May 21, 2019

Elena Ferrante Stays Out of the Picture

“Saverio Costanzo, the 43-year-old director of the HBO limited series “My Brilliant Friend,” is a haunted man. For over a decade, he has corresponded with a woman whose face he cannot see, whose voice he cannot hear, whose existence is confirmed only by the many thousands of words she has written dissecting his artistic choices. When he speaks of her, his black eyes turn upward, as if seeking a trace of her in the cracks of the ceiling or in some metaphysical plane high above the penthouse suite of the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where Costanzo and the cast of “My Brilliant Friend” have arrived for HBO’s summer press tour. “Sometimes she was so strong,” he said, gruffly. “I don’t know. I’m still trying to put everything together. It’s very hard. It was like working with a ghost.”

Costanzo’s ghost has a name: Elena Ferrante, the pseudonymous author of the four beloved Neapolitan novels, of which “My Brilliant Friend” is the first to be adapted for television. (It will air on HBO on Nov. 18.) She initially appeared to Costanzo in 2007, when he wrote to her Italian publisher, Edizioni E/O, to purchase the film rights to Ferrante’s 2006 novella “The Lost Daughter.” He was drawn to Ferrante’s “very small, very accurate, very dangerous” novellas, this one about Leda, a middle-aged English professor seized by guilt and a sense of inadequacy over the onetime abandonment of her husband and children. While summering on the Ionian coast, Leda steals a little girl’s doll at the beach and watches as her mother tries, and fails, to contain the child’s rippling misery. Costanzo wanted to see if he could create a visual idiom to match Ferrante’s ability to make readers “uncomfortable.”

It seemed unlikely that Ferrante would agree. Costanzo thinks she might have been disappointed by the adaptations of her two previous novellas and that she wanted nothing more to do with what she has called “the world of show business, with its many moving parts and conspicuous cash flow.” He had already abandoned the idea when he received, through her publisher, an admiring message from Ferrante, issuing him a challenge. She was willing to cede him the rights to “The Lost Daughter” for six months, enough time for him to devise an adaptation that would please them both. For six months, Costanzo labored; for six months, “The Lost Daughter” resisted his intrusions, until finally he told her publisher he would renounce the rights. “I was just a kid,” he recalls.”

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