HBO Is Adapting the Ferrante Novels, and We're Cautiously Optimistic

Ferrante novels

The possibilities and pitfalls of translating the powerful Ferrante novels to the small screen.

Chances are you’ve read or heard of Elena Ferrante’s popular Neapolitan Novels, or at least caught glimpses of the books’ notably generic “chick lit”–style covers on the subway and on friends’ coffee tables. It’s true that the covers are not very enticing, but you know what they say about books and covers. The Ferrante novels have taken the literary world by storm since My Brilliant Friend was published in 2011. The novel and its three successors follow the story of two friends, Lila and the narrator Elena, who were born in a poor neighborhood in Naples in the 1950s. The two grow up, get married, start careers and have children, all while their friendship waxes and wanes. The book has struck a chord with women in particular because of its brutally honest depiction of a female friendship, warts and all, as well as the way it tackles themes like education, ambition, marriage, motherhood and love through the lens of feminism.

Now the series is being adapted for a television series on HBO, slated for a 2018 release. Like many Ferrante fans, I was initially excited to hear about the upcoming adaptation. I was curious to see what Ferrante’s characters and story lines would look like on-screen, and I was also happy that many people who haven’t read the books will be exposed to this thoughtful and complex story that shines a spotlight on the inner lives of women.

It’s true that many times when a popular book is translated for TV or film, fans are disappointed when nuances or entire plot points are left out as compromises made in the transition. Still, when the news of the Neapolitan adaptation came out there was plenty of reason to be optimistic. First, the adaption will be shot in Italy, in Italian (with English subtitles), starring Italian actors and written by a team of Italian writers — so it will surely stay true to the story’s essential Italian roots. The setting is practically a character of its own in the Ferrante novels, infusing the story with Italian culture and politics.

The decision to film in Italy with an Italian script and actors is an extremely positive sign for this adaptation, for both Italian and non-Italian fans. Italian viewers will get to see their culture and language represented accurately, and non-Italian viewers who read the books will appreciate getting to see the setting and hear the characters speaking Italian. If you’ve never been to Italy, seeing the series go from the page to the screen will likely flesh out the story and make it seem more authentic than it does in one’s head.

Ferrante novels

Naples / Getty Images

Elena Ferrante herself is helping to write the script. Ferrante is extremely private — she writes under a pseudonym, so nobody knows the real name of the author of the Neapolitan Novels — but she spoke to the New York Times in May about her participation in the adaptation. “For now, my contribution to the set design is limited to a few notes on whether they look right,” she said. “As far as the collaboration on the script, I don’t write, I don’t have the technical skills to do it, but I am reading the texts and send detailed notes. I still don’t know if they will take them into account. It is very likely that my notes will be used later on, in the writing of the final draft.”

So far, Ferrante’s opinions certainly seem to have been taken into account. In the same interview, she said she would prefer the roles of the younger characters (including the childhood versions of the leads Elena and Lila) to be played by newcomers. “Child actors portray children as adults imagine children to be,” she explained. “Children who are not actors have some chance to break free of the stereotype, especially if the director is able to find the right balance between truth and fiction.” A New York Times article in May covered the casting call for Italian children in Naples, describing the excitement among nonprofessional children as they lined up, hoping to snag their chance at being discovered as new talent. This seems to confirm that so far Ferrante’s vision for the show is being fulfilled, at least somewhat.

Ferrante novels

A backstreet of Naples, circa 1955. Photo by Earl / Mirrorpix / Getty Images

The series is reported to be comprised of 32 episodes. This means each book will likely get a total of eight episodes, which seems like the perfect number for fully covering the events of each book at a relaxed pace without going on too long. The meandering pace and decades-long timespan of the Ferrante novels would never translate well to the big screen, so a 32-episode TV series is definitely the way to go.

So far, many of the choices made for this adaptation seem to be promising a successful transition from print to screen. However, a couple of issues should make any Ferrante fan go into the show with tempered expectations.

First is the obvious fact that there are always pitfalls involved in trying to capture the magic of the written word on-screen. Ferrante herself said to the New York Times, when discussing the show’s casting, “I don’t have this skill set. Sure, I’d very much like to weigh in, but I would do it cautiously and knowing that it is useless to say, ‘Lila has little or nothing to do with that body, that face, that gaze, that way of moving,’ etc. No real person will ever match the image that I or a reader have in our minds. This is because the written word, of course, defines but by nature leaves much to reader’s imagination. The visual image instead shrinks those margins.” This is an eloquent and accurate explanation of the differences between books and TV or film, and excited readers of the Ferrante novels would do well to keep it in mind when the show airs.

Ferrante novels

Saverio Costanzo will direct ‘My Brilliant Friend.’ Photo by Matt Carr / Getty Images Entertainment

The other issue is the one that concerns me most, and was brought to my attention in a very well-written Harper’s Bazaar article succinctly titled “Why isn’t a woman directing My Brilliant Friend?” The series is, in fact, being directed by Saverio Costanzo, an accomplished Italian director. It’s great that he’s qualified and Italian, and he’ll probably do a fine job directing, but as Kosin points out, he likely won’t understand the source material as well as a female director would, because it comes from a point of view that he has never experienced. When there’s already a glaring discrepancy between the numbers of men and women creating the shows and movies we consume, one has to agree with Kosin that this was a missed opportunity to allow a woman take the helm of a project that is, after all, about women.

I’m still awaiting the HBO adaptation with cautious optimism. If it brings more readers to the Ferrante novels, or at least brings the story and its themes to people who would never read them, it’s OK if it doesn’t quite measure up for longtime fans of the books like me. At the heart of My Brilliant Friend is a powerful and important story that deserves as many platforms as possible. end


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