A new adaptation dims the brilliance of Elena Ferrante’s novel

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“FERRANTE FEVER” is no longer restricted to pastel-coloured paperbacks in bookstores across the world. The pseudonymous author’s four “Neapolitan Novels”, which track the friendship between two women over half a century, have sold more than 5.5m copies. Now they are being adapted into a 32-part series by HBO, an American premium channel, and RAI and TIMvision, two Italian networks. “My Brilliant Friend”, the first book in the series, starts its eight-episode run on November 18th in America and on November 19th in Britain.

The sudden disappearance of a woman named Lila in the present day leads Elena, her closest friend (who goes by Lenù), to search for clues in their shared childhood and adolescence in a blighted, post-war Naples neighbourhood. While weathering the blows of abusive families and observing the fallout from the murder of a local don, the girls are in the process of forging their identities—both distinct from, and dependent on, each other.

Played as a child by Ludovica Nasti and as a teenager by Gaia Girace, Lila is the driving force of the narrative. She is whip-smart but stubborn and, forbidden by her parents to pursue further formal education, exercises her mind by stirring up conflict among her peers. Lila’s rough magnetism drives away most but finds a delicate match in Lenù (Elisa Del Genio, then Margherita Mazzucco), who is equal parts rival, confidante and disciple. Both dream of being writers, yet Lenù is in awe of Lila’s ideas. In one of their first encounters, Lila throws Lenù’s doll into a cellar; Lenù returns the favour, exclaiming, “What you do, I do.” Thus the painful push-pull dynamic of their friendship is established.

While strolling through the bustling town square that serves as the show’s centrepiece set, Lenù and Lila witness brutal dramas in which impoverished characters grapple with debts owed and statuses disrespected. The local children mimic these spasms of rage and distrust, and seek power and possession as their parents do. Neighbourhood boys proposition Lila, resorting to threats when they are rebuffed (she takes to producing a switchblade to ward them off). The show shares Elena Ferrante’s sense of pessimism both about her country’s recovery efforts after the second world war and the ability of personal relationships to weather socio-economic challenges.

Saverio Constanzo, the director, delivers high production values but struggles to translate Ms Ferrante’s textual nuances into a visual medium, despite working closely with the elusive author via email. “I feel no nostalgia for our childhood,” Lenù says in the novel, “it was full of violence.” Yet the series piles on both. Young men whisk away female classmates in their cars to assault them just out of view; others return a New Year’s fireworks salvo with gunshots. The scenes are aesthetically jarring: the blood is spilled in treacly tones, so as not to splatter on the impeccably rendered period shopfronts. A brutal street brawl between lower- and upper-class boys is awkwardly scored to swelling, melodic strings, reminiscent of fussy exports like “Cinema Paradiso” rather than more thematically appropriate neorealist greats such as Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica.

“My Brilliant Friend” also struggles with the internal monologue of Ms Ferrante’s prose, communicated onscreen via the occasional thudding voiceover. As a result, the all-action Lila, despite being grounded in her family’s shoe shop, takes precedence over the introverted Lenù. The series cedes itself to Ms Girace’s spiky portrayal of Lila, unable to make Lenù’s private thoughts engaging or complex enough to act as counterweight. The true protagonist, who must always be reacting to her companion, is flattened as a character and becomes a nearly mute waif. Ms Mazzucco is left to practise variations on a glassy-eyed gawk; she is called upon to shoulder nearly the entire sixth episode herself, and struggles mightily.

As such, the television series may well disappoint avid Ferrante fans. They have celebrated the brittle texture of the author’s prose, and her dark, complicated visions of human relationships; they have assailed the novels’ American and Italian covers for their Hallmarkian kitsch images of Italian children by the sea. Despite the show’s fidelity to the thornier side of Ms Ferrante’s story, it has taken too big an aesthetic cue from those covers. A painful past filled with assault and betrayal has the feel, improbably, of a Frommer’s guide.

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