My devotion to Elena Ferrante and everything she touches is soon to be put to the test: HBO will be coming out with a serially televised version of My Brilliant Friend (L’amica geniale) and I am not sure I will be able to watch it.
Every time a beloved book is brought to the screen, I face the same conundrum: can I enjoy whatever this new rendition turns out to be on its own terms? Maybe, but I am not sure, and I can’t shake the fear that the film or television version of a beloved story will somehow “ruin” that story for me. The more I think about what we’re actually talking about when we talk about the ruination of something, the more incomplete it seems. Yes, there is fear of something, and the primary fear is, I think, that my relationship with the story will be forever altered in a way that I will be unable to change back. Inevitably, a screen adaptation in all its visual and aural immediacy will insert itself into whatever my brain has conjured from the words on the page and occupy a new, previously inexistent space between my own self and the characters. When Harry Potter was first adapted as a film, a little piece of me felt broken after seeing it in the theater. I was with a group of exultant friends who had been eagerly awaiting the day for many months, and my own sadness was totally inscrutable to me at the time. I had no desire to see any of the subsequent films and rolled my eyes whenever the feverish excitement welled up to greet each new release. Now, a couple of decades after Sorcerer’s Stone appeared on the big screen, we have all accepted Daniel Radcliffe as our Harry Potter, I think. And we have to hand it to him - he did a fantastic job in that role. He grew into it exceedingly well as Harry himself grew, and he made the emotional ending to the series land very effectively (I did eventually see the final movie, and I cried my eyes out). The same can absolutely be said for Rupert Grint and Emma Watson as Ron and Hermione. You don’t always get so lucky with child actors playing such multidimensional characters, and the casting directors really nailed it. I can sit down and watch a Harry Potter movie now without any feeling of sadness or loss. But when I was still at the age where I felt a kinship with Harry and Hermione (Ron less so, as delightful as he often was), I felt that their concretization on screen as people other than me had somehow taken something from me that I could never get back.
I am no longer a child, and not every book is about me. Yet, one of the things I love about words on a page is my ability to weave my own emotional life into them, and this, it seems, is a fairly universal experience for readers of Elena Ferrante. In this week’s New York Times magazine, Merve Emre writes that “it is precisely because Ferrante’s characters are so undefined that they seem readily inhabited by others, both inside and outside the novel.” The raw, unmitigated and often ugly and uncontrollable emotions of Lenù are so forceful because of the precision of Ferrante’s writing. “The ‘I’ that Ferrante conjures is restless, unbounded, permeable to the monstrous desires that many women feel but few dare express,” writes Emre. “It is easy to slip on and to mistake for your own.” It is less easy when you are watching that ‘I’ on a screen, the physical body of another woman who is not you.
I read all four of the Neapolitan novels as a very new mother, between my daughter’s birth and her first birthday, and I think that one of the things that drew me into them was that Ferrante’s characters, and particularly Lenù, her narrator, made me feel seen - not unlike the depiction of pubescent girls at their realest in Nick Kroll’s Big Mouth. The volatility, the rage, the intensity and the deep love of Lenù’s and Lila’s friendship felt deeply habitable to me; they brought back memories of troubling little-girl friendships that at the time had felt so unstable and unreliable to me. I felt ashamed of how insecure I felt in my friendships. I only rarely felt that I could fully trust others my own age. My sensitivity embarrassed me, and I spent years trying to pretend it didn’t exist (I don’t think I was a great pretender). The deep interiority of Lenù’s six-year-old self felt as real and immediate to me as the instability she felt as a young mother. “To read [Ferrante’s] novels” (Emre again) “is to feel that you are drawing on a reservoir of shared emotion — rage, disgust, pity, indignation, tenderness — to which you have somehow, secretly, contributed.” To share in Lenù’s interior life is to better love, retroactively and presently, my own.
I have a feeling I won’t be able to stay completely away from HBO’s My Brilliant Friend, if for no other reason than that all my acquaintances who know of my Italian scholarship will ask me if I am watching it and what I think. As reluctant as I am to let a flesh-and-blood Lenù on the screen take the place of the words-on-a-page Lenù who speaks to me so privately and personally, I am also curious on an artistic level about the choices that the director has had to make in creating this world. I trust in his desire to get it right, and I hope he does.