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From ‘Annihilation to ‘My Brilliant Friend’: How to (or How Not to) Adapt a Novel in 2018

HBO’s re-creation of Elena Ferrante’s first Neapolitan novel is doggedly faithful to its source text—but is that the only way to make an adaptation?

HBO/Showtime/Paramount Pictures/Ringer illustration

Director Saverio Costanzo, the 43-year-old Italian behind The Solitude of Prime Numbers and Hungry Hearts, did not choose to turn Elena Ferrante’s globally revered Neapolitan novels into a television series. He didn’t seek out the rights or imagine himself to be the one of her millions of readers who could be trusted to produce a worthy representation of Ferrante’s most famous work. Costanzo’s anonymous compatriot herself chose him for the honor and the daunting burden.

After an unsuccessful attempt to bring Ferrante’s novella “The Lost Daughter” to the screen more than a decade ago, Costanzo was handpicked by Ferrante to captain My Brilliant Friend, the eight-episode rendition of the Neapolitan saga’s first volume premiering this Sunday on HBO. Costanzo has never met Ferrante in person, but she presided over his efforts, insisting he include certain scenes or tweak certain lines of dialogue. Ferrante never sat in a traditional writers’ room, yet alongside Costanzo, Laura Paolucci, and Francesco Piccolo, she is one of four credited screenwriters across all eight hours.

For the risky endeavor of HBO’s first-ever foreign-language series, My Brilliant Friend is a relatively safe choice. As of 2016, the quartet had sold more than 5 million copies worldwide, nearly 2 million of them in North America alone. The books are particularly popular among the affluent, educated, urban consumers HBO considers its target audience; to mark the publication of The Story of the Lost Child, the series’ conclusion, in 2015, my local Manhattan bookstore installed a custom “Ferrante Fever” sign. By securing not just the rights, but the enigmatic, exacting Ferrante’s full participation and approval, HBO set itself up to harness the full power of a global phenomenon.

And yet the resulting series might hew too closely to Ferrante’s vision for its own good. The Neapolitan novels are less the story of an entire city than a single neighborhood, told through the relationship and intertwined fates of two women we meet as young girls. One, Elena Greco, is a shy and passive porter’s daughter who grows up to attend university and become a writer. The other, Lila Cerullo, is My Brilliant Friend’s title character, a mercurial, steel-willed girl whose ferocity conceals a remarkable sensitivity to the dynamics and personalities around her. From the beginning, their story is not one of triumph over adversity, nor a pure bond of female solidarity that persists over decades. The tale unfolds entirely via flashback: In her 60s, Lila dramatically disappears, erasing herself from the existence of her friends and family. More out of anger and spite than heartfelt remembrance, Elena resolves to counter this act of self-erasure by documenting her and Lila’s shared life.

My Brilliant Friend is largely dedicated to the 1950s youth and adolescence of Lila and Lenú (Elena’s nickname), culminating with Lila’s symbolic transition into adulthood with her wedding. In the novels, Ferrante deepens the perspective of naive young children with the hindsight of a mature woman reflecting on her own experiences. In the show, Costanzo and his collaborators resort to the most intuitive, and therefore most cliché, device of book-to-film adaptations: a voice-over, rendered via subtitles into the stilted, striking prose of obviously translated English. “If her voice withdrew from things,” Lenú says of Lila, “everything seemed tainted and dusty.”

Adult Lenú’s insights are probably necessary to add depth to the petty concerns and picayune conflicts that take up grade-schoolers’ time. Cast from an open call of tens of thousands, Elisa del Genio and Ludovica Nasti are phenomenal as the youngest versions of Lenú and Lila, with none of the unnatural precocity one fears from child actors. Still, they can’t make plotlines about lost dolls and frustrated walks to the ocean stand on their own. Even in the books, the events of My Brilliant Friend largely serve as a sort of psychological prelude, laying essential if not exciting groundwork for the stories that follow. The opening credits of the show consist of a series of family portraits: the Grecos; the Cerullos; the crime boss who initially lords over the neighborhood; the grocers who replace him; indebted workers and local intellectuals. My Brilliant Friend sketches out the connections and generational grievances that will echo through the decades. It’s essentially a wind-up. A father’s indiscretions here will be replicated by his son in the future, but Ferrante neophytes won’t know that while they’re waiting for the action to start.

My Brilliant Friend picks up once Lila and Lenú reach their teens and can go from observing the neighborhood to participating in it. (Costanzo constructed an apartment-ringed plaza on a soundstage, a set design that’s sometimes distractingly artificial and sometimes effective at capturing the panopticon feeling of a crowded, cloistered locale where everyone sees everyone.) But this shift doesn’t occur until Episode 3, in keeping with the series’ faithful preservation of the book’s structure and plot. For Ferrante obsessives who want to see her world fully realized, such pacing might prove gratifying. For first-timers who don’t have the option of reading at their own pace or the incentive of a sequel immediately at hand, I’m not sure it’s the best sales pitch for the seasons to come.

Such a strategy for conveying the feeling of an author’s work—re-creation over interpretation—stands in informative contrast with some of this year’s other most high-profile adaptations. My Brilliant Friend’s closest analog is Patrick Melrose, the overlooked Showtime–Sky Atlantic coproduction from earlier this year. Like the Neapolitan novels, Edward St. Aubyn’s five Patrick Melrose books follow a single protagonist through the bulk of a lifetime, though unlike the intensely private Ferrante, St. Aubyn has been open about the autobiographical nature of his avatar’s traumatic, upper-crust upbringing. Regardless, die-hard fans were similarly wary of their touchstone passing into someone else’s hands, namely Benedict Cumberbatch, director Edward Burger, and writer David Nicholls.

While certainly true to its source, Patrick Melrose is also additive. The most obvious outright change is switching the order of the first two chapters, so Patrick’s 20-something bender while in New York to collect his father’s ashes comes before the revelation of his father’s horrific sexual abuse when Patrick was an emotionally abandoned child. Mostly, though, Patrick Melrose gives the distinct phases of its hero’s life their own visual language: the frenzied delirium of a drug-addled weekend; the disorienting stillness of sobriety; most challenging of all, the oblique yet unmistakable depiction of Patrick’s abuse. Crucially, Patrick Melrose moves through these phases at a brisk clip, with each book yielding a single episode rather than an entire season. St. Aubyn’s prose dances around a razor-thin line, switching between a barbed satire of the idle rich and harrowing expressions of trauma and forgiveness. Patrick Melrose risks crashing through that line and instead reinforces it, with an insouciant rock soundtrack on one side and devastating performances, from Cumberbatch as well as Jennifer Jason Leigh, on the other.

Other adaptations, working with inspiration both less seminal and less extensive than a character’s entire life, gave themselves permission to stray further from their origins. Fellow HBO series Sharp Objects enjoyed not just the permission, but the active participation of author Gillian Flynn, who joined the writers’ room for the miniseries of her 2006 debut novel. Yet the dominant creative signature of the Amy Adams vehicle belongs to Jean-Marc Vallée, the Canadian director whose trademark rapid cuts and recurring motifs became shorthand for the story’s concerns with repressed memory and cyclical violence. Sharp Objects’ ambient, plot-light approach to murder mystery proved controversial, but it also separated itself from Flynn’s page-turning twists by slamming the brakes and turning up the Missouri heat. The eventual destination was the same. The journey took such a new direction that it didn’t matter.

My Brilliant Friend is based on a work of realist fiction, and as such includes fewer opportunities for eye-catching flourishes than a story with as much eye-popping wealth, and heroin, as Patrick Melrose, or the Southern Gothic setting of Sharp Objects. But one of the year’s most compelling adaptations arose from finding an inventive approach to a hard and ugly truth: the five 1997 murders that punctuate the story of The Assassination of Gianni Versace, including—though not culminating in—its namesake. Writer Tom Rob Smith worked from journalist Maureen Orth’s Vulgar Favors, a relatively straightforward account of killer Andrew Cunanan and his most famous victim. Smith then shaped Orth’s account into a drastically different structure, one that both distinguished Assassination and conveyed its primary theme. Assassination works backward from Versace’s murder, through the ones that preceded it and to Cunanan’s unraveling.

The show that emerged was a challenging watch, but also a radical reimagining. Smith doesn’t use his artistic license to sensationalize people’s lives; instead, he tries to counteract the way those lives had been sensationalized, or even erased. Assassination also benefits from an updated understanding of queerness and homophobia, wielding 20 years of cultural progress, as well as the personal experience of its writer and executive producer, to provide a more empathetic portrait of internalized hatred than Orth’s outsider looking in. Sometimes, the best case for an adaptation isn’t the strength of what it’s adapting, but its weakness.

Sure enough, my favorite adaptation of the year thus far makes the case for choosing a starting point for its challenges as much as its charms. Filmmaker Alex Garland read Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, a hallucinogenic story of scientists exploring a mysterious swamp, just once before starting work on his script. Garland took the nonlinear nature of the book as liberty to create an equally loose relationship between original and adaptation, partly by necessity but mostly by choice. This process yielded a movie that’s, in some ways, more conventional than the novel—all the main characters have names, for one—and in some ways equally surreal. Garland’s climax, in which Natalie Portman confronts a Giacometti-like doppelganger that an alien intelligence crafted from a drop of her own blood, is entirely invented. It’s also as true to VanderMeer’s sensibility as My Brilliant Friend tries to be to Ferrante’s.

As My Brilliant Friend progresses, pleasures particular to the show eventually start to materialize: a dance scene here, a fireworks display there. They’re also a long time coming, and a secondary priority to precisely staging the conversations and blow-ups Ferrante first scripted years ago. My Brilliant Friend dedicates itself to the letter of Ferrante’s urban portrait, and to an often impressive degree. By doing so, it may miss out on an opportunity to convey the book’s spirit.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.