Elena Ferrante and the “My Brilliant Friend” Adaptation for HBO

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JULY 25: Gaia Girace and Margherita Mazzucco of 'My Brilliant Friend' speak onstage during the HBO portion of the Summer 2018 TCA Press Tour at The Beverly Hilton Hotelon July 25, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

For the New York Times Magazine, Merve Emre writes about the pseudonymous Italian novelist Elena Ferrante in advance of an eight-episode HBO adaptation of the first novel of the Neopolitan series, My Brilliant Friend. 

Emre discusses the creation of the series with director Saverio Constanzo, who relied on Ferrante’s copious notes throughout production to bring the story of Lila and Lenù to the screen. To dive deeper into the ethos of the world the two collaborators created, Emre also interviewed the elusive Ferrante, with mixed results:

I tried again with a question, only this time my tone was less sentimental, more acerbic. I observed that contemporary writing on motherhood has an irritating tendency to treat children as psychological impediments to creativity — as if a child must steal not only time and energy from his mother but also language and thought. But her novels are different: They entertain the possibility that motherhood might be an experience conducive to creativity, even when it is tiring or onerous. For a short time, Lila transforms motherhood into an act of grace, and though she finds her children burdensome, Lenù’s greatest professional success comes after she becomes a mother. What did she take to be the relationship between time spent taking care of words and time spent taking care of children?

She was more receptive, if a little scolding. “I very much like the way you’ve formulated the question,” she wrote. “But I want to say that it’s not right to speak of motherhood in general. The troubles of the poor mother are different from those of the well-off mother, who can pay another woman to help her. But whether the mother is rich or poor, if there is a real, powerful creative urge, the care of children, however much it absorbs and at times even consumes us, doesn’t win out over the care of words: One finds the time for both. Or at least that was my experience: I found the time when I was a terrified mother, without any support, and also when I was a well-off mother. So I will take the liberty of asserting that women should in no case give up the power of reproduction in the name of production.”

There was something different about the style of this answer. The “I” she wielded seemed more present, the defenseless voice of the writer behind the author. I asked her to say more about being a terrified mother. What, I asked, was the nature of that terror for her?

She retreated, adopting the impersonal tone of the commentator once again. “I’m afraid of mothers who sacrifice their lives to their children,” she wrote. “I’m afraid of mothers who surrender themselves completely and live for their children, who hide the difficulties of motherhood and pretend even to themselves to be perfect mothers.” It is tempting to rewrite these statements to reclaim the immediacy of her “I”: “I was afraid of sacrificing my life to my children; I was afraid of surrendering myself completely.” But nothing authorizes it. It may not even be the right interpretation; she may really be talking about her fear of other mothers. Why do I want to make it about her? To do so would be to traffic in fiction. But the traffic in fiction is pleasurable. It prompts me to study her language carefully, to appreciate anew the words she has chosen, the phrases she repeats, how easily she moves between sentences. It prompts me to rewrite her words to project fears I may or may not have onto the figure of the author — the character she and I are sustaining. It lets me speak without speaking for myself.

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