Socialist prestige TV is here. Yes, consciousness can be raised through any medium, including one that costs over $100* a month, like premium cable. Bit by bit, anti-capitalist sentiments have been worming their way into the most vital cultural product of our era, from Samin Nosrat’s Netflix cooking show “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” to, most recently, HBO’s new series adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, “My Brilliant Friend.”
The series, like the first novel in Ferrante’s quartet, is told by Elena “Lenù” Greco, an older woman reflecting on her girlhood in a working-class neighborhood in 1950s Naples. In her retelling, little Lenù befriends Raffaela “Lila” Cerullo, the daughter of a cobbler and the cleverest girl in her class. Lenù, also a top student, is impressed by her rival’s brains, but by also her rebellious spirit and courage; early on, Lila shows little patience for bullies or social norms. The two become inseparable as children and cling to a fraught but profound friendship even as, through adolescence and young adulthood, their paths diverge: Lenù continues her education and grows more detached from the mundane violence of their neighborhood. Lila is forced to give up formal schooling and becomes immersed in attempts to better her condition, both through socialist ideology and schemes to design and sell superior shoes from her father’s shop.
If Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels had been published under a man’s name, if they had featured a friendship between two poor but clever boys from Naples or perhaps if they’d come to the U.S. just a few years later, conversations about the quartet would have begun with its keen-eyed explorations of Italian politics ― specifically, socialist organizing. It’s a central, inescapable concern of the series. In a Jacobin article this April, Dawn Tefft praised Ferrante as “the organizer’s organizer.” The later books, set amid the political upheaval of Italy in the 1970s, dwell upon the logistics of organizing factory workers, the roles of the privileged and oppressed in activist spaces, the urgency and crushing impossibility of revolution.
Instead, Ferrante’s blockbuster series came to American shores amid a pop feminist enthusiasm for female friendship ― girl squads, BFFs, even the fragile, perilous joys of a frenemyship like that of narrator Lenù and her “brilliant friend” Lila. In the mainstream, feminism was ascendant and somehow entangled with capitalism, an egalitarian movement that manifested in reverence for leaning in, girl bosses and millennial pink merch emblazoned with pro-woman slogans. The socialist concerns of the novels, to many, appeared more as historical detail than a theme with contemporary significance.
The context has changed. Socialism, as my colleague Zach Carter put it recently, is good now, and that means the economic politics of the books no longer register as historical backdrop but as open questions. “My Brilliant Friend” is coming to HBO at a moment when America is newly ready to see its socialist themes ― and Saverio Costanzo’s adaptation of the novel, coproduced by HBO and Italian network RAI, doesn’t hide them.
Translating a novel to the screen, especially one as meditative as My Brilliant Friend, is a process bedeviled by the shifting ratios of interiority and exteriority. If a character’s perception and anxiety and contemplation fill up the pages of the book, meaningful gazes might be all the action that makes its way on screen. We do, indeed, often see Lenù, the audience surrogate portrayed by Elisa Del Genio and later Margherita Mazzucco, lost in silent thought, staring mournfully or even blankly. Her occasional voice-over narration fills in certain gaps, clarifies her bittersweet adoration for Lila (Ludovica Nasti and Gaia Girace) and her intellectual insecurities. But inevitably, the clamor of Lenù’s lifelong obsession with her friend fades on camera. What can be more easily heard, in this relative hush, are the political conversations that Ferrante was already having in My Brilliant Friend.
Take, for example, the violent thrall in which the neighborhood is held by Don Achille Caracci, and later by the Solara family. The menace of these wealthy men is deeply woven into the novels, but on-screen the screams of terror that accompany street brawls and enforcement beatings are more jarring than they are when mediated by Lenù’s pensive, even narration. These men control capital, and therefore they are able to both continue to accumulate more wealth and operate with near impunity in a mostly impoverished neighborhood. As the series opens, carpenter Alfredo Peluso has lost his business because of predatory loans from Don Achille; he’s left ruined and bitter, with nowhere to turn. The Solaras, who operate the only bar in town, offer him a job and scheme to loosen Don Achille’s grip on the neighborhood. But nothing else changes when power switches hands, except which men everyone else must fear.
We may balk at seeing the economy of post-war Italy, which operated under quite different conditions, as an object lesson in the failings of capitalism for Americans today. But the way capital works in the neighborhood’s marketplaces should look familiar in many ways. Those who have money are able to invest in schemes to get more of it; those who don’t have money struggle simply to stay out of debt. Those who have money commit crimes without facing consequences; those without money have little choice but to stay silent.
Education offers an escape to Lenù and Lila, who are (Lila in particular) uncommonly bright. Their teacher, Maestra Oliviero, quickly observes how much potential they have and presses their parents to allow them to continue to middle school when most of their peers will end their education to start working or helping their mothers with housework. But, we’re bluntly reminded, if education is an opportunity to rise out of the working class, that means it is also a mechanism for maintaining a stratified society. Maestra Oliviero wants to pull Lila and Lenù out of the suffocating muck of their poor neighborhood, but when Lila is forced to give up on formal schooling in episode two, “Money,” the teacher dismisses her former pupil in cruelly classist terms.
“Elena, do you know what the plebs are?” she asks. “The plebs are quite a nasty thing. And if someone wishes to remain a plebeian, he, his children, and the children of his children deserve nothing. Listen to me carefully: Forget Cerullo, and think of yourself.”
Her attentive care to these girls, one realizes with the force of a slap, comes from the stock she puts in the marketplace value of a sharp mind. Those who lack obvious promise for more lucrative, educated work do not merit concern. Even Lila’s boundless curiosity, her autodidactic habits and her creative gifts earn no consideration from her teacher unless they are funneled through the traditional education system toward middle-class success. Maestra Oliviero’s dismissal, in fact, comes in response to Lenù’s presenting her with a beautiful little book, “The Blue Fairy,” that Lila wrote and illustrated.
The disdain toward the lower classes, and anxious attachment to the current social order, is not universal in the girls’ neighborhood. The ruined carpenter Alfredo Peluso and his son Pasquale, a friend of Lila’s and Lenù’s, are rumored to be Communists and are accordingly treated as dangerous. When Pasquale pays some ambiguously romantic attention to Lenù at a library event, both her parents and Maestra Oliviero sharply insist that she not associate with him. Lila, who refuses to be resigned to the exploitative rule of Don Achille or the Solaras, is intrigued by Pasquale’s politics. After they leave a dance party where the Solara men threw their weight around and stole a dance with Lila, Pasquale issues a trembling rant to his friends about how the wealthy family ran a black market in their bar, and how they “gathered votes for monarchists and fascists.”
“People talk and don’t know anything. You know a lot of things,” Lila tells him plainly. “Explain it to me. What are monarchists? And fascists? And what’s the black market?”
“Certain people made money from people’s hunger during the war,” he responds. “They sold bread, pasta, coffee, at exorbitant prices. People were forced to buy them to survive. Everything you see, the houses, the cars, the buildings, they bought it all by fleecing from someone else.”
It’s an unusually didactic moment for a TV show ― a mini-seminar on the evils of price-gouging, a first step toward radicalization ― and while it’s fairly faithfully rendered from the book, it’s no longer delivered through murky layers of Lenù’s recollection and interpretation.
In the book, for example, the scene concludes with Lila’s questions. When Lenù continues her narration, she is filled with uncertainty and preoccupied with her own past and present emotions surrounding the event: “[O]n me, at the time,” she recalls, Pasquale’s answers “had no concrete effect. But [Lila], in her usual way, was so moved and altered by them, so that for the entire summer she tormented me with a single concept that I found quite unbearable.” The reader experiences this moment as an impressionistic portrayal of political awakening.
But in the show, the viewer experiences Pasquale’s speech as directly as Lila does, as a transfer of knowledge and a call to arms. At moments like this, the adaptation errs on the side of bluntness, leaving no doubt of its socialist interests. These should only become more explicit in possible future seasons, as Ferrante’s later books dive into the nuts and bolts of labor organizing and left-wing activism, as well as the cumulative traumas inflicted by class-based and gendered oppression.
As the sort of Americans who pay for premium cable have begun to slowly bestir themselves to the possibilities of socialism, “My Brilliant Friend” may be exactly the show they need to see: one that traces a political awakening that must necessarily be followed by hard, heartbreaking work.
*Or as little as $14.99 a month plus the cost of your Internet connection through HBO Go — a steal.