Elisa Del Genio and Ludovica Nasti as Elena and Lila

In October 2011, My Brilliant Friend, the first of the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante, was published.

Over the following seven years, the series came to be regarded as a modern masterpiece, telling the story of two girls growing up in Naples in the 1950s.

Spanning four novels and several decades, the story followed the volatile friendship of Elena Greco and her best friend Lila as they grew up in a poor neighbourhood in post-war Naples.

HBO are bringing the epic quartet to the screen, planning four seasons, one for each book. Here’s what you need to know:

It’s subtitled, even in Italian

It HBO’s first foray into foreign language drama, with the series subtitled for international audiences as well as in Italy. 

This is because the Neapolitan dialect of Italian spoken in the series is not understood by most native Italian speakers.

At the Television Critics Association press tour panel earlier this year, Italian executive producer Lorenzo Mieli confirmed that he didn’t understand the dialect either. 

“For us, we are Romans. We come from Rome, so we don’t understand at least 70 per cent of the dialogue, even in Italian,” he says.

HBO never considered trying to make the series any other way, knowing how important the dialect was for authenticity.

Margherita Mazzucco and Gaia Girace as the teen Elena and Lila

The casting

The production had to find four actors, two for each character at different stages of their youth, that could speak the Neapolitian dialect. 

This became a huge challenge for director Saverio Costanzo.

After auditioning around 8000 Neapolitan kids, they found exactly four young actors for the roles, with Costanzo saying they “did not have a second choice”. 

Elisa Del Genio and Ludovica Nasti play Elena and Lila as children, while Margherita Mazzucco and Gaia Girace play them as teenagers. 

They had to recreate 1950s Naples

When it came to filming, the production team found that the Naples from the books was completely lost.

 So they had to recreate Elena and Lila’s neighbourhood in a backlot in Caserta, a city near Naples. 

“Naples is so changed that we couldn’t find any location that fits with the story in the 50s”, Costanzo says. 

Elena Ferrante was involved in the series

The elusive author was part of the production, which is a surprise considering no one actually knows who she is. 

Writing the novels under a pen name, Ferrante’s real identity is one of the literary world’s biggest mysteries. 

She definitely had something to say about the TV adaptation though and communicated with the production team through letters. 

Director Saverio Costanzo says he still doesn’t know who she is. “I’m not curious to know, actually,” he says. 

“I think it’s one of the best kept secrets in Italy’s history,” producer Lorenzo Mieli says. “There are many rumours, but nobody knows.”

My Brilliant Friend premieres Monday 19 November on TVNZ OnDemand.