Culture, Italian writers, TV

My Brilliant Friend: when literature turns into successful tv

Last Updated on June 30, 2020 by Francesca Bezzone

My Brilliant Friend (L’Amica Geniale), the show based on the homonymous Elena Ferrante‘s first Neapolitan Novel (there are other three in the series) was a success of public and critics in the US in 2018, the year it was aired. The second season, based on the second novel of the tetralogy, My Brilliant Friend: the Story of a New Name aired on HBO last March, was just as successful, making of the My Brilliant Friend the most popular Italian TV series in the US and among the most popular overall. According to Parrot Analytics, the show is 6.2 times more popular than average.

It was created by Saverio Costanzo, renowned director of Italian cinema, famous especially for 2010 La Solitudine Dei Numeri Primi (The Solitude of Prime Numbers), also inspired by literature, namely by Paolo Giordano’s novel with the same name.

The series was co-produced by HBO, Rai and TIMvision, an Italian pay-per-view streaming service similar to Netflix, owned by the country’s main telephone and internet provider

Elena Ferrante: a great literary success

My Brilliant Friend‘s success comes as no surprise to the many devoted fans of Elena Ferrante. The Italian novelist found national and international fame thanks to the Neapolitan Novels series, but her literary carnet includes many more titles, the first of which, L’Amore Molesto (Troubling Love), dates back to 1992, a whole 19 years before her first international best seller, L’Amica Geniale, was published.

But Ferrante’s appeal doesn’t solely come from her literary skills. The author has been very secretive about her own identity, with many speculating hers is nothing more than a pen name.

In fact, so much is the curiosity around her figure that an entire book, La Frantumaglia (published in the US by Europa with the title Frantumaglia: a Writer’s Journey), has been dedicated to the little that is known about her life. The volume includes letters to her editors, others to selected fans and her few interviews. In this long, personal essay, the author tries to explain why she wants to keep her real identity and private life secret. Hint: there is no need to know details about the author to appreciate a good novel.

The year La Frantumaglia came out, 2016, could have been indeed that of her true identity’s revelation: a series of tweets signed with the name of author Anita Raja – one of the main “suspects” believed to be Elena Ferrante – sent the world of literature in a frenzy, only to be almost immediately denied by Raja herself: the tweets had come from a fake account.

And so, Elena’s mystery continues.

The Neapolitan Novels: Reason of their Success

As intriguing as her identity may be, it’s her writing that really made Ferrante famous. In the US, she is especially known for the Neapolitan Novels, on which the HBO series My Brilliant Friend – and the future three installments – is based. The novels are a four part coming-of-age story about two young Neapolitan girls, Elena (Lenù) Greco and Raffaella (Lila) Cerullo, who spent their adolescence in a popular neighborhood of 1950s’ Naples.

The novels sold more that 10 million copies around the world and the series was met with similar success: a great satisfaction for HBO and Rai, the two main names behind it. Casey Cloys, HBO programming president said “we’re thrilled that Elena Ferrante’s epic story has resonated so powerfully with viewers and critics, and we look forwards to the continuing journey of Elena and Lila.” Similar the words of Fabrizio Salini, CEO of Rai International, who highlighted his company is “extremely proud of the extraordinary success of My Brilliant Friend.

The reason behind the tetralogy’s success is a well balanced mix of style and narration, imbued in traditionally Italian atmospheres, those of post-World War Two Naples. The themes of friendship, of the way society can shape the lives and behavior of women, along with even more complex topics, such as female ambivalence towards maternity, are all tackled in the novels – and in their first TV adaptation.

My Brilliant Friend on stage

So much was the success of the Neapolitan Novels that they also became a theatre pièce with the same name. The adaptation, divided in two parts and lasting a hefty five and a half hour in total, opened at the Rose Theatre in Kingston, UK, in March 2017.

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