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HBO is betting fervent interest will be stronger than an historical aversion to fully subtitled programming when it comes to “My Brilliant Friend,” an upcoming HBO, Rai Fiction and TimVision series produced by Lorenzo Mieli and Mario Gianani for Wildside and by Domenico Procacci for Fandango in co-production with Umedia Production.
Based on the first of four “Neapolitan Novels” by pseudonymous Italian author Elena Ferrante, the HBO series will break ground for subtitles in mainstream U.S. programming. German-language “Deutschland 83” and Italian “Gomorrah” both aired domestically on Sundance TV, but “My Brilliant Friend” on HBO marks the most mainstream outlet for a fully subtitled series to date.

Lorenzo De Maio, agent at Endeavor Content, says while in the past subtitled programs in the U.S. resulted in a niche audience, that’s changing due to global platforms.

“Think about ‘3%’ on Netflix, which is a brilliant show [in Portuguese], or ‘Babylon Berlin’ in German,” De Maio says. “I was tracking ‘My Brilliant Friend’ for a long time and I think American audiences are ready. You go to Netflix or Amazon and you can find dozens of German-language series on there. The streamers have brought more of this local content to a wider audience, a bigger audience.”

Francesca Orsi, HBO co-head of drama, acknowledges the new experience of foreign-language programming on the primary HBO channel.

“The entire series will be in Italian, in the Napolitano dialect, and it’s a very authentic portrayal of this world,” she says. “Had we done it in English, we don’t think it would have been as honest. It wouldn’t have been as truthful an exploration of this culture. Speaking Italian in the Napolitano dialect is very specific and a whole other endeavor and emotional experience.”

“My Brilliant Friend” producer Mieli says his company never considered making the series in English.

“HBO, from the beginning, not only accepted but encouraged something authentic and unique,” Mieli says, noting that the language spoken is important to the story’s plot as well. “Seventy percent of the show is spoken in a language I — and I’m from Rome — don’t understand. Part of the story is the growing up and education of these girls and one of them becomes an intellectual who wants to write books and must learn Italian. Italian is a totally different language from Neapolitan.”

Contractually, HBO has a deal in place to do four seasons based on the four books in Ferrante’s series, but just the first season has been ordered so far.

Orsi says for its first foray into foreign-language production, HBO goes in with an advantage in wooing viewers who may not normally gravitate toward subtitled entertainment.

“Worldwide, women of all ages have read these books, women in their 60s and in college. They’re just beloved,” she says. “So we, to some extent, know we will get those eyeballs. The question for us is how do we expand it and ensure we can attract an audience beyond just those who have read the books. If we hone in and find the heart of the story and translate it to a visual medium, we can find an audience that will appreciate it.”

Part of that effort includes an American writer-executive producer, Jennifer Schuur, working with the show’s Italian writers.

“We did all agree an American writer was critical to help the process in Italy and having that point of view that an American TV writer brings, that sensibility, could help translate just from a storytelling perspective,” Orsi says. “It’s one experience to take it in as a book and published property and another to translate it to a visual medium.”

Orsi calls HBO’s series “pretty faithful to the book” but acknowledges choices — new scenes, breaking point of view to provide perspective — made to adapt “My Brilliant Friend” for TV without an over-reliance on exposition.

“So much of it is the inner psychology of the characters in the experience of the book, through the author’s voice,” she says. “How do you capture that in a visual medium? That’s what we needed to crack and I think we have with a lot of close-ups on the eyes of the girls, how they’re taking in things emotionally and how they’re processing emotionally.”