Essay: On watching The Lying Life of Adults
The Netflix series is possibly better than the Elena Ferrante novel on which it is based
A few years out of my melodramatic teenage years, I savoured Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend and all that it presented: two friends looking inwards, in each other’s company; women being indifferent to patriarchy, and a mother accepting a child’s hostile love. This was in 2014, when Ferrante was already a household name, and a favourite on my list of favourites that included Jhumpa Lahiri, Zadie Smith and Mona Simpson.
Come 2019 and with breathless anticipation, I picked the pseudonymous author’s new book, The Lying Life of Adults – a coming-of-age story set in 1990s Naples, Italy, where bold, beautiful and raucous Aunt Vittoria shows her niece another side of the city, upsetting her sleek parents. Sentences in the book were artfully unkempt like Aunt Vittoria’s hair; words turbocharged the characters, but also held them in. Now, riveting as the text was, I found the novel messy and often puerile (perhaps as a result of my own new state of anxiety-ridden motherhood), unexpectedly for a work by the much-admired Ferrante.
Last month, after a Sunday of ferrying children around and doing chores, I was just about to give up on doom-scrolling, when The Lying Life of Adults turned up on Netflix. I immediately pictured Ferrante’s words, which have echoed with a generation of adult women, being transformed into a series where individuals and settings seem enchanted, alive to music, sex, and fun. I rarely binge watch but I did it this once and I have to state that I can’t think of the last time I enjoyed a cinematic adaptation more than a book.
Ferrante has been adapted before in The Lost Daughter (2021) by Maggie Gyllenhaal and My Brilliant Friend, the critically-acclaimed show on HBO, currently in its third season. Neither had made it to my watch list for no particular reason. The Lying Life of Adults, my first cinematic Ferrante experience, has abundant flashes of beauty – “When you are little, everything seems big. When you’re grown up, everything seems small,” a line from the book loops back at crucial junctures in the series. It is accompanied by eerie, holographic camera work that haunts the viewer for days.
Giovanna, a 12-year-old, spent her early life being treated very affectionately by her Leftist intellectual father. But later, as she begins to underperform in school and has little interest in anything other than novels, she overhears him telling her mother, “She’s getting the face of Vittoria.” Giovanna pores over family albums to find this allegedly outrageous aunt Vittoria, who her parents passionately dislike. She assumes her father means that she, Giovanna, used to be pretty but is now ugly and this is an existential shock to her. She is filled with the sense of shame that often clouds the beginning of adulthood; that sense of having failed in your parents’ eyes. Eventually, the importance of prettiness becomes impossible for Giovanna to ignore.
On her insistence, her father drives her down, descending from her home atop the highest hill in Naples, to the impoverished neighbourhood of Pascone, where she meets Vittoria – full of life, hugs, cigarettes and flaws, unlike her polished parents.
Played majestically by Valeria Golino, Vittoria is recreated exactly as I pictured her in the book – messy curls, light eyes, wide hips that swing without a care, taking scissors to good-for-nothing men’s crotches, careless about money, and with a large heart. Giovanna, played by Giordana Marengo, a young actor who comes across as a rugged Keira Knightly, warms to Vittoria’s flaws instantly, relating to her less-than-perfect personality.
Giovanna learns that all the grown-ups in her life have been lying to her. She also realises that their lies seemed obvious but their art of lying varied significantly. Some relied on exaggeration, some on mystification and others simply omitted things. Growing up, she realises, is understanding the art of lying. Marengo, in all-black outfits and a screw-you haircut, is a pleasure to watch as she rides around on the second-hand yellow Vespa that her aunt gifts her. While her parents separate, she discovers dangerous territories with her old girl friends, adopting and discarding identities.
In the book, Giovanna’s self-awareness was stronger, but in the show, her relationships and body language with other members of the cast do justice to the single most important thing about Ferrante’s words – their power to invoke a multitude of images and uncomfortable feelings.
Director Edoardo De Angelis’s Naples is a melange of colours, textures and sounds evoking the vibe of Italy’s Communist Party. Class roles are stunningly textured, and contrasts are drawn between the lives of Giovanna’s parents with their large library in an apartment with wooden flooring that hosts champagne-laced leftist conversations and that of her aunt, who lives in a neighbourhood of small flats with ladies waxing each other’s legs in the patios.
Even as the dark plot of hurt and lies plays out, the director manages to keep the screenplay fun, goofy, and full of surprises. The best scene is the one where Giovanna, after meeting her aunt, skips school and dances on the roof opposite her home, while her mother watches in surprise from a window.
Departing from the book, the plot takes an unexpected twist towards the end. In an interview, Angelis stated that Ferrante approved of it. “It was an occasion to express elements that were only suggested and left to the imagination in the novel,” he said.
The viewer will only notice what’s missing about the show after she watches it for the second time – that, much like the novel itself, it is a less-than-brilliant version of Ferrante. The cast, however, pumps it up with a gallon of extra fuel. This is streaming television at its best. I’ve now added other cinematic adaptations of Ferrante’s work to the top of my must-watch list.
Nidhi Dugar Kundalia is an author whose latest book is White as Milk and Rice- Stories of India’s Isolated Tribes
The views expressed are personal
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