HBO Brings Bestseller ‘My Brilliant Friend’ to Life in Grand New Series

HBO’s adaptation of “My Brilliant Friend” has the power of evoked memories. It manages to fully conjure that feeling of recounting events from the past, both raw and painful, but also endearing. It is based on the bestselling Neapolitan novels quartet of Elena Ferrante. This first season covers the first book and the rest will be covered in the subsequent seasons. It is already obvious this will be one of the best, most absorbing of recent HBO productions. Ferrante’s characters are brought to vivid life, as well as the harsh and classist world they inhabit. This is great drama that ponders those eternal questions of fate and friendship.

In the present day an aged woman receives a call that an old friend has gone missing. This sets off her memories, traveling back to another era. It is 1950s Naples and Italian society is caught in that period following World War II when fierce traditionalism still rules many areas. In a town completely divided by class, two girls, Lenu (Elisa del Genio) and Lila (Ludovica Nasti), meet in the jungle that is school and become friends. Lenu is bright, but Lila clearly shows a superior intelligence early on, particularly in her reading and writing skills. But the world these girls grow up in is a harsh one where women are rarely allowed an education by the fierce, patriarchal system and the poorer you are, the lesser your chances for advancement become. Lording over the town is Don Achille (Antonio Pennarella), who is a prototype Mafioso. As the two girls grow amid the violence, both outside and domestic (fathers tend to beat their daughters into submission in this place), they both learn from each other. Lenu is cautious and minds her manners, Lila, who comes from a very poor home where her father refuses to allow her to advance in her studies, has a stronger character and independence. Lila isn’t afraid of facing down Don Achille or getting into rock throwing matches with the boys from school. She also starts writing stories and short novels that Lenu immediately recognizes as brilliant, but their teachers don’t. But as time passes the girls become young women. Lenu (now played by Margherita Mazzucco) graduates into middle and high school, while Lila (Gaia Girace) begins to work. Soon the men start casting eyes on the girls, proposals are made, more vendettas form and their odyssey, like life, gets more complicated.

“My Brilliant Friend” is directed by Saverio Costanzo who turns 1950s Naples into a fierce battleground of emotions. One of the series’ executive producers is the great Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, Oscar winner for “The Great Beauty,” who has recently found a home at HBO with his show “The Young Pope.” These are fantastic storytellers who never dilute Ferrante’s material. Lenu and Lila become our guides through a society that is sharply imagined as an old world slowly transitioning into the new. Poverty has rendered many helpless or ignorant, and for Lila to simply tell her parents she wants to go to middle school invites a savage beating. Even for Lenu attempting to do something other than work and get married seems bizarre to her working class father, who at one point is taunted by his wife for not having the heart to truly smack his daughter. Costanzo isn’t making some harsh judgment here. He is loyal to Ferrante’s approach, which is to remember a society as it was, with all of its terrible blemishes. In an early scene a man calls Don Achille a thug and crook and is promptly thrown against a wall for it. We get a true sense of the intricate and demanding social codes that abound in these people’s lives. Smaller narratives and details enrich the world of the show, almost like a darker version of Federico Fellini’s “Amarcord.” A woman falls for a married poet, and the girls watch from afar as the woman’s obsession consumes the whole neighborhood with clashes involving the man’s wife.

As with the books, this harsh terrain is a background for a beautiful story about friendship and its heartbreak. The early episodes have an evocative, almost dreamlike power as Lenu and Lila wander through the streets, enter a dark basement possibly run by Achille or walk in the rain after an aborted trip to the beach. Through the rich voiceover we realize Lenu began to gain a new strength from Lila and something else as well, her own voice as a writer. One of the most intriguing and challenging aspects of this story is the question of fate. Is our course determined by class and environment? Would Lila have found an easy path towards a literary career had she been raised in a better home? Lenu has more choices and therefore grows up to apparently live a more comfortable life. One of the endearing elements here is how Lenu and Lila form a genuine bond that transcends their backgrounds. Never does any of this feel cheesy, the writing and acting have the authenticity of what schoolyard life truly feels like. Lila is like one of those brilliant minds everyone around her notices, but alas, life has a tendency to not be fair. A local man is murdered and Lila describes the details to Lenu with gripping detail, shrugging that she simply pulls it out of her head.

“My Brilliant Friend” begins as a rich saga that promises to take us on an immense journey of growth. It focuses on two friends, but it’s really about how we are but travelers in this life, dealt certain cards, some of which we will stubbornly try to defy. It returns to an Italy from the past, evoking that powerful sense that every life being lived now began somewhere left behind.

My Brilliant Friend” season one premieres Nov. 18 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.