Working with one of the best-loved authors in the world on the TV adaptation of her intensely personal novels is not easy when you are banned from meeting her.
“It was like writing with a ghost,” says Saverio Costanzo, the director of the new, keenly awaited adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. The novel is the first of Ferrante’s four “Neapolitan” novels, which have drawn global acclaim, fuelling the guessing game over the identity of the Italian author, who writes under a pen name and clings fiercely to her privacy.
At least Costanzo got to swap emails with Ferrante — via her publisher of course — but he claims that left him none the wiser about her identity.
“I started off thinking she was a he, then I decided she was a she, then a we,” he says. “Then I decided I didn’t care.”
The Italian director is sitting at the counter of a café on a €6 million set in Caserta in Campania, where 14 blocks of a postwar Naples neighbourhood, the backdrop for My Brilliant Friend, have been faithfully recreated.
His job is to bring to the small screen one of the finest studies in female friendship, as Elena, the narrator, looks back on growing up in the neighbourhood with Lila, the incredibly smart, inscrutable, moody and proud companion she adores, emulates and resents.
The magnetism between the girls, which builds as the male testosterone of down-at-heel, early 1950s Naples swirls around them, drew fans from Zadie Smith to Hillary Clinton and pushed sales to more than ten million copies in 39 countries, while landing Ferrante on Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people.
“The two characters have become icons and I feel under great pressure doing this job, but there’s no fear — just excitement,” says Costanzo, who was handpicked by Ferrante to direct the eight-episode adaptation.