Saturday, September 1, 2018

I’m both looking forward to the upcoming HBO adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s, My Brilliant Friend and feeling some trepidation.

Elisa Del Genio, left, and Ludovica Nasti, photographed on set outside Naples, as Lenù and Lila, the young pair at the center of My Brilliant Friend, appearing on HBO in November. Photographed by Paolo Pellegrin for Magnum Photos, Vogue, September 2018

I’m both looking forward to the upcoming HBO adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s, My Brilliant Friend and feeling some trepidation. Previous adaptations of the Neapolitan novels —a radio play and a stage play—have received mixed reviews. In 2016 BBC Radio 4 aired an adaptation of the Neapolitan novels by prize-winning playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker. I managed to hear some of it when it was available on demand from BBC radio. As someone who has never listened to audio books, I was not the right candidate for a radio dramatization; I want to consume books the old-fashioned way. Also, I found the English accents disconcerting and agreed with Kate Chisholm’s review in The Spectator: “To me the background music was wrong in flavour, the child actors too English and stilted, the voices of Lena and Lila as grown-ups not distinctive enough. I wanted to be taken to the baking hot streets of Naples, but found myself rooted in London.”

However, Alex O’Connell, writing for The Times, had a different assessment: “Yet once you tune in to the accents ... the story possesses you. The precise dialogue, artful reduction and accomplished performances made me, a Ferrante addict, want to listen on and read the novels all over again.” O’Connell asked Wertenbaker why she had the characters speak in Manchester accents: “I definitely didn’t want them to be from London or the southeast—that would be like setting it in Florence or Milan. Liverpool was right, but too distinctive an accent and place. We wouldn’t have dreamt of them speaking with Italian accents.” So they settled on “around Manchester.” (The HBO series will not have the problem of inappropriate English accents. The characters will speak Neapolitan dialect and both English and Italian versions will be subtitled.)

The London stage production of the Neapolitan novels appears to have generated as much controversy as the BBC radio program. The commission for the first stage adaptation of the Neapolitan novels was not awarded to a major theatre, as might have been expected, but to the Rose Theatre. According to April De Angelis, the playwright who adapted the novels for the stage, the Rose Theatre in Kingston came to the project early, approaching Ferrante’s publishers before “Ferrante Fever” became an international phenomenon: “When pitching, I just said things that I thought were true, like it had to be an ensemble, that it had so many wonderful opportunities for community scenes.... I thought that the neighbourhood is just so exciting on stage—you can bring the courtyard to life. And then there was this relationship between two women so the history of post-war Italy and the history of feminism and of class is all put through this complicated, truthful relationship between two women. That’s really unusual ... it’s still not the norm to have one woman at the centre of a play, but to have two.”

In response to an interviewer’s question as to how the nearly 1,600 pages of the Neapolitan Quartet into could be compressed into just four acts over two evenings, the director of the Rose Theatre production, Melly Still, acknowledged the impossibility of doing so: “There’s this strange, wonderful experience, which I think is particular to reading. It becomes personal and consummate.” She thinks a television series could manage to convey the scope of the novel, but “theatre has a different role, somehow distilling the experience of reading. Of course you end up losing some of the characters who you’ve grown to know and love ... you exist in a distilled Ferrante world.” Even with the greater opportunities afforded by a television series, there will be scenes omitted and minor characters eliminated.

Audiences and reviewers are so often disappointed with adaptations of literary works. They bring their expectations based on their conception of the book, and mixed reviews are inevitable. The Daily Mail’s Patrick Marmion described the Rose Theatre production as a “wild goose chase in which the adapter, April De Angelis, demonstrates a tin ear for dialogue” and deplored the “cartoon characters and leaden dialogue.”35 Gary Naylor’s lukewarm review in Broadway World questions whether a theatrical adaptation of the Neapolitan novels is possible: “By covering the 66 years time span of the four novels in one theatrical gulp, too many complexities are lost in the need to compress the narrative.” The Guardian’s Susannah Clapp had a very different response: “Against the odds, adapter April De Angelis and director Melly Still have pulled off their dramatization in My Brilliant Friend. There are absences and some awkwardness, but the essence of the books—intensity—wins through.” The responses to the television series may be even more divided than those to the radio program and to the stage production, as the audience will no doubt be much larger and will probably include many who have not read the novels. The television series will in all likelihood increase sales of the novels; “Ferrante Fever” shows no signs of abating.

No comments:

Post a Comment