From Novel to Screen: My Brilliant Friend

by Marianna Panteli

My Brilliant Friend is the first in the acclaimed four-part Neapolitan series by pseudonymous author Elena Ferrante. The novel chronicles the lives of Elena and her friend Lila, in a poor suburb of Naples in the 1950s.

The friends are perceptive and sharp minded and continually stifled by the poverty and violence of the neighborhood. My Brilliant Friend gives voice to the experience of these girls as they grow up together. Through Elena’s voice we can reflect on many common struggles of adolescence; the complexities of female relationships, infatuation, discovering news ideas through novels. They are given a weight and importance that I have rarely seen in literature. Whilst this may be emblematic of the inadequacies of my bookshelf, I think it is also symptomatic of a larger issue of what stories are considered worth telling. They are often not stories of the lives of poor women.

As well as the mundanities of growing up, there is also much darkness in the novel. Through the eyes of young Elena we see the violence that pervades the entire neighborhood and which is perpetuated by poverty. The two girls witness and face violence regularly. The poverty and domineering male figures that create the violence in their lives also begin to threaten the likelihood of either girl continuing in their education past elementary school.

Elena and Lila’s lives are entwined, as Elena says “Everything you do, I do”. However at key points in their childhood lives decisions made for Lila set her on a different path to Elena. Her father’s refusal and inability to pay for Lila to sit the middle school exams, place an enormous cap on Lila’s options. Elena continues to study, Lila works in her father’s shop. Another fork in their path appears with Lila’s marriage. As Elena’s studies her options remain open, as does the possibility she may leave the neighborhood. As the novel concludes on Lila’s wedding it becomes clear that this brilliant mind is stuck in the confines of the neighborhood.

In 2019 My Brilliant Friend was brought to our screens for HBO and RAI. The series takes the name of the first novel but plans to adapt all 4 works over 4 seasons. The series has the difficult job of portraying the richness of Elena’s narrative and the deepness of her reflections to a medium that does not so easily convey the internal monologue. However, the adaptation has done its source material justice in the first two seasons. Keeping older Elena’s narration allows the audience access into young Elena’s ruminations and worries. The introspective feeling of Elena’s character and the novel as a whole is successfully translated. This is crucial to capture the stifled agency of adolescence. When you form opinions and feelings but struggle to voice any of them in the way you would like. However, obviously as a visual medium television must play on its ability to show and not simply tell us everything. The actors that play Lila and Elena as children and those that play them as teenagers do an incredible job at communicating through the close ups on their faces. Their sullen reactions to the violence they witness in the streets of their neighborhood are at the same time youthfully emotive and also more worryingly resigned as if they have grown old before their time. The way the friends look at each other at pivotal moments also says so much about their friendship. In the opening of season two (which correlates to the second novel) Lila tells Elena of the abuse she has suffered at the hands of her husband. The audience sees Elena’s reaction as a tear rolls down her face as she stares at her friend. A quiet moment of solidarity and recognition that provides Lila some feeling of empowerment. My Brilliant Friend is a story all about friendship and the adaptation uses both words and physicality to create the intense feelings that come with such a formative bond.

The adaptation adds to this strength through its striking shots of the southern Italian landscape and a beautiful score by Max Richter. The show is often restrained in its cinematography but at key moments its visual flare is unleashed. A New Year’s Eve fireworks showdown becomes a battle scene with claustrophobic smoke and red light magnifying the intensity. Lila and Nino’s affair on Ischia is serenaded by the stirring Vivere Ancora as they splash in the waves. These moments of heightened visual style always communicate something about Elena’s emotions that appear in the narrative in the novel. It is as if reality has been painted with a light wash of Elena’s emotion as if to make us the audience feel what she feels.

I recommend you to delve into both the novels and their TV adaptation for some rich Italian drama.

Marianna Panteli