The simplest way to explain the value of books, as I put it to the high school freshman I once mentored, is that they let you peek inside other people's heads. A good book is a stethoscope for emotions, motivations and personal histories. It generates empathy for characters you'd otherwise judge.
Which is why some novels -- especially those loaded with interior monologues, winding and multitudinous -- make for really bad TV.
This isn’t to say that TV, especially in its current Golden Age, can’t capture nuance. Satires like Inherent Vice, social novels like War and Peace, and gothic horror stories like The Shining all lend themselves to enjoyable on-screen treatments. These books make for successful shows and movies because they’re dialogue-driven and very visual -- we don’t lose anything by nixing the narrator’s unique perspective.
Straightforward, colloquial narration can do well on screen too, as we saw last year with Room, and as we continue to see with twee, cheeky voiceovers in Wes Anderson flicks and slapstick Westerns. These narrators describe surreal events to viewers, gracing absurdities with a touch of humor. Their commentary ensures that the meaning behind the story doesn’t get lost in translation.
This is because on-screen nuance is usually found in things that can be seen or articulated, whereas slipperier subjects -- the passing of time, the tug of nostalgia we feel for listless teenage summers past, the love-hate cocktail we share with our closest friends -- are usually rendered more successfully on pages that can be savored, and paragraphs that can be read and reread.
By this measure, Elena Ferrante’s wildly popular Neapolitan novels might be the worst possible candidates for thoughtful TV adaptation -- and yet, that hasn’t stopped producers from trying.
On Thursday, The Guardian reported that Italian production company Wildside is embarking on a four-season endeavor with Fandango to bring the stories -- which center on the lifespan of a decades-long relationship between two women in crime-torn Naples -- to viewers in Italy and beyond.
We don’t know much about the series, but we do know that Fandango will likely partner with international distributors to bring the very Italian story (much of the tension results in the narrator’s warring desires to speak in dialect or “proper” Italian, for example) to audiences in other countries. Hopefully, this choice doesn’t allow the series to fall into the unfortunate tendency American filmmakers have to fetishize the feistiness of Italian women, as Ferrante’s writing did so much to undo these stereotypes.
Another trope the series will hopefully avoid: warping Ferrante’s empathetic “villains,” reluctantly violent men who assert their power in hateful, discriminatory ways, into stock mafia characters. The Guardian discusses this possibility in its coverage of the news, writing, “While mafia shows are much more common for the small screen, the story of a female friendship, especially one as intimately rendered as the one central to Ferrante’s novels, is a bit of an oddity.”
If the show does choose to focus on the central friendship that serves as the series’ glowing life force, it’s hard to imagine that any amount of narration will do it justice. Much of the Neapolitan novels’ strength lies in its expert pacing; to reflect on the stories is like reflecting on actual, experienced memories. So, on the page, Elena and Lila’s phases of closeness and estrangement don’t come off as situational grudges, but complicated, decades-long hang-ups. While portraying that sort of nuance on screen isn’t impossible, it’d be difficult to pull off. Still, this fan anxiously awaits further news.
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