Reclusive Author Elena Ferrante Talks 'My Brilliant Friend' HBO Adaptation

My Brilliant Friend Set
Photo by Eduardo Castaldo

The writer of the books that inspired the new series, premiering in the U.S. on Sunday, Nov. 18, says in a rare interview that female artists need absolute freedom.

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels took the literary world by storm, selling 10 million copies in 40 countries and gaining fans as far-reaching as Michelle Obama. The reclusive author makes a point of writing under a pseudonym. When an Italian journalist claimed to have revealed her real identity in 2016, there was a public outcry from fans to leave the author in peace.

Readers were gripped by the depiction of a friendship between two girls growing up in Naples, Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo. The first book in series, My Brilliant Friend, opens with an elderly woman discovering that her close friend (and best enemy) Lila has disappeared. She recounts their story from their first year of meeting in grade school in 1950 amid a poverty-stricken, mafia-run backdrop. The four novels in the series span six decades, exploring topics such as feminism, radical politics, corruption and social upheaval.

The first series of eight episodes was shot in Caserta, Italy, and directed by Saverio Costanzo. The show is a co-production from HBO, Rai Fiction and Timvision, produced by Lorenzo Mieli and Mario Gianani of Wildside and Domenico Procacci of Fandango. It has sold globally to 56 territories worldwide and will debut in the U.S. on Nov. 18. And if, like with Game of Thrones, a new audience rushes out to read the novels on which the series is based, Ferrante is primed to become even more of a household name than she already is.

Ferrante gave a rare email interview to Italian media outlet Repubblica to discuss her involvement in the highly anticipated show.

Ferrante and Costanzo worked mainly by email. She says their correspondence was vast, as she frequently sent notes on the screenplay, the plot, characters and environment.

“A volume would come out of it,” she says, maintaining that she has no desire to work in entertainment.

“I categorically exclude working in the future for cinema or television, and it was not really a screenwriting job. I would not have had the competence,” says Ferrante. “I rather discussed the texts written by Costanzo and his collaborators, intervening with my suggestions where it seemed necessary to me.”

Notably, the show was shot in Neapolitan dialect to make it as authentic as possible to the books. Ferrante worked first on Italian screenplays, then on the screenplays translated into dialect.

She says she went through the same experience that Elena went through in changing her speech to a more Northern Italian voice.

"You could record the voices of all Naples, area by area, with their intertwining from the periphery to the center, and build a purely sonorous map of the economic, social and cultural differences,” she says. “The only unifying point is the violent, irrational link with the city, a link that is strong within whoever is born there, even in those who abandoned it.”

Although Ferrante did not participate in the casting of the show, she was overwhelmingly pleased with the actors. “Costanzo’s little Lila, for example, seems perfect to me, and little Elena in some moments effectively merges as the woman she will become,” she says.

When it comes to adaptations, Ferrante believes that the less the author is involved, the better. “As for casting, the few times I have been asked to speak up I have only complicated things. In fact, if I had to choose the two actresses, I would never have come out of it. Usually, the images I have in mind as I write are iridescent, sometimes hyper-defined, sometimes blurred, so I would have run after the most various incarnations. Therefore, in my opinion, it is a good thing that those who write a book do not exercise a sort of veto right: the director must build his work, set up his show in complete freedom. Whatever happens, books do not need protection: they are there, definitively fixed, patient and invulnerable."

Ferrante also reveals that cinema has informed her own imagination of the city. She singles out Hands on the City by Francesco Rosi and The Interval by Leonardo di Costanzo as the two Naples-set films that had the greatest impact on her.

As Ferrante’s novels are considered some of the best contemporary writing on female friendship, she was also asked by Repubblica how she thinks a female director would have tackled My Brilliant Friend.

"Frankly, I do not know. My books try to shape what I've learned by moving around the world. Perhaps a woman director would have welcomed my gaze and boosted it, and I would have liked it very much,” she says. “Or perhaps with her work she would have criticized and weakened it, considering it too schematic when it talks about male characters, or too inclined to tell the contradictions in the relationships between women to the detriment of a more edifying sisterhood.”

“This, I have to admit, I wouldn’t have liked. However, I wouldn’t have said a word, because I believe that women artists have the need to tell — even more than men — in perfect autonomy, with free inventiveness, what they know of this world,” she continues.

“On the other hand,” she says, “I hope that a man, with his long-lasting and solid tradition, since he has chosen in absolute freedom to make a film starting from my book, adopts my gaze and respects it."

And on whether or not the series will bring about a new curiosity about the identity of the real woman behind the books, Ferrante is not worried. "This is an old concern of the media that, since it leaves readers indifferent in substance, it is likely diminishing,” she says. “Those who read my books read them, now more than ever, knowing that my physiognomy is entrusted in my writing. It is a pact sanctioned 27 years ago and I do not intend to violate it."

Ferrante is currently working a new project, but she can't say yet whether there is a novel in it. “I always write, it's my way of deceiving time,” she says. “It is difficult to understand if what I write is to be published. Anyway, I have never felt the urgency to publish my work."