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6 Fun Facts About HBO’s My Brilliant Friend Show Based on Elena Ferrante Novels
HBO launches its newest books-to-TV-adaptation this Sunday night with the debut of My Brilliant Friend. Based on the ridiculously popular—both critically and commercially—Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante, the series transports viewers to a violent, underprivileged, low rise neighborhood in postwar Naples. The world, the way it beats them and the way they’ll need to beat back for the rest of their lives, is seen through the lenses of Elena Greco, who goes by Lenù, and Rafaella Cerullo, or Lila, two precocious girls who launch a life-long friendship in their first year of school.
Before the series kicks off this weekend, here are a few things to know for those unfamiliar with the phenomenon, from the mysterious author to the background of the sweeping plot to HBO’s plans for the future of the story.
Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym.
Nearly 30 years after her debut, the author’s true identity still remains shrouded in mystery. This is despite the hunt for the real Elena Ferrante that has stretched across many years, with varying degrees of fury. Literary scholars, journalists, and obsessive fans have tried to track down her details using methods as innocent as culling details from her texts to pouring over payments from Ferrante’s publisher.
In 2016, Italian investigative reporter Claudio Gatti published a report on the New York Review of Books’ website claiming Ferrante’s identity to be Anita Raja, a German-born translator living in Rome and the wife of Domenico Starnone, a Neapolitan writer. Raja has worked for Edizone E/O, Ferrante’s publishing house, for many years and Gatti built his argument on anonymously-sourced revenue documents of the book house as well as a series of mouthwatering real estate dealings of Raja and her husband that he argued were well outside the realm of possibility for either of their careers. (Starnone has also, at one time or another, been the suspected scribe behind the tales.)
Margherita Mazzucco (L), Gaia Girace (R)
But, if you thought the report would have resulted in the celebration of the internet, I am arriving here, two years later, to tell you that that assumption was proved false, uproariously. Many fans—critics as well—instead, were outraged. Some claimed that Gatti had no right to “take Ferrante’s ‘no’ as his ‘yes'” and unmask what she hoped to keep hidden, others felt they’d been robbed of a favorite mystery, and some cried out, dismayed that the pen behind the works might not actually be that of a person whose story mirrors that of her character: a woman who escaped the lot she’d been born in to become the toast of the literary world. Ferrante, or whoever is behind the name, has chose to keep quiet on the subject, despite still conducting the occasional interview, always over email.
Ferrante is a credited writer on the series
Though her identity remains a secret, the writer was highly involved in getting the TV adaptation off the ground. First, she hand-picked Saverio Costanzo to direct—they first worked together (never face-to-face, of course) in 2007 when the filmmaker tried and failed to write a script for her novella The Lost Daughter—and then stayed on as a script-writer. In an interview with The New York Times, Costanzo says she gave notes on all eight of his scripts. She was occasionally as harsh as those who inhabit her tale’s city. Once, he recalls, “She was just saying, ‘This dialogue is ridiculous, the way she talks here is ridiculous.’” And when she felt it necessary, she even stood up for certain plot points. In that same interview, Costanzo recalls trying to cut the scene of Lila’s wedding banquet: “She said: ‘Listen the first moment I thought about My Brilliant Friend, the first image I had was a banquet, a very vulgar banquet of Neapolitan life. Please put the banquet back in.’”
There are four novels in the series
The installments span decades in the lives of Lenù and Lila. They are young school girls who, perhaps unknowingly, are sealing their fate with their very earliest exams (My Brilliant Friend), then, willful young adults battling through their first mature relationships as well as figuring out which parts of their identities to embrace and which to quell (The Story of a New Name). Later, in the 1960s and 70s, they are each separately drawn into political radicalism as Italy finds itself ideologically fractured (Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay), and, eventually, they are greyed women of the 21st century when, in 2010, one of them goes missing (The Story of the Lost Child).
Season One is loyal to Book One
The drama of the first season of the HBO adaptation sticks closely to that of Ferrante’s first Neapolitan outing. Lenù (played first by Elisa Del Genio and later by Margherita Mazzucco) and Lila (Ludovica Nasti and Gaia Girace, respectively) appear quickly as two big-eyed, intelligent girls who, to their own consternation and the frequent ire of their families, were born to a community that knows precious little what to do with their kind. Ambition and intellect are at best feared, and more often maligned, by those who surround them. Through their very limited viewpoint and the challenging decisions they face—staying in school versus going to work, whether or not to marry young, how to best navigate a community consumed by gossip and slander—the show, as did the books, offers a compelling, multi-level exploration. The micro- considers female self-actualization in remarkable intensity, while the macro- chews through questions of who rises out of their circumstances and those who remain locked in the same cycle as those who bore them.
Ludovica Nasti (L), Elisa Del Genio (R)
And as Book One begins with an older Lenù who has decided to write the story of her and Lila, spurned by a worrisome phone call from Lila’s son, so does the show, meaning Lenù’s inner dialog is retained as narration, guiding many of the cinematic shots.
It’s scripted in Italian—which means, yes, you’ll read subtitles
Perhaps emboldened by the warm welcome the decision to employ subtitles and local dialects Netflix’ Narcos received, Friend marks HBO’s first original series the be spoken in another language. The choice adds an undeniable energy. Italian is a visceral language, at once brutal and romantic and often accompanied with physical gesturing of a similar fervor. To have lost that here would be to have softened one of the main characters: Naples itself.
There’s no telling how far HBO will stretch the narrative in seasons to come
As its other book adaptation—ahem, Game of Thrones, anyone?—became the dominant water cooler conversation for the better part of this decade, HBO execs began to stretch out the narrative. (We enter Season 8 in 2019 and the first details of a coming prequel has begun to roll out.) It’s probably too simple a mindset to assume because there are four books in this series that we will get just four seasons of the show. With early reviews raving, viewers might just be in for another long haul.
My Brilliant Friend debuts at 9p.m. EST on HBO, Sunday, November 18.