‘My Brilliant Friend’: Here’s What to Know About the HBO Adaptation

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If any network seemed up to adapting Elena Ferrante, there was certainly a case for HBO, which has found its greatest success with another adaptation, “Game of Thrones.” But with Ferrante comes pressure: Published between 2012 and 2015, the four books in her Neapolitan series have sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. Their Italian author has never revealed her identity — Ferrante is a pseudonym — which has only fed the flames of this literary sensation. All that makes the task of adapting them monumental.

On Sunday, HBO debuted the eight-part mini-series “My Brilliant Friend,” based on the first book in the Neapolitan novels and made with the participation of its elusive author. The first non-English-language series to debut on the network, “My Brilliant Friend” tracks the friendship of two young girls, nicknamed Lila and Lenù, who grow up poor in postwar Naples. Fans of the books can breathe a sigh of relief: For the most part, critics agree that HBO’s is a faithful and effective adaptation.

Critical Writing

‘Review: “My Brilliant Friend” Is an Intimate Epic’ [The New York Times]

Comparing the challenge of adapting Ferrante’s book series with that of bringing the wildly successful “Game of Thrones” franchise to the screen, The Times’s James Poniewozik called the series “as intimate as ‘Game of Thrones’ is sweeping.” Although he questioned the show’s heavy use of voice-over narration, Poniewozik praised the “astounding” work of the four actresses in the leading roles, and pointed out that the show is a refreshing corollary to HBO’s many dramas about “turbulent men.”

‘“My Brilliant Friend” Is an Intimate Adaptation of a Beloved Novel’ [Vulture]

With a focus on close-up shots and a devoted attention to period detail, “My Brilliant Friend” is both intimate and immersive, writes Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz. The series, he adds, resists “the urge to comment on the unfairness and cruelty that stand between the characters and their desire for happiness even as it makes us sharply aware of them.”

‘HBO’s “My Brilliant Friend” Adaptation is a Knockout’ [Vox]

Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff assures potential viewers who (gasp!) have not read the Neapolitan novels that “My Brilliant Friend” is riveting regardless. “Freed from the hype surrounding the titles and the questions on Ferrante’s identity, and everything else,” he writes, “this new series is a knockout, excavating the core story of the books and creating a beautiful coming-of-age tale, brimming with nostalgia, sorrow, and humor.”

‘“My Brilliant Friend”: The HBO Adaptation Scrubs Off the Books’ Girl-Power Sheen and Returns Them to the Gritty Streets of Naples’ [Slate]

At Slate, Willa Paskin argues that the series frees the material from the book series’s reputation a rah-rah tale of female friendship: “Without shortchanging the bond between Lila and Lenù, the series makes it impossible to gloss over, block out, or ignore the particular environment in which the girls are born and raised: the grit and grime, the fear and the violence, the omnipresent, omnipotent machismo surrounding them. It’s not an ode to best girl friendship, but a harrowing survival tale.”

Page to Screen

‘Elena Ferrante Stays Out of the Picture’ [The New York Times Magazine]

In more than one interview, the series’ director, the Italian filmmaker Saverio Costanzo, seems slightly dazed by the author of the show’s source material. (They collaborated through email.) “‘Sometimes she was so strong,’ he said, gruffly,” Merve Emre reports. “‘I don’t know. I’m still trying to put everything together. It’s very hard. It was like working with a ghost.’”

‘Finding the Ferrante Four’ [Vulture]

Vulture has the story behind the search for the four Italian actresses — Gaia Girace, Margherita Mazzucco, Ludovica Nasti and Elisa Del Genio — who play Lila and Lenu as children and teenagers. “None of the girls except Gaia had acted in so much as a school play,” Phoebe Reilly reports.

‘Elena Ferrante on the Screen Adaptation of Her Book: “I Want to Say, Let’s Give It Up”’ [The Guardian]

In her regular column for The Guardian — translated by her frequent collaborator Ann Goldstein, who also translated the Neapolitan novels to English — Ferrante reflects on the act of writing for the screen versus the page alone. “My first impression is traumatic,” Ferrante admits, “as the literary cover is torn off my novel by the screenwriters.”

‘From “Annihilation” to “My Brilliant Friend”: How to (or How Not to) Adapt a Novel in 2018’ [The Ringer]

For The Ringer’s Alison Herman, “My Brilliant Friend” was almost too accurate an adaptation — one that fails to convey the spirit of the books. She compares the HBO series to other notable page-to-screen translations of 2017, including Showtime’s “Patrick Melrose” and FX’s “The Assassination of Gianni Versace.”

‘My Brilliant Friend: “Why Me?” Asks Man Ordained to Direct Elena Ferrante’s Novels’ [Stuff.co.nz]

Ferrante handpicked Costanzo to direct “My Brilliant Friend” — and even he couldn’t tell you why. “I try to answer the question ‘why me?’ but I cannot answer that question because I am not Elena Ferrante,” says the director. “I didn’t ask. I am afraid to go too close.”


‘What the Women of “My Brilliant Friend” Tell Us About the Men of “The Godfather” ’ [The Washington Post]

Alyssa Rosenberg of The Washington Post compares “My Brilliant Friend” to Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” series, another book-to-screen adaptation steeped in Italian history. “Lives like Lenù’s and Lila’s are incidental in the cinematic world of ‘The Godfather,’ Rosenberg writes. “‘My Brilliant Friend’ shows us the richness and tragedy that lie beyond that male-defined frame.”

‘Organized Crime Lurks Everywhere in “My Brilliant Friend.” Here’s the Real Story of the Rise of the Naples Underworld’ [Time]

Ciara Nugent provides historical context to the story of Lila and Lenu, whose lives unfold against a backdrop of postwar organized crime. “In real life, the Camorra — Naples’ version of the mafia, a term that technically only refers to organized crime groups in Sicily — has a history going back centuries,” she writes.

‘Let the HBO Adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s “My Brilliant Friend” Turn You Into A Socialist’ [HuffPost]

“Socialist prestige TV is here,” declares HuffPost’s Claire Fallon. She adds, “ ‘My Brilliant Friend’ is coming to HBO at a moment when America is newly ready to see its socialist themes ― and Saverio Costanzo’s adaptation of the novel, co-produced by HBO and Italian network RAI, doesn’t hide them.”

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