It's a cut above almost every other recent TV show. But, Calum Henderson asks, is that enough?
Half way through the first episode of My Brilliant Friend, I paused it and ordered a copy of the book. First of all: yes, I am the last person in the world to discover the hugely popular Neapolitan Novels series by pseudonymous Italian literary sensation Elena Ferrante.
Secondly: what does this sudden overwhelming urge to read the books say about the quality of the TV adaptation?
Usually a book-to-screen adaptation can be separated into four tiers. At the bottom of the heap there are the ones so bad you decide not to bother with the book. Then there are the ones that are okay but you wish you'd read the book instead, whereas an adequate adaptation will make you feel like you no longer need to read the book. On rare occasions, an adaptation will be so good you want to read the book as well.
My Brilliant Friend – the first few episodes, at least – is a weird mix of tiers two and four. Brilliant, beautiful, a cut above just about every other recent TV series. On the other hand, you can't help the feeling there's so much you're missing out on by not consuming it in its original format.
It's not exactly an easy story to adapt, Ferrante's epic tale of the intense, complicated relationship between two lifelong frenemies, as told by one of them, Elena Greco, in an act of revenge upon the other, Lila Cerullo, who, now in her 60, has up and vanished without a trace. So much of the book's magic, and what struck a chord with readers when the first volume was published in 2012, is in the way she so vividly recalls specific feelings and senses. How are you supposed to film that?
This series, chronicling the girls' childhoods amid the stifling poverty and casual violence of post-war Naples, gets around it with plenty of voiceover narration. It mostly works fine and, importantly, it means the girls (played in the first two episodes by child actors discovered via one of those enormous nationwide talent searches you hear about) remain mostly-silent observers of the strange adult soap opera that constantly plays out around them.
Aside from straightening out some of the book's tangled chronology, the series stays devoutly faithful to the source material. The first episode introduces an intimidatingly large cast of neighbourhood families, each with a glorious surname – Sarratore, Caracci, Spagnuolo – and each with their own rich back story. The mad widow in love with her upstairs neighbour, or the terrible ogre Don Achille – everybody, everything is slightly dreamlike and larger than life, the way it always is with childhood memories.
Watching the TV series and reading the book at the same time, each taking turns to nudge a little bit ahead of the other, probably isn't the ideal way to consume either format. But both have their strengths and I find that each enhances, rather than detracts from, the other. For a TV adaptation, that has to be the ultimate praise.
• My Brilliant Friend is available for streaming via TVNZ OnDemand.