When Lila Cerullo disappears at the beginning of Elena Ferrante’s first Neapolitan novel, My Brilliant Friend, it’s not a passive act but a violent one. Lila doesn’t vanish, she doesn’t evaporate; she erases herself, cutting her image out of family photographs as determinedly as she removes clothes from her closet. It isn’t enough for Lila to make herself disappear, Ferrante writes; she has to “eliminate the entire life that she had left behind.” But Lila’s ambition backfires—she’s more present in those butchered snapshots with their glaring voids than she was in photographic form.
Aggression and dominance saturate the Neapolitan novels as surely as alcohol suffuses limoncello, bitter and sharp. Elena, the narrator whose coming of age occupies the first book, emphasizes early on that her tales of growing up aren’t nostalgic, because her childhood “was full of violence.” Every relationship is portrayed as being a negotiation in power. Elena’s mother conveys to her daughter how “superfluous” she is; the girl’s father beats “Lenù,” as Elena is called, after being goaded by her mother, who insinuates that he’s not manly enough to hit his child. The central relationship in the novels, Lenù and Lila’s friendship, is defined by the fluctuating dynamic between the two, encapsulated in the twist at the end of the first book, when the “brilliant friend” of the title turns out to be not Lila, as assumed all along, but Lenù.
The trick of the Neapolitan novels is that they feature some of the rawest scenes of female brutality and body horror in literature, contained within covers that seem to promise beach reads or romance novels instead. Lila and Lenù’s friendship is intoxicating because, like Lila, it’s gorgeous and savage, thrilling and toxic all at once. Ferrante’s series became a sensation both in Europe and in the U.S. at least in part because of how viscerally Elena’s narration captures female friendship and all its emotional oscillations. The announcement of a new TV adaptation from HBO and RAI, helmed by a male director, led many of Ferrante’s fans to question how the miniseries could possibly capture the heart of the books.
Miraculously, though, it does. My Brilliant Friend, whose first installment airs on HBO on Sunday, presents the story of Lenù and Lila’s girlhood with all the unsparingness of Ferrante’s writing. Saverio Costanzo fabricates a drab neighborhood on the outskirts of 1950s Naples that’s distinguished by cycles of violence repeating themselves amid a community committed to seeing nothing and saying nothing. A carpenter is dragged out of church in the middle of a funeral and pulverized, while the priest continues as if nothing has happened. A young girl is thrown out of a window. Men beat their wives, who beat their children, who beat one another. Murder is as unremarkable an occurrence locally as the screaming fights that play out in the stairways of the tenementlike buildings.
Lenù and Lila, played as small children by Elisa del Genio and Ludovica Nasti, respectively, are opposites when they’re first drawn together: The cherubic Elena is praised by her teacher for being “precise and tidy,” while Lila is grubby, waifish, and unkempt, with sparkling dark eyes that radiate danger. “I felt confusedly attracted to this bad girl,” Elena recalls, in narration that, like Max Richter’s score, oversets the scenes, allowing viewers sporadic glimpses into Elena’s mind. Lila isn’t just fearless; she’s brilliant. An autodidact at 6, she’s taught herself to read and write, and her brain is both creative and mathematically precocious.
The dull palette Costanzo uses to create Lenù and Lila’s neighborhood affirms Elena’s determination not to romanticize her recollections of growing up. The actors speak a mingling of Italian and Neapolitan dialect, subtitled for English-language viewers, but there’s none of the lushness of Fellini or Bertolucci, or the distinct, vibrant colors of Paolo Sorrentino (The Young Pope), who served as an executive producer. The walls of the tenement building are gray; the dirt on the ground is a muddy brown. The characters all wear dingy shades of blue and green, meaning that the only vivid color in early episodes is the redness of spilled blood.
Against this somber backdrop, the young actors sparkle. Del Genio gives off a placid but stubborn energy as Lenù, contrasting with Nasti’s ferocious intensity as Lila. When the two are replaced by older actresses who play the characters as teenagers, they almost uncannily match their younger counterparts. Gaia Girace (Lila) has a kind of self-containment that’s both threatening and irresistible, communicating the intellect that Ferrante described as “a hiss, a dart, a lethal bite.” Margherita Mazzucco (Lenù) is quietly sullen, capturing how ill at ease Lenù feels both in her community and in her own body.
The small-stakes drama of Lenù and Lila’s tussles plays out against larger, ongoing conflicts in their neighborhood. A local loan shark, Don Achille (Antonio Pennarella), looms large, as does the feud between Melina (Pina Di Gennaro), a widow, and the wife of the man whom Melina has fixated on. Rivalries and grudges occupy the lives of the adults as thoroughly as the hierarchy of the schoolyard consumes the children, although the stakes are higher. There’s no peace to be found: Even Lenù’s education, her path out of the neighborhood, is a constant source of conflict, since it only stokes her mother’s rancor.
To Lenù, Lila offers not just friendship, but also something more charged. “None of what I did by myself … was thrilling enough,” Elena recalls. Without Lila’s magnetic presence nearby, Lenù’s life feels “tainted and dusty.” The drama that Lila seems to attract, the ways in which she makes Lenù feel flat by comparison, are preferable to a life without Lila’s dazzle, her energy, which Lenù feeds on in a slightly parasitic way. That the actors are able to convey the complexity of this sentiment from the book is My Brilliant Friend’s most striking achievement.
If something has been lost in this adaptation, it’s Lenù’s discomfort regarding her encroaching womanhood. In the novel, she resents her changing body, and has a deeply rooted fear that adulthood will force her into a replica of her mother’s physique, which she sees as distended and repulsive. More care is given in the show to Lila’s affliction of “dissolving boundaries,” a kind of panic attack that causes her to lose sight of the lines between what’s real and what’s imagined. In a world this unstable, this lightly anchored to safety or calm, it’s a condition that seeps beyond the pages.