Why this might not seem so easy
There are few innocents in Patricia Highsmith’s writing. At best, her characters are inveterate liars; at worst, they kill without remorse. And still, whichever end of the spectrum they fall, her leads are magnetic: charismatic, suave, smooth-talking. Though we know better, it’s all too easy to fall for their dangerous charm.
No one is better than Highsmith at eliciting sympathy for the devil, and there are few devils more sympathetic than her murderous conman Tom Ripley. The 5 books that follow his misadventures – known affectionately as the ‘Ripliad’ – have been fertile ground for cinematic adaptation; since 1960 Ripley has been played by Alain Delon, Matt Damon, Dennis Hopper, John Malkovich and Barry Pepper, each of them bringing fascinatingly different takes to the iconic role.
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One of the many elements that make the Ripley of the novels so interesting is his implied (but never explicitly stated) queerness. Considering the difficult relationship Highsmith had with her own homosexuality, the queer subtext found in her books, from the Ripliad to Strangers on a Train, has fascinated cultural critics and historians over the years. In The Price of Salt – published in 1951 under a pseudonym and later retitled as Carol – subtext becomes text with a story about a passionate romance between 2 women. Adapted more than 60 years later by acclaimed filmmaker Todd Haynes – himself a gay man – Carol is rare among Highsmith’s work for both its explicit portrayal of a homosexual relationship and for its optimism. It’s widely considered to be the first lesbian novel with a happy ending.
There have been more than 20 film adaptations of Patricia Highsmith’s numerous novels and short stories. Some are deserved classics, others less so. Let this primer be your guide as you travel through the charming and treacherous world of Highsmith’s cinematic universe…
The best place to start – The Talented Mr. Ripley
The first stop has to be Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, which has an awful lot working in its favour: an excellent cast firing on all cylinders, kinetic direction, sumptuous Italian locations, and – of course – Highsmith’s most famous novel as its source material. Few adaptations have done such an admirable job at balancing the author’s nuanced characterisation and fiendishly smart narrative.
Penniless Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) is hired by the wealthy patriarch of the Greenleaf family to retrieve his son Dickie (Jude Law) from his extended holiday in Italy. Tom embeds himself into Dickie’s life, soon disclosing his father’s request but stating that he has no intention of taking him back home (although will continue to pocket Mr Greenleaf’s money). For a while, Tom and Dickie are the best of friends, but soon Dickie starts to prefer the company of Freddie Miles (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Scared of losing both the object of his affection and his meal ticket, Tom decides to take drastic, deadly action.
Of all the adaptations of the Ripliad, Minghella’s is the bluntest about Tom’s queerness, going further even than Highsmith does in her novel. A memorable early scene sees Tom and Dickie play chess while the latter is naked in the bath – overcome with desire, Tom asks Dickie if he can get in too, before seeing Dickie’s perturbed face and desperately trying to walk back his request. Later, Tom has a passionate but ill-fated romantic relationship with Philip Kingsley-Smith (Jack Davenport).
Minghella uses Tom’s sexuality as a humanising device; even though we see him commit multiple murders, it’s hard not to empathise with his struggle to process his complicated romantic feelings. This conflict gives The Talented Mr. Ripley much of its remarkable emotional texture.
What to watch next
After watching the best known Ripley adaptation, you’ll be keen to explore the others. You have plenty to choose from, such as 1960’s Plein Soleil, directed by René Clément and starring Alain Delon. It’s interesting to contrast Damon’s take on Ripley with Delon’s — whereas the former’s is a raw, edgy nerve of aching vulnerability, the latter is as icily cool as the Frenchman’s legendary visage. Taking a cue from its leading man, Plein Soleil is altogether a chillier film than The Talented Mr. Ripley, focusing more on the process of Tom’s complicated crimes than the emotional reactions they elicit.
Wim Wenders’ The American Friend (1977) is an adaptation of Ripley’s Game, the third book in the Ripliad. As tends to be the case with the renowned German filmmaker, Wenders foregrounds atmosphere over plot, creating a grimy world befitting a morally murky character like Tom Ripley. While Dennis Hopper’s portrayal of the antihero is as wildly charismatic as you’d imagine, it’s Bruno Ganz’s sad-eyed victim that leaves the most lasting impact here.
Moving away from the Ripliad, another essential Highsmith adaptation is the very first: Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951). Both masters of the macabre, Hitchcock and Highsmith are a natural fit, and he handles her clever story with gleeful aplomb. It isn’t hard to see faint echoes of Tom and Dickie in the relationship between the 2 leads.
Todd Haynes’ Carol (2015) is the most critically lauded Highsmith adaptation since The Talented Mr. Ripley, and with good reason. Haynes directs Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara with tremendous sensitivity – watching their love story play out against the stunningly rendered backdrop of New York City circa 1951 is pure pleasure. Misanthrope though she may have been, if Highsmith had lived to see her unusually optimistic novel receive this dazzling treatment, even she may have swooned…
Where not to start
A Kind of Murder (2016), based on The Blunderer, is emblematic of what can so often go wrong when adapting Highsmith for the screen. Andy Goddard’s film loses itself in Highsmith’s complex plotting, entirely foregoing any interest in her finely drawn characters. The result isn’t a total disaster – Patrick Wilson and Vincent Kartheiser put in very watchable performances, and Chris Seager’s cinematography is often strikingly handsome – but is devoid of the psychological depth that makes the best Highsmith adaptations such rich experiences.