Many an author has experienced the journey of being adapted for the big or small screen as one of uncomfortable accommodation — the soul-draining attempt to fit the square peg of a carefully constructed novel into the round hole of a two-hour feature, or the round peg of a book into the gaping space of an ongoing TV series.
One of the pleasures of the global entertainment industry’s recent embrace of Elena Ferrante has been watching writers and directors attempt to meet the pseudonymous author’s work on its own terms.
The Lying Life of Adults
The Bottom Line
No ‘My Brilliant Friend,’ but still good.
If the Neapolitan Novels required four full seasons of episodes packed to bursting at an hour apiece? Well, that’s what HBO has given My Brilliant Friend, which is heading into its last season as one of the best shows on television. If the story of The Lost Daughter required only 121 minutes to make its point as an emotionally rich psychological thriller-of-sorts? Well, writer-director Maggie Gyllenhaal found the right 121 minutes in its Oscar-nominated film incarnation.
There’s a sense at the moment that if you give an Elena Ferrante novel the proper space, you’ll get a nuanced exploration of female identity — more specifically the societal construction of female identity, with its attendant expectations and responsibilities — with underpinnings of Italian history, culture and geography that are as layered as the knowledge and interest you bring to it.
Edoardo De Angelis’ take on Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults offers a third format, this one a six-episode Netflix limited series, and it may be the least precisely tailored. The meandering and sometimes dreamy adaptation barely has enough plot and scale for a feature, yet its looseness allows for digressions that are sometimes provocative and just as frequently attractive wallpaper. The Lying Life of Adults isn’t an uncompromising success on the level of My Brilliant Friend, where I could wallow in its world for twice the length of each season (even as I appreciate the clarity of its storytelling), but it’s filled with moments of vibrant life and painful, recognizable truth.
Set in Naples in the ’90s, The Lying Life of Adults is primarily the coming-of-age story of Giovanna (Giordana Marengo), teenage daughter of progressive, upper-middle-class intellectuals Andrea (Alessandro Preziosi) and Nella (Pina Turco). Giovanna is on the cusp of something, but she isn’t quite sure what. She’s sexually inexperienced, ideologically underdeveloped and generally adrift, unquestionably living the life her parents set out for her. Giovanna’s uncertainty begins to manifest itself in failing grades, and one day she overhears her father declare, “She’s starting to look like my sister.” Taken aback, her mother worries, “What are you saying? She’s a monster!”
In an interpretation of pubescent myopia, Giovanna assumes her parents are speaking literally of her appearance, which is ridiculous because she has Timothée Chalamet’s bone structure. But Giovanna doesn’t know her aunt. Every picture of her father that includes Vittoria (Valeria Golino) has her face obliterated, the source of the estrangement a mystery.
Even though they reassure her that they’re speaking of metaphorical ugliness — and somehow this reassures her — Giovanna convinces her parents to let her leave the comfort of the Vomero, a suburban district high in the hills above Naples, and go to meet Vittoria in an industrial pocket of the city. Vittoria is everything that her parents are not and Giovanna can’t help but be taken aback and entranced by a woman who smokes like a chimney, speaks bluntly about her erotic escapades and yet is devoutly religious. Vittoria has nothing, but seems filled with life. Giovanna’s parents have everything, but exist in a soulless bubble. Vittoria says Andrea’s life is a lie. Andrea says Vittoria’s life is a lie. And, wouldn’t you know it, they’re both right, but Giovanna has to figure that out for herself, making one mistake after another along the way.
The most remarkable thing about My Brilliant Friend is the way that Lenu and Lila keep being pushed from one archetypal extreme to another — from Madonna to whore, from radical to reactionary, from salt-of-the-earth poverty to pampered comfort — and yet every shift and transformation is believable as an extension of their choices.
Similar binaries and similar extremes and similar choices are at the heart of The Lying Life of Adults, which is built around the potent visual theme of Naples’ varied topography. “High” and “low” apply to elevation, to spirituality, to culture. Giovanna exists literally and figuratively on a steep incline, her home within sight of a bridge that appears to go nowhere. The story is told mostly from her heightened perspective, which De Angelis captures with aesthetic flourishes that aren’t always consistent — in one sequence, time moves backwards; in another, Giovanna has a flashback in which she plays the younger version of Vittoria — but at least consistently remind you that Giovanna isn’t a reliable experiencer of her own life, much less interpreter of things around her.
Giovanna is often infuriating, but so is everybody else in The Lying Life of Adults, so don’t look for easy conclusions when the series plunges her into debates about Catholicism or Marxism. It’s a tapestry of “-isms,” and as much as Giovanna wants the binaries to make sense — for wealth to align with happiness, for carnality to align with knowledge, for intellect to align with understanding — that’s a girl’s desire, and she has to learn that adult life involves a lot of lying. And even more talking about lying. Oh God. So much talking about lying liars who lie and the lying reasons for their lies. I had more than a few, “Yes, I get it” moments.
Marengo’s unformed performance is a perfect match for her unformed character; she has the poise and posture of a runway model one scene and retreats within herself entirely in the next. Marengo is placid so that Golino — whose career has often been a tantalizing puzzle since that small ’80s and ’90s window in which Hollywood declared her an “It” girl — can be mercurial. She’s withdrawn so that Preziosi and Turco can embody corrosive bourgeois pomposity. She’s repressed so that anybody with an active libido can seem threatening and disreputable.
It’s a very fine cast around Marengo. Golino makes Vittoria simultaneously earthy and uncontrollable, a wounded force of nature. Turco captures the essence of a woman who’s glamorous on the surface and gutted by the compromises she’s had to make. Maria Vera Ratti, Azzurra Mennella, Rossella Gamba and Giovanni Buselli all shine as Giovanna’s slightly more realized peers, each character aspirational for a young woman who is so committed to not wanting to be herself that she can’t recognize other people’s flaws.
Stretching across decades, My Brilliant Friend is a decisive series. Every plot point has to lead us to the next. The Lying Life of Adults is almost the opposite. I yearned frequently for more causality, for a better sense of the passage of time and the consequences of all of those bad choices. I yearned for it, but I understood that wasn’t what the show wanted to be. It begins with an unformed young woman and six episodes later, it practically laughs at the idea that Giovanna could emerge from this experience as any singular thing. So if The Lying Life of Adults could stand to be tighter or more streamlined, maybe so can life and you just have to enjoy the Neapolitan vistas in the interim.