Elena Ferrante said in a 2018 Guardian column that she would never tell a female director adapting her work to stick to the story as written. “I don’t want to say: you have to stay inside the cage that I constructed,” she wrote. “We’ve been inside the male cage for too long—and now that that cage is collapsing, a woman artist has to be absolutely autonomous.”
It would seem then that Maggie Gyllenhaal, who wrote and directed a new adaptation of Ferrante’s 2006 novel The Lost Daughter for Netflix, had carte blanche to change as much of the source material as she wanted. Yet despite getting the reclusive author’s blessing to break out of the cage, Gyllenhaal’s film stays faithful in many ways to the plot of Ferrante’s book—which makes the ways it deviates from the text all the more interesting. We break it down below.
The New Setting
The plot of Ferrante’s novel remains largely the same on both page and screen: Leda is a literature professor, divorced, with two adult daughters. She decides to spend her summer by the sea in a rented apartment and spends much of her time at the beach, where she encounters a large, brash family. In particular, a young mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson), and her daughter, Elena (Athena Martin), catch Leda’s attention, and we learn more about her own background and experiences as she observes—and eventually interferes with—their lives.
Gyllenhaal’s adaptation stays true to all the book’s major plot points in the present and in flashbacks, down to many of the smallest details, like when Leda finds a cicada in her bed. But the director makes one major, overarching change: She de-Italianizes the story. Ferrante’s novel takes place, as her novels so often do, in southern Italy—in this case, in an unspecified town on the Ionian coast. Leda and the family she observes are both Neapolitan, and cultural differences between different regions of Italy motivate some of the tension; Leda has rejected much of her heritage in favor of a more sophisticated life in Florence, and the family serves as an unwelcome reminder even as she sympathizes with Nina.
In Gyllenhaal’s telling, Leda (played by Olivia Colman in the present day and Jessie Buckley in flashbacks) is now an Englishwoman living in Cambridge, Massachusetts who decides to vacation in Greece. Instead of English literature, her specialty is Italian translation. The family who disturbs her holiday become Greek-Americans from Queens, New York, with some associated name changes (Nina’s sister-in-law, Rosaria, becomes Callisto). Even the locals don’t escape anglicization: Gino, the young beach attendant, becomes Will (Paul Mescal), while Giovanni, the elderly caretaker of Leda’s apartment, becomes Lyle (Ed Harris).
Instead of Italian characters in an Italian setting, the story is now about tourists, expats, and immigrants in a foreign land. Not only are Leda and Nina no longer Italian, they no longer share an ethnic background at all, which lends their shared frustration with motherhood a more universal quality, one that transcends cultures. (It also, it must be said, spares the actors from adopting House of Gucci-esque Italian accents.)
The Changes to the Characters
In addition to some name and ethnicity changes, a few characters have been altered in Gyllenhaal’s telling. Most notable of these is Nina’s husband, described in the book as “a heavy, thickset man, between thirty and forty” with a shaved head and “substantial belly” divided by a deep scar. This is a very different description from Nina’s husband in the film, the much hunkier, tattooed Toni (English actor and model Oliver Jackson-Cohen).
Leda is a little different, too. Ferrante’s novel is written in first person from her perspective, but Gyllenhaal forgoes any kind of voiceover, instead letting Colman’s acting convey her feelings most of the time. However, Leda becomes somewhat chattier in the film, voicing some of her inner monologue from the book to other characters, as when she tells Will about the size of her daughters’ breasts. (While we’re on the subject of breasts, Leda says in the book that she had large breasts when she was younger, then after she gave birth she did not. In the movie she says the opposite, perhaps to account for the size of Colman’s own, erm, ample bosom.)
Despite the change in her background, Leda retains her name, an allusion to the Greek myth (and the Yeats poem) about the rape of Leda by Zeus. In both stories, she lives in a world in which men, whether in Italy or Greece or the United States or England, act with impunity, while women and mothers in particular suffer psychological wounds—which are later made physical.
Viewers might wonder what to make of the film’s ending, in which Leda, having been stabbed with a hatpin by Nina, crashes her car, stumbles to the beach with a bleeding wound, then answers a phone call from her daughters. When they tell her they thought she was dead since she hadn’t answered their calls, she says, “I’m alive, actually.” She then produces an orange, seemingly from nowhere, as she talks to them, to peel it in one go just as she once did for them. Is she actually dead?
This scene plays out differently in the book—taking place in Leda’s apartment rather than on the beach, for one—and yet it’s not any less ambiguous:
I sat down cautiously on the sofa. Maybe the pin had pierced my side the way a sword pierces the body of a Sufi ascetic, doing no harm. I looked at the hat on the table, the crust of blood on the skin. It was dark. I rose and turned on the light. I started to pack my bags, but moving slowly, as if I were gravely injured. When the suitcases were ready, I dressed, put on my sandals, smoothed my hair. At that point the cell phone rang. I saw Marta’s name, I felt a great contentment, I answered. She and Bianca, in unison, as if they had prepared the sentence and were performing it, exaggerating my Neapolitan cadence, shouted gaily into my ear:
“Mamma, what are you doing, why haven’t you called? Won’t you at least let us know if you’re alive or dead?”
Deeply moved, I murmured:
“I’m dead, but I’m fine.”
The phrasing may be different (“I’m alive” vs. “I’m dead”), but the ambiguity remains. Nina reminds Leda of a younger version of herself, from the time when she left her daughters, but when Nina stabs Leda, Nina rejects the choice Leda made to cheat on her husband and abandon her child. In both versions, the question we are left with is the same: Will Leda be able to recover from the wounds inflicted on her by her younger self, or were they fatal?