At a certain point, any wildly successful piece of art takes on a cocktail-party tag line. There’s the work, with its many meanings, and then there’s the sticky idea that can be passed around with drinks. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels—a four-book literary phenomenon that’s sold 2 million copies in the United States alone and inspired the sort of frenzy usually reserved for series about supernatural teenagers—was, at the peak of its popularity, discussed over drinks more than most books—or TV shows or movies or anything in our niche-culture age—can dream of. It was pressed by avid readers on family, friends, and strangers, a mass happening that felt personal—or at least that’s how it felt to me, as I raved about these novels to family, friends, and strangers who usually raved about them right back.
The novels, which tell the story of Raffaella “Lila” Cerullo and Elena “Lenù” Greco, women born into the endemic brutality of postwar Naples, Italy, are an addictive personal narrative and a rich social history about the difficulty of transcending one’s class, sex, and home. They are books about degradation, machismo, misogyny, fear, violence, escape, and friendship. But it’s a quirk of our current moment that it’s less compelling to sell the Neapolitan novels as the big honking revelatory literary project that they are than to celebrate them for their portrait of complex best girl friendship—just look at the books’ chick-lit covers.
Connecting Lila and Lenù and their idiosyncratic bond—a relationship full of rivalry and devotion as similar to most ordinary female friendships as a saber-toothed tiger is to a house cat—to all of pop culture’s difficult women, the new class of “unlikable heroines” permitted to behave in gnarly, unfeminine ways, was a way to establish the novels’ timeliness and urgency. But while the books are a fascinating exploration of Lila and Lenù’s bond, any compliment repeated often enough can become distorting. As my colleague Laura Miller, in her review of the series’ final novel, observed, the books are often described as being about “the ambivalent wonders of ‘female friendship,’ which makes them sound like a tonier version of Sex and the City, only with a lot more fights between the heroines.”
Funnily enough, it’s HBO’s My Brilliant Friend, the eight-episode adaptation of the first novel in the series, that effectively scrubs the slightly cheesy girl-power sheen off the novels’ reputation. Directed by Saverio Costanzo and adapted with Ferrante’s input, the show, which premieres Sunday, is slavishly faithful to the source material. If this doesn’t make it a particularly inspired or creative adaptation, it does at least restore the books to themselves rather than their talking points. 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.
Lila (Ludovica Nasti) and Lenù (Elisa Del Genio), little girls when we first meet them, live in a teeming, self-contained community of gray apartment buildings so far from the center of Naples that it functions like a small town, where the social order is strictly enforced through fear. Powerful men beat less-powerful men, who beat their wives and children, who beat each other. Death is common. Murders are not unheard of. Women go mad. The two richest families in their community, who profited off Mussolini’s fascist regime, are the most merciless, terrorizing the neighborhood with a cruelty that trickles down. Everyone is violent and domineering to those who are less powerful than themselves, while even the powerless try their best to act tough.
The girls come to each other’s attention in elementary school, when Lenù, to this point the smartest girl in her class, learns that Lila, the cobbler’s daughter, has taught herself how to read and write. It’s a display of quicksilver intelligence greeted by the teacher, Lila’s mother, and Lenù more like a curse than a triumph: What to do about a girl so smart? If, like everyone else around them, Lila and Lenù are acclimated to sporadic bursts of extreme violence—they read Little Women while a man is nearly stomped to death in a public street—they also strain, in their separate ways, to escape the circumstances of their birth.
Lenù takes the more straightforward path: education. When the elementary school teacher suggests she and Lila take the test for middle school, a level of education most boys, let alone girls, did not pursue at the time, Lenù’s father agrees to pay for the tutoring Lenù will need to take the test. But Lila’s father, the cobbler, refuses. Lila, who is fiery and driven, insists that she will take the test anyway and that her brother will pay for it, until a final, decisive confrontation with her father, Fernando.
This is how Lenù, the narrator of all of the novels, describes that confrontation in the book:
That day Lila didn’t show up, and I went to call her at the windows, which were on the ground floor. I cried Li, Li, Li and my voice joined Fernando’s extremely loud voice, his wife’s loud voice, my friend’s insistent voice…
We were ten, soon we would be eleven. I was filling out. Lila remained small and thin, she was light and delicate. Suddenly the shouting stopped and a few seconds later my friend flew out the window, passed over my head, and landed on the asphalt behind me.
I was stunned. Fernando looked out, still screaming horrible threats at his daughter. He had thrown her like a thing.
I looked at her terrified while she tried to get up and said, with an almost amused grimace, “I haven’t hurt myself.”
But she was bleeding. She had broken her arm.
Then there’s a chapter break. As precise and haunting as the text is, it takes up less than a page in a 300-page novel. Afterward, Lenù gets back into the rhythm of her routine, into the comings and goings of summer, and Lila never speaks of attending school again. There are good reasons for Lenù to document this scene—and others like it—at such a sickening sprint: because she wants to get past it, because there are others like it. The book permits the reader to speed through this sequence because the narrator does the same, racing through a moment of awful commonplace, terrifying in its familiarity.
But there’s no such cold comfort in the show. There is Lila, a child who weighs maybe 40 pounds, soaking wet, being thrown through a window. There is her father, yelling through the shattered glass, “Look what you made me do!” There is Lila muttering to herself, “I’m not hurt. I’m not hurt,” while struggling to stand up, clutching her arm. And there’s Lenù, in another scene, being beaten by the same father who is enlightened enough to permit her education. And there’s a man being grabbed out of church and tossed against a wall like a sack of laundry. And there’s a man kicked until he’s comatose for defending his sister. And there’s that sister, pressured into a car by powerful young men, thugs, who will do whatever they please with her and then drop her back on the corner. And there are those thugs, circling Lila. All of the brutalities of the book are highlighted in the show, simply because they are shown for what they are, and not relayed through the perspective of a character acclimatized to the violence around her.
But if the show underscores the grimness of the novels, the loss of Lenù’s first-person narration robs the series of something more important: her voice. Though the Neapolitian novels include as much plot as a soap opera and occasionally take on the breakneck vitality of a page turner, they feel less plot-driven than sensibility-driven, like a prolonged and meaningful encounter with a diffident personality. The series loses touch with that person.
Through the first two episodes, when Lila and Lenù are played by preadolescent actresses, they seem relatively evenly matched. But as they become teenagers, their personalities diverge along with their educational paths. Lila (Gaia Girace) becomes fierce and strong-willed, desired by a number of frightening but powerful men. Lenù (Margherita Mazzucco) becomes increasingly passive and quiet, sad and uncomfortable in her own body. Despite her accomplishments at school, she thinks of herself as a kind of forever salutatorian to Lila, as a runner-up who needs the spark of Lila’s intelligence and vitality to find her own. She thinks of Lila as a natural, and herself a grind. She credits her rise with Lila’s inspiration, not her own diligence.
Lenù’s interiority and self-doubt are all in the novel, but they are qualities that are particularly difficult to dramatize, especially compared with the operatic and tempestuous Lila. It’s difficult for the show not to overdo the distinction between the girls, to treat Lenù’s unreliable narration about her own blah-ness as fact. The books manage this discrepancy through Lenù’s voice, which is what keeps us feverishly reading. While some of her narration makes it into the show, you simply cannot be inside a character’s head in a TV series in the way that you can be in a novel: It’s the difference between looking very closely at someone’s face and looking out through their eyes. Seeing the world from a wider perspective than Lenù’s makes the danger, poverty, and brutality that she has become accustomed to starker, but it also turns her into just another character—and a recessive and depressed one at that.
As someone who read and loved the Neapolitan novels, I was at first relieved by My Brilliant Friend, which is nothing if not respectful. But it’s so respectful it can’t match, let alone exceed, its source material. In this way, it’s Lenù to the novels’ Lila: convinced it can’t be brilliant in its own way.