Since the early twenty-tens, Elena Ferrante’s work has had a sirenic effect on adult women who identify as complicated and brainy. “The Lying Life of Adults,” a new Netflix show, is the latest evidence of her lasting cultural impact. Starring Valeria Golino and Giordana Marengo, the series adapts Ferrante’s 2019 novel of the same name, about a teen-age girl, Giannì, who is caught between the elegant Naples of her parents and the grittier Naples symbolized by her estranged aunt, Vittoria. The Times reported that Ferrante herself was involved in writing the Netflix show, which joins two other cinematic translations of the pseudonymous Italian author. There is “The Lost Daughter,” from 2021, a witchy film directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal, and HBO’s “My Brilliant Friend,” which débuted in 2018 and is now in its third season. All three treatments are beautiful to look at, dotted with surreal touches, and self-consciously artificial, relying on devices like voice-over and flashback. None of them approximate the experience of reading Ferrante.
What is it like to read Ferrante? On the page, she is a singular phenomenon, almost claustrophobically inward and intense. Her novels unfold in the first person and, in M.F.A. parlance, they “tell” rather than “show,” constructing a tissue of thoughts, memories, and fantasies. Here is Giannì, the narrator of “The Lying Life of Adults,” spiralling during a dinner party:
Maybe my parents weren’t having fun like Angela and Ida’s because I had made them sad. Their friends were happy with their daughters, while they were no longer happy with me. I was grim, grim, grim, and just seeing me there at the table kept them from feeling happy. How serious my mother was and how pretty and happy Angela and Ida’s mother . . .
Onscreen, none of this inner tumult is visible; all we see is Giannì (Marengo) looking sulky while eating pasta. It’s a lovely contrast—the book understands how active our mental lives can be when we seem as though we’re just consuming food.
And here is Leda, the narrator of “The Lost Daughter,” walking in the woods, each new sense perception unblocking a cataract of reverie:
That scent [resin] was the scent of vacation, of the summer games of childhood. The squeak or thud of a dry pinecone, the dark color of pine nuts reminds me of my mother’s mouth: she laughs as she crushes the shells, takes out the yellow fruit, gives it to my sisters, noisy and demanding, or to me, waiting in silent expectation, or eats it herself, staining her lips with dark powder and saying, to teach me not to be so timid: go on, none for you, you’re worse than a green pinecone.
Onscreen, the passage becomes Olivia Colman wandering through foliage, wearing a dreamy expression.
In Ferrante’s books—translated into English by Ann Goldstein—reality always appears through a narrator’s warping and heightening account. Details absorb a jumpy vitality they wouldn’t otherwise have; objects and people seem enchanted, or cursed. This is one source of the works’ oft-cited “fairy-tale quality”—a character’s subjective descriptions, which verge on the hallucinogenic, create the impression of an uncannily mutable physical world. In “The Lying Life of Adults,” Giannì imagines her poorer relatives as “howling shapes of repulsive unseemliness,” with Aunt Vittoria “a lean, demonic silhouette, an unkempt figure lurking in the corners of houses when darkness falls.” In the Neapolitan Quartet, in Lila’s letters to Lenù, beauty routines—“a new hairstyle, a new dress, a new way of making up her eyes or her mouth”—become darkly freighted: “a solution, otherwise, everything, one thing after another, will break, everything, everything.”
It may be worth underscoring a somewhat obvious point: the distortion that Ferrante’s narrators apply to the world inheres in the words they choose. Reviewing “My Brilliant Friend” ’s first season, Emily Nussbaum noted that the novels, with their “eerie meta quality” and “self-conscious textuality,” conveyed a “fluid, ticklish bookishness, that sense of a voice in our ear.” I’d argue that Ferrante ties this air of writerliness to fantasy and disruption, on one hand, and on the other to characters’ attempts to control the unknown. Her heroines—bright, verbal, studious, many of them writers—are often struggling to make sense of a menace that they only partially understand. (This tends to be some mix of male aggression, latent political violence, and social constructions of womanhood.) Artfully dishevelled sentences, full of run-ons and barely repressed rage, are bids for mastery. Words supercharge reality, rendering it scary or strange, but they also contain it. Like Lila’s new hair style, perhaps, the right words keep everything from breaking.
Ferrante’s protagonists lead difficult lives—I’ve written before that the phrase “I suffered” serves as a refrain in the Quartet—and difficulty is a constituent fact of the novels themselves. Characters drift through obscure mental states, uttering abstract and sometimes paradoxical pronouncements. (“Would she always do the things I was supposed to do, before and better than me?” Lenù asks of Lila. “She eluded me when I followed her and and meanwhile stayed on my heels in order to pass me by?”) The books, with their spontaneously combusting photographs and mercurial loved ones, themselves seem to have been built out of some unstable element. Crones erupt from the bodies of children. Ninas and Ginos and Ninos and Elenas, each with slippery intentions and a convoluted family history, proliferate. Characters behave inconsistently—there is little “characterization” in Ferrante, only personality as a jumble of unharmonized fragments. “I slipped away,” announces Giannì in “Lying Life,” “within these lines that are intended to give me a story, while in fact I am nothing, nothing of my own, nothing that has really begun or really been brought to completion: only a tangled knot, and nobody, not even the one who at this moment is writing, knows if it contains the right thread for a story or is merely a snarled confusion of suffering, without redemption.” There is, too, the emotional challenge of immersing oneself in so much passion and conflict, in poverty, domestic violence, rape, mothers provoked to hatred of their children, and friends driven to betray one another. These attributes of Ferrante’s work—heightened difficulty and heightened intensity—produce a rapt engagement, so urgent it can feel like hypnosis.
How do the film and television versions of the novels translate their sense of difficulty? The answer is that they mostly don’t. Watching the three adaptations, I felt that I was meeting with an almost suspicious lack of resistance. The vibe was lush and inviting. Sun glittered on water, flesh squelched—the sensory world seemed impossibly present. In “My Brilliant Friend,” the sight of Lenù sinking beneath the rim of Lila’s fancy bathtub was nearly painful in its immediacy. In “The Lost Daughter,” a bowl of overripe fruit induced cognitive overload and seemed fake at the same time; a punk-rock concert in “Lying Lives” was so noisily unmediated that I felt a little buzzed. Behind the shock lay lethargy. (Giannì has an analogous experience when she discovers how to touch her own body—“numbing myself with pleasure.”) Footage of gorgeous actors moping and skulking in a soft Mediterranean dusk does not, it turns out, administer the itchy, thwarted stimulation that one expects from Ferrante. I kept waiting for my usual agitated absorption—what Sarah Chihaya, analyzing the Neapolitan novels, has called “unpleasure”—to set in. But the onscreen Ferrante is frictionless.
Gyllenhaal’s “Lost Daughter” movie, the adaptation that most resembles its source material, goes to strenuous lengths to preserve the books’ more challenging aspects. The film captures the warts-and-all feminism that Ferrante, with her attention to women’s ambition, fury, and rivalry, has helped bring into the mainstream. A divorced, middle-aged professor, her children grown, is vacationing on a remote island. She luxuriates in her independence. (“I felt miraculously unfettered, as if a difficult job, finally brought to completion, no longer weighed me down,” she reflects in the novel.) But the tranquility is fleeting; a rowdy family interrupts her solitude. The professor, Leda, fixates on a young mother, Nina, with a melancholic daughter, Elena. For reasons that mystify even her, she ends up stealing the child’s doll.
That doll is a wonderfully Ferrante-ian symbol, swarming with possible meanings. And one of the satisfactions of Gyllenhaal’s film is the way it leaves interpretation open. The viewing experience, though, is a bit too ambiguous. In the book, after Leda snatches the doll, she offers up a flood of contradictory explanations. Maybe she felt sorry for the toy, abandoned in the sand; maybe she was testing her capacity for cruelty. Elsewhere, she expresses envy of Nina, frustration with Elena, and nostalgia for her own years raising young children. The movie relegates all this—pages of nuanced psychic data—to imagery and atmosphere. As if straining to recoup the novel’s difficulty, Gyllenhaal cultivates indeterminacy—a form of faux-difficulty, too little mind instead of too much. She dispenses with voice-overs, skimming over motivations and placing the burden of exposition on her star’s agile face. Rather than Leda’s cascading self-justifications and self-recriminations, we get Colman, her features unreadable, cradling a plaything in a well-composed shot whose caption might as well be “Complexity. Women. Literature!”
A good encapsulation of this opacity might be what I’ve started thinking of as the curious case of the missing scene. As Richard Brody argues in his review, Leda grabbing Elena’s toy is “The Lost Daughter” ’s primal trespass, a moment that should lie at the heart of any film treatment. But Gyllenhaal doesn’t visually represent it. Instead, she jumps to Colman opening her bag to retrieve the doll. This may be an attempt to reproduce the psychological miasma of Ferrante’s prose: in the book, Leda discovers that she “couldn’t recall the exact moment” of the theft. But it’s a needlessly obfuscating choice. Gyllenhaal, as lingering closeups of Colman’s face remind us, isn’t bound to Leda’s perspective, and the doll-napping is a central, decisive bit of action in a plot otherwise short on concrete incident. The film seeks to evoke a character’s essential mysteriousness, but it ends up telling a less precise story.
Happily, the Ferrante shows seem less attracted to murkiness as a proxy for the literary. “My Brilliant Friend” has highbrow aspirations, but it relies on its own medium’s affordances to express them. Wrought prose becomes cinematic motion: a rowdy sequence set at Lila’s wedding reminds you of the distance between the word “dance” and actual dancing. (The book renders the reception as queasy horror, but HBO inserts flashes of celebration.) And the mob scenes are better: to watch the Solara brothers cruise through a virtuosically grimy and detailed Naples is to understand both their shark-like glamour and the deprivation they feed on. For this viewer (who subscribes to the idea that TV should be at least a little escapist), Season 1 felt risk-averse and a smidge fussy, but the next two runs of episodes relax into Ferrante’s soapy plot.
“My Brilliant Friend” also benefits from not having an enigmatic rule-breaker as its P.O.V. character. Unlike “The Lost Daughter” ’s Leda, Lenù is a people-pleaser. Sensitive to norms and expectations, she rarely leaves us longing for a glimpse of her thought process in order to catch our bearings. (And, when all else fails, there’s the voice-over, a technique that Gyllenhaal might have dismissed as too gimmicky.)
Giannì, from “Lying Life,” strikes a balance between duty and nonconformity. She has a rebellious streak—one encouraged by her aunt—but she desperately craves her father’s approval. Like her wilder counterparts, Giannì makes plenty of malicious or self-sabotaging decisions. Yet she is a teen-ager trying on identities: one expects a certain degree of chaos. In fact, Giannì, both confused and entranced by a charismatic outsider, can seem like the quintessential Ferrante heroine. She is first mystified by another woman and only subsequently mystified by herself; before her own margins can dissolve, she needs to see how others break type. (Lenù, too, is drawn into self-knowledge and self-creation by Lila’s perplexing ways. And Leda unravels only after she starts spying on Nina.)
At its best, “Lying Life” is a ravishing study of the perspective shifts that come with growing older. “When you are little,” Giannì says, in a line that keeps looping back, “everything seems big. When you’re grown up, everything seems small.” But for all the beauty that the director, Edoardo De Angelis, wrings from this theme—in one of my favorite shots, Giannì’s mother yells out the window at the tiny figure of her breakdancing daughter—the show doesn’t simply explore a teen-age viewpoint. It inhabits a teen-age body, alive to music, sex, and fun. There is a bratty delight in watching Marengo’s Giannì, with her torn black clothes and screw-you haircut, ride around on a yellow moped. The soundtrack, which features songs by Édith Piaf and Massive Attack, pops. There are actual jokes, including a running gag with Giannì’s neighbor Nello, and the young cast captures the goofiness of adolescence alongside its hurts and indignities. None of this feels much like reading Ferrante’s novel. There, the story is told in retrospect, at a thoughtful remove and in Ferrante’s usual haunted language. But in not genuflecting to its source material, Netflix is being faithful to the spirit of the sixteen-year-old Giannì, who has a personality of her own. ♦