How Elena Ferrante’s ‘Neopolitan Novels’ made it to HBO

Nobody knows who wrote the wildly popular “Neapolitan Novels” — not even the creators of HBO’s Italian-language adaptation of the literary phenomenon.

The international bestselling four-book series has sold more than 10 million copies in 40 countries, but its author is unknown — using the pseudonym Elena Ferrante.

“Her identity is as guarded from us as it is to the rest of the world,” says Jennifer Schuur, the only American executive producer on “My Brilliant Friend,” airing Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO.

“[Director and writer] Saverio [Costanzo] will email [Ferrante] through her publisher, and then her publisher will pass it along and she will email back,” says Schuur. “They communicate that way.”

Set in Naples, Italy, the story follows childhood friends Elena and Lila across decades spanning from the 1950s to 2010. It isn’t HBO’s first foreign production (it shares producers with “The Young Pope,” which was also foreign) but it’s the cable network’s first foreign-language drama with subtitles.

In the eight-episode first season, which is based on the first book, “My Brilliant Friend,” Elena and Lila are played by newcomers Elisa del Genio and Ludovica Nasti as children, and Margherita Mazzucco and Gaia Girace as teens.

Schuur (who’s also worked on “Hannibal” and “Big Love”) says the casting process was no walk in the park. More than 8,000 children auditioned.

“In the books, it lives and dies by the girls and watching that relationship over the course of 60 years,” she says. “You’re going to have four sets of actresses playing the characters over time, so that … is a challenge. Then, on top of that, you have to find actresses who speak in the Neapolitan dialect, because that was the only way to bring this to life in an authentic way. So you can’t even just cast from all of Italy. You have to go to this one small place in the South.”

The series was filmed on a 215,000-square-foot set built outside of Naples, which included 14 exterior apartment buildings. “You walk and you can get lost,” says Schuur. “You can turn a corner and feel like you are in this old Italian Neapolitan neighborhood. It’s an incredible feat.”

As an added challenge for Schuur, she’s the sole American working on the show — and she doesn’t even speak Italian.

“At first I thought [the language barrier] was going to be much more of a challenge than it turned out to be,” she says. “Our director Saverio and our other executive producer both speak very good English, so any sort of dialogue that we would need to have creatively was easy.”

But how did someone who doesn’t speak Italian get involved in the first place?

“I was an obsessed fan of the books,” says Schuur. “In fact, I had written a letter to Elena Ferrante, a love letter of sorts, and just told her how much her books meant to me and how beautiful they were. I had also called my representatives and said, ‘I want to make these as an American language show. I want to adapt them for television.’”

When she found out that Ferrante would only allow an Italian-language adaptation, Schuur was undaunted.

“I got word that the Italian producers were looking to put an American … in the mix, because they realized what they had was very unique and special and there was an appetite for it around the world,” she says. “Their intention was to sell it to an American outlet like HBO. I brought my letter to the producers and let them read that. I brought my laughably dog-eared copies of all the books, like ‘Look at all the pages I loved!’ and I just really put my heart out there about my passion and love for the material.

“And here we are.”

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