As I’ve noted more than once, I was a latecomer to The Handmaid’s Tale when it came to Hulu. I was not interested. I understood why the novel was popular but I always considered it the most pasty, two-dimensional and politically irritating of Margaret Atwood’s many admirable literary works; I might never have seen it at all if I had a different job. To my surprise, and despite its significant flaws, I loved the show. I can quibble about any number of narrative choices, but artistically I think it’s absolutely top-drawer—and, interestingly, considering it uses the novel as a springboard more than a template, I consider it an unusually high-fidelity adaptation. Even in its second season, which begins after the novel ends and takes off into pure speculation, Bruce Miller and his strikingly talented ensemble cast wring full-fledged contemporary characters from the Pilgrim’s Progress-style cardboard cutouts that populated the book. The book had a legitimate and coherent style, to be sure, but it would not have made good television had it been replicated precisely “by the book.” Some of Atwood’s hallmark stylistic traits—extreme interiority; contemplative stillness; a cool, painterly prose sensibility—would have failed in a medium that places a high value on action and chemistry.
Now, HBO has brought an adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s lauded novel My Brilliant Friend to the screen. And there’s a funny little metaphor lurking in, of all places, the subtitles. The subtitles are in English. The original novel is written in Italian. But the characters speak Neapolitan, an Italian-oid language that’s largely (though not completely) mutually comprehensible with Italian and also has roots in Greek and an extinct language called Oscan. Why is this funny, or metaphorical, or remotely relevant? Well, language is everything in this book, and I mean both Ferrante’s stunning prose and the fact that within the story, languages are plot devices, character designators, and shorthand for very important threads of class and education and mobility, without which there’s relatively little story. The two main characters, Elena Greco (Margherita Mazzucco in childhood; Elisa Del Genio as a teenager) and Lila Cerullo (Ludovica Nasti and Gaia Girace) are bright young girls with an intense friendship based largely on competition, specifically academic competition and the acquisition of languages. Whether characters in the book speak “proper” Italian or Neapolitan is a marker of belonging, a political statement, an implied story about the character’s position in an often brutal and violent hierarchy. So much of this is both figuratively and literally lost in translation when you lift the story out of its native medium that it might be an especially burnished example of a novel that cannot be rendered faithfully and well at the same time.
To be clear: HBO’s adaptation is an exceedingly faithful one. If you’ve read the novel, you will recognize it instantly. You’ll be stunned at the high-precision rendering of life in a small working-class village on the edge of Naples in the 1950s, at the dead-on portrayals (looks, affect, dialogue) of the principal characters, at the pure Ferrante pensiveness and existential stress and seismic tension. And that is exactly why it doesn’t stick the landing. Much of the novel’s magic is in the thoughtful, philosophical interior voice of Elena Greco, the first person narrator recalling the events of the story. That’s fundamental to novels, but pretty much the only way to render it on screen is via voiceover, and in that format it is almost always clunky, ponderous and overcompensating. In this case I wouldn’t go all the way to “ponderous” but it is a noticeable compensatory maneuver.
Also fundamental to novels is a certain flexibility with regard to the passage of time. In television, when you’re jumping forward several years from season to season (in this case, episode to episode; in the first hour we start with Greco as an older woman and flash back to a story that begins when she’s maybe six; by the seventh episode she’s a young woman), you generally have to handle it by swapping actors to play the characters at different ages. In a program like, say, The Crown, this works because the focus is on a small handful of clear-cut (and very famous) characters. In My Brilliant Friend, by contrast, there is a chaotic jumble of peripheral characters from a number of large extended families, and even in the novel it takes a while to get used to which ones are on which side of various neighborhood conflicts. In the TV series, it’s nearly impossible. Someone who had not read the book would probably be hosed; even people who did read it might have a hard time following the child, teen and adult versions of the Peluso, Sarratore, Solara, Carracci and Cappuccio dynasties, all the members of which also have a wide range of nicknames, in case you were in danger of following along—and you need to, because these form much of the framework of the plot.
To be slightly reductive for a second, what is common to both TV and the novel is storytelling. Where they diverge, obviously, is that on the page there is a more intense focus on language, and on screen there is a more intense focus on visual image. Ideally, good writing is a given, but in both formats there are plenty of works with shabby writing and a good core story that makes you forgive shabby writing, and in both formats there is such a thing as lapidary use of language but a frustrating thinness of story. Sometimes it’s hard to predict how adaptation-friendly a literary novel might be. I would have said The Handmaid’s Tale would be radioactive, so it’s a good thing Bruce Miller was in charge of it and I wasn’t. By contrast, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s oeuvre seems tailor-made for film adaptation, but there has never been a successful one as far as I’m concerned; he’s untranslatable. I tend to love adaptations of Jane Austen books even though I find the books themselves tiresome. (I confess I have the same relationship with Ishiguro; I will watch The Remains of the Day six times, but please don’t make me read it).
To a certain, perhaps quite large, extent, the unquantifiable difficulty of capturing the essence of a novel in a visual medium is probably a matter of the right marriage of text and filmmaker/showrunner. What Miller has done with The Handmaid’s Tale is an example: He makes Atwood’s novel hers by making it his (I’ll leave it to feminist theorists to unpack that one, but I stand by it); he was able to mind-meld with the text in a way that allowed him to use visual semaphores to get at its chilly, difficult heart, and to liberate himself from the particular constraints of her prose style to bring her characters to three-dimensional life. Would the same showrunner have been able to adapt Ferrante? I have no idea; in fact, I don’t even know how he’d do with another Atwood text. (Perhaps the director who could successfully contend with her novel Cat’s Eye, if such a person has ever existed, would have been the one to tackle the thematically similar My Brilliant Friend. I could imagine something interesting might have happened if Krystof Kieslowski had been here to try it, and I’m grateful it never occurred to, say, Peter Greenaway.) The right fusion of author and auteur can work in either a deeply faithful or literal rendering—Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange comes to mind—or one that might jettison some of the particulars in service to retaining its quintessence—we could talk about Spike Jonze and Adaptation. “Interiority” can cut multiple ways in novels, and it’s not as though it’s impossible to render in a visual medium. So that quality, shared by Atwood and Ferrante and many, many other novelists, isn’t the dealbreaker. Indeed, plenty of “adaptation-proof” writers do not have particularly intense interiority (I don’t think Fitzgerald does, do you?), so I’m not sure there’s a specific criterion for “unadaptable.” It’s pretty rare for stream-of-consciousness-based works of fiction to have a pulse on the screen. (Imagine a world where the MCU was replaced by a massive complex of high-budget screen renderings of James Joyce. Now, tell your therapist I said hi.) But since I’m fairly sure there are megatons of good adaptations of kind of crappy books, and no dearth of crappy adaptations of great books, and relatively few brilliant adaptations of stunning literary works, I’m inclined to think what trips up a screen adaptation is something about the role language itself plays in literary fiction.
I don’t think it’s a matter of snobbery to note that when people speak of “literary” versus “genre” fiction they’re basically talking about whether the writer’s primary loyalty is to a story format or to words. You can be “good” at either. Stephen King is a genre fiction writer, and a damned good one, whose works are adapted for screen very successfully. Michael Ondaatje is firmly on the literary end of the spectrum and The English Patient was a massive critical and commercial success as a film. There are no hard-and-fast rules. But a TV series or film hits thin ice fast when it takes on a source text that really turns on sentences more than plot points. You can be on thin ice, but your figure skating needs to be very precise and lithe and you have to have an instinct for where the cracks are going to open up under your weight. And even then you’re sometimes going to end up drenched and hypothermic. The old saw about a picture being worth a thousand words exists for a reason: There are opportunities in visual image that don’t really exist in written or spoken words. You can use film to create mosaics that narrative fiction couldn’t replicate if it tried, and there are human emotions—the big ones, largely—that exist beyond words and are much more easily approached by images. Grief. Terror. Ecstasy. These are states of human experience where words tend to evaporate, but images don’t. In those places, the screen has some advantages, and to hammer on about The Handmaid’s Tale for one more second, one of the series’ inarguably brilliant aspects is its agility in taking advantage of what an image can do that a line of dialogue cannot. One long, diagonally angled shot of a couple of rose petals fallen from a bouquet onto a glass table elegantly translates a lot of information that you could only give clumsily in words.
By the same token, there are things you can only do with words, and there are writers and books whose verbal architecture or acrobatics are so intrinsic to how their stories work that they probably just cannot be translated to the screen. (Apparently, on being approached about a film option for Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell’s response was something like, “Uh, are you sure?”) Nabokov’s lapidary, synesthetic prose style is as much a character in his books as any of the actual characters. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Virginia Woolf (with the exception of Orlando, which did work pretty well), David Foster Wallace, Jorge Luis Borges and James Joyce stand out as basically unadaptable authors, and I rather think Ferrante belongs on that list as well. In her case, language itself plays too key a role in the story. In the novel, there is dramatic tension involved in competing with a friend for mastery of Latin and Greek; there’s profound feeling in young girls in a male-dominated, working-class world being told they are not worthy of higher education because their fathers are too fragile to contend with the idea their children might have better lives than they have had. There’s nothing boring about spending chapter after chapter contemplating how to replicate the magic that has made Louisa May Alcott’s (constantly adapted) Little Women so successful so the two girls can make their fortunes by their pens. The anger that can erupt over simply speaking Italian instead of the local dialect makes sense on the page. It’s underwhelming on screen. For Ferrante’s characters, finding your vocabulary is finding your voice, your power, your identity. To get the full impact of that we have to sit with the actual words on the actual page.
That’s a bit dull on television. But not in the text itself: Ferrante pulled off the near impossible feat of concocting a quartet of novels that were as commercially successful as they have been critically aclaimed. Her evocative, honest, piercing observation of female friendship in the “Neapolitan novels” (of which My Brilliant Friend is the first) is amazing, and haunting, and beautiful. It’s also a coming-of-age story about language itself, about vernacular and “common tongues” and the remarkable transformative power of harnessing words, about how our languages define us as people, as communities, as tribes. Some of that is difficult to capture in the medium of television. And maybe the harder one tries to adhere to the source text, the deeper one sinks into the places a visual medium cannot reach.
My Brilliant Fried premieres Sunday, Nov. 18 at 9 p.m. on HBO.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.