HBO's My Brilliant Friend signals growing North American taste for foreign-language fare

As HBO brings Elena Ferrante's best-selling novel to the small screen in Italian, North American viewers are growing increasingly comfortable with foreign-language television with subtitles. It's likely streaming services have played a big role in this trend.

Notoriously subtitle-averse North American audiences are increasingly accepting foreign-language shows

Young Italian actresses Elisa Del Genio, left, and Ludovica Nasti, right, portray Elena (Lenu) Greco and Raffaela (Lila) Cerullo in HBO's My Brilliant Friend.

Like the novel that inspired it, HBO's new series My Brilliant Friend is about a friendship of two passionate, intelligent girls growing up in Naples in post-war Italy.

Behind the adaptation, too, are two passionate women, committed to their visions.

One is the novel's author, who goes by the pen name of Elena Ferrante, and insisted that the adaptation had to be done in Italian, with local actors who could master the nuances of the Neapolitan dialect.

The other is American TV writer and producer Jennifer Schuur — a fervent fan of Ferrante's four-part Neapolitan Novels, who had been trying for years to find ways to adapt them for the North American audience.

"I talked to my reps here in L.A. and asked them if it was possible to get the rights, could we do something like that? And they just flat out laughed at me. They said, 'You and every other producer, writer on this planet would like to have the rights to these, and they are never going to be done in English language. They are going to make an Italian series for Italians.' And that would be it."

But that wasn't it. HBO executives eventually decided they wanted to show the Ferrante adaptation — no matter what the language. And so L'Amica Geniale became My Brilliant Friend, HBO's first series fully made in a foreign language, with Schuur as the only American producer on the show.

"An American audience is much more willing to take a risk on a subtitled show than they used to be," said Schuur. "There's more of an international audience, there is a more global consumer, and people know that very good material comes out of other countries, not just out of Hollywood."

The influence of streaming

HBO's decision to take on a show in Italian and put it in a prime-time Sunday night slot is a high-end example of North American audiences' expanding palate for foreign shows. But it was likely streaming platforms, like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, that kicked in the doors, by putting a range of international hits at viewers' fingertips.

Schuur attributes the growing acceptance to the more-relaxed attitude audiences adopt when streaming content at home, "where you can easily watch something, take a risk on something [and] if you don't like it, turn it off."

On Netflix, a number of foreign-language series now pop up alongside favourites like House of Cards and Ozark. Series like Israel's Fauda or Brazil's 3% now command their own legions of fans, who discuss them on social media.

Late-night Netflix browsing is how Omer Syed, of Brampton, Ont., discovered his favourite series: the Turkish historical epic, Resurrection: Ertugrul

"Everybody was sleeping, it was midnight, I turned on Netflix — there was a suggestion for me to watch Ertugrul," said Syed, who once took a trip through Turkey and knew of the historical figure of Ertugrul, the father of the founder of the Ottoman Empire.

"I started watching it, and the first episode had me hooked. It was word-for-word what I had read in some history books, for the history of the Ottoman Empire."

Omer Syed poses in front of his home with the flag featured in his favourite show, Resurrection: Ertugrul. Syed threw a costume party to mark the start of Season 3 of the Turkish historical series. (Omer Syed)

While Netflix offers the option of dubbed content, Syed likes watching with the subtitles. 

"I found that by reading the subtitles, you had to be really engaged in the show, you had to really pay attention. It's not something you can do, let it run in the background and do something else."

Opportunity for Quebec creators

Entertainment networks, especially the streaming providers, have made no secret of their desire to create more original foreign-language content.

Amazon Prime is busily working on expanding its roster of subtitled fare, which already includes India's Breathe. And Erik Barmack, Netflix's vice-president of international originals, recently announced that the streaming giant has plans to produce 100 foreign-language shows around the world in the near future.

That could be exciting news for Canada's own French-language creators. This vibrant community has for years been hamstrung by a limited opportunity to export content outside of Quebec.

Netflix's pledge to spend $500 million on Canadian content over five years has been under scrutiny on a number of fronts, including for just how much of it is earmarked for French-language productions, and how much would be invested into original productions that employ local talent and crews.

Still, the excitement about the streaming company's interest in Quebec was palpable when Netflix execs met with the province's creators in Montreal earlier this year for a big pitch session. 

Antonello Cozzolino, of Attraction Images, was at one of those meetings, where he and his team pitched several shows.

Attraction Images's Antonello Cozzolino was one of the Montreal producers who met with Netflix executives earlier this year about developing Canadian content. (CBC News)

"Netflix is seen as the Klondike, Netflix is seen as the next Jesus for … producers," said Cozzolino. "The production budgets have been shrinking. The only pipeline of fresh air is either Netflix or Amazon, or trying to go to the English market."

As Cozzolino waits to hear whether any of his pitches to Netflix will go ahead, he is optimistic about the breaking down of linguistic barriers for television, seeing it as the audience's increasing thirst for authenticity and realness.

Normand Daneau, a writer and actor from Longueuil, Que., agrees. Daneau's own experience was what has become a bit of a typical way for French-speaking creators to break outside of Quebec: The Disappearance, a show he originally co-wrote in French with Geneviève Simard, was picked up by CTV and redone in English, becoming a hit.

While Daneau is pleased that the story he co-created reached so many people in English-speaking Canada and overseas, he welcomes a world where the shows he writes in French could be just as popular.

"To me, it's a question of an open mind, a new open mindedness," said Daneau. "For people all around the world to have access to another way of thinking, another way of seeing things, another way of dealing with situations — it opens the eyes to another way of seeing the world. It's as simple as that."


Deana Sumanac-Johnson

Senior Education Reporter

Deana Sumanac-Johnson is a senior education reporter for CBC News. Appearing on The National and CBC Radio, she has previously reported on arts and entertainment, and worked as a current affairs producer.


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