creation, competent and faithful, of the events described in the first novel of Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet. The performances are convincing, the movement from scene to scene is pleasurable, the music is complementary but unobtrusive, and the set decoration is impeccable. One expects, from a production branded with the HBO logo, nothing less. And yet, in one respect, the series is in fact brilliant. Take it from this terrone: they got the faces right.
My Brilliant Friend is an account, painstaking and digressive and emotionally devastating, of the friendship between Elena (Lenù) Greco and Raffaella (Lila) Cerullo between the ages of six and sixteen. (The adult Lenù, now a successful writer in late middle age, narrates all four novels.) But it is also a portrait, universalizing precisely because of its attention to particulars, of small-town Southern Italy in the years after World War II, years during which economic privation and casual violence were the rule, years during which (very recently ex-) Fascists retained local power, their authority, like their comparative wealth, unquestioned.
I say comparative wealth because even those who had money had little, and what they could buy with it was meager: a small convertible, a single television. My Brilliant Friend ends in the year 1960, midway through the Italian “economic miracle”—il boom—that helped modernize the then-rural South. But the effects of Northern industrialization seem to have barely trickled down to Ferrante’s Neapolitan suburb; the poverty, the miseria, is still everywhere.
Sara Casani and Laura Muccino, the Italian casting directors, understand what that miseria looks like, how the body wears struggle. They know that what we call beauty is often just another marker of class. They know that if you don’t feel like you belong, you’ll never look like you do, either. And so they have populated Lenù’s neighborhood with, my god, such faces: sloppier and saggier, more wrinkled and more weathered and more crooked than many American readers will have imagined for these characters.
The only male character with any real sex appeal, Nino Sarratore, moves out of the neighborhood in the first episode. Marcello Solara, the wealthiest bachelor in town, has the broad, blunt, self-satisfied features of a dumb fish in a small pond. His brother Michele’s eyes are small and shadowed by purple lids; his pupils seem always to be peeking out from behind a heavy orbital bone. Lila’s father has dark, ever-present stubble. Even Lila’s eventual fiancé, Stefano, has nothing more than slicked-back hair, plump cheeks, and a sturdy trunk to recommend him—signs, in a region that remembers the hunger of wartime, of financial success.
The women fare no better. Lila’s mother’s face is pocked with acne scars. The lips of Gigliola Spagnuolo are twisted into a perpetual sneer. Melina Cappuccio, a widow in frail physical and mental health, has skin leathered before its time and a nose like the blade of an ax. Even Lila, a stubborn stick of a child who matures into an unequivocal beauty, wears her sex appeal like a weapon. The teenage Lila is all cheekbones and eyes and hidden teeth. Her hair appears, until a fifth-episode visit to Naples proper, never to have been combed.
But the pièce de résistance is Lenù’s mother. The drooping lid of her right eye and the full bag beneath it, the frown lines furrowed deep into the flesh below her nose, her small, pale, lipless mouth—in combination, the effect is haunting. Whenever she is cruel to Lenù, and she is often cruel, that face, its features deformed by the weight of her responsibilities, asks us to extend her our sympathy.
There are other ways, too, in which adaptation enriches the story. Ferrante’s novels are written in a fairly standard Italian. But on screen, life in the neighborhood is (accurately) conducted, by and large, in guttural dialect: every other syllable is bitten off, every other word ends in u. Over this rasping rumble, the older Lenù speaks in careful, proper diction; her narration is all rounded vowels and crisp consonants. The contrast—the studied clarity of the narration against the urgent chaos of the dialogue—is a marker of the distance between the world to which Lenù aspires and the one in which she is, at the end of the first novel and these eight episodes, still mired.
On the page, the car that Michele Solara buys impresses. Michele and his brother Marcello “parade … [it] around the streets of the neighborhood.” But to see the Fiat 1100 on screen—a four-door, sure, but roughly the size of a Smart car, is to understand more viscerally the poverty of Lenù’s neighborhood, how little money is required to wield how little power, how even that little power will go, by those who have none, uncontested. It’s a lesson Lenù, too, will have to learn as she ventures outside her tightly circumscribed context and into the wider world.
My mother was born in Southern Italy in the years after World War II. And though she was born not outside of Naples but outside of Lecce, and though she was born not in 1944 but in 1964, the distance between my mother’s adolescence and Lenù’s is nevertheless much smaller than the distance between my mother’s adolescence and my own.
Lila’s parents refuse to let her go to middle school; my mother’s mother left school after the third grade, of her own volition, because she wanted to start working. (Middle school was not mandatory in Italy until the mid-fifties. In 1951, while over 85 percent of Italians could read and write, fully 46 percent of those who were literate had not finished elementary school.) And when, in the fourth episode, Lila asks her communist friend Pasquale, with genuine curiosity, “What are monarchists? And Fascists? And what’s the black market?” I can acknowledge the clumsiness of the expository device. But I know, also, that Lila’s ignorance is not wholly unrealistic. Italy’s Fascist past is an open secret that its citizens still struggle to discuss. Several years ago, while I was visiting family in Florence, Malèna came on TV. In the film, a period piece, Monica Bellucci plays the title character, a beautiful Southern Italian woman who is widowed when her husband, a soldier, dies fighting the British in East Africa. I tried to explain my surprise at the premise to my aunt; it would not be possible, I said, to make such a sympathetic film about a German war widow whose husband perished on the eastern front. (If Malèna has a German analogue, it’s Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun, which offers a decidedly more complex portrait.) My aunt did not seem to find the comparison apt.
It’s difficult for me to evaluate the HBO adaptation of Ferrante’s novel on any of the available art-quality axes (successful/unsuccessful; interesting/uninteresting; original/cliché). It’s difficult because I am already too busy evaluating the novels on my own personal axis: true/not true to the stories my Italian relatives have told me about their youth. Were these their faces? Those of people they knew?
In the very last moment of the very last episode of My Brilliant Friend, the flaws inherent in television as medium reveal themselves as strengths. At the beginning of the episode, Lila’s father, Fernando, and her fiancé, Stefano, get into an argument. Stefano has financed the production of a line of shoes designed, years before, by Lila. Fernando, a cobbler, is presenting Stefano with samples of the finished products. Stefano complains about the differences he sees between Lila’s drawings and the samples; Fernando scoffs. The drawings, he says, were the work of a creatura, a little girl. To make sturdy, wearable shoes, certain modifications were necessary.
The word creatura—the primary definition is “creature” or “being”; only secondarily, colloquially, does it mean “child”—so aptly describes the young, ungoverned Lila that I assumed Fernando’s line was drawn, as many lines of dialogue and voice-over are, directly from Ferrante’s text. But searching my copy, I found that it appeared not even once. And if this linguistic innovation can be caught only by those viewers who can understand the Italian dialogue, the visual image with which it rhymes is accessible to all. Hours into Lila’s wedding reception, the Solara brothers—rich, Mobbed up, despised by Lila—make an unwelcome appearance; Lila has made her fiancé promise not to let them attend. Lila’s smiling face goes rigid; she shoves her new husband, with whom she has been dancing, away. We watch her eyes pan the length of Marcello’s body and fix on something near the ground. Marcello, too, looks down. And then the camera cuts: Marcello is wearing a pair of shoes that Lila and her brother crafted; he is wearing the first shoes built according to Lila’s specifications, the shoes that Stefano bought from Fernando, the shoes that sealed his engagement to Lila. These shoes: they’re on the feet of the man Lila hates more than any other, the man she swore she would rather die than marry.
Lila’s face: at first it’s shocked and disbelieving. But the rigidity melts, the numbness falls away. And what’s left is the face of a creatura, a creature, a child. Lila is a married woman, but she’s also a sixteen-year-old girl. On screen, the strength of her bearing, the force of her presence, make it easy to forget her age, her innocence, her vulnerability. But in this last shot of the series, she is suddenly revealed, young and alone and undefended. A small creatura around whose slender paw a steel trap has sprung.
For eight episodes, for over three hundred pages, Lila and Lenù struggle to escape the rione to which birth has condemned them. But Lila has forgotten that if you play by the old rules, the rules that say the source of a woman’s power is her man, it is by those rules that you will be beaten. In Ferrante’s novels, the struggle for survival is narrated, dissected, contextualized. On screen, that moment is etched, with shattering clarity, on the smooth skin of Lila’s face.
Miranda Popkey is a writer who lives in Massachusetts.