My Brilliant Friend: The HBO adaptation of Elena Ferrante comes to NZ television

by Fiona Rae / 19 November, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - My Brilliant Friend tv

New TV series My Brilliant Friend stars two women in repressed, male-chauvinist Naples and is filmed in Neapolitan. 

In the UK, it was Danish series Forbrydelsen, otherwise known as The Killing, that broke the commonly accepted notion that TV audiences can’t cope with subtitles. Many more Scandi productions and even some – quelle horreur – French series have screened in Britain since Inspector Sarah Lund first appeared in her Faroese jumper in 2011.

By contrast, the US has preferred to remake the originals, with varying success. Sofie Gråbøl, who played Lund, once told the BBC that the remakes were necessary because Americans “for some reason cannot read subtitles, or they don’t want to”.

Perhaps that is about to change. HBO is testing its viewers’ sophistication with My Brilliant Friend (TVNZ OnDemand, from Monday, November 19), an adaptation of the first of Elena Ferrante’s popular four-part series known as the Neapolitan Novels.

Ferrante, who has kept her identity more secret than Banksy, has sold in excess of 10 million copies of the series, and HBO has partnered with Italian network RAI for what will be a 32-episode adaptation of all four books.

HBO has dabbled in Italy before with Rome and The Young Pope, but My Brilliant Friend is its first non-English series – and it hasn’t helicoptered in any recognisable stars, either. Italian director Saverio Costanzo, who has worked in both English and Italian (The Solitude of Prime Numbers and Hungry Hearts both did well at the Venice Film Festival) has cast unknowns and amateurs.

For additional authenticity, the dialogue is not just Italian, it is Neapolitan, a regional dialect that, reportedly, even some Italians may struggle to understand. HBO, Costanzo told the Hollywood Reporter, insisted that the series should be authentic, and “there, in that moment, I understood why HBO is HBO”.

The novels tell the story of two friends over their lifetime, and the series begins with Elena and Lila’s post-war childhood in a desperately poor suburb of Naples full of violent men and enraged women. Everyone is frightened of the local Camorra boss and the little girls (terrifically played by Elisa Del Genio and Ludovica Nasti) witness many incidents of intimidation.

Their lives are proscribed by religion and family, but as the cleverest girls in their class, education may be a way out. Through Elena Ferrante, Italy may be having a feminist moment, says Costanzo.

“It just happens that it’s the story of two women in a profoundly male-chauvinist country, and that’s what makes the point of view revolutionary.”

Video: HBO

This article was first published in the November 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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