Book to Film Adaptations: The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Book to film adaptations, as we know, can be tricky. Condensing hundreds of pages into roughly two hours is one thing, but what about plot points that appear all the more jarring onscreen? Patricia Highsmith’s tale of murder, stolen identity, and uncomfortable sexuality in The Talented Mr. Ripley has been adapted twice for the screen. Both made some changes to the original story, and both are interesting works in their own right.

Patricia Highsmith in 1962 - Talented Mr. Ripley US 1st Edition
Patricia Highsmith in 1962 and The Talented Mr. Ripley, US 1st Edition

For more details on The Talented Mr. Ripley‘s plot, do take a look at my book review here at P-Mag. Set primarily in Italy,  it manages to be a noir tale in a brightly lit location. The characters spend time on the beach, go sailing, and otherwise soak in the beautiful scenery. Dickie Greenleaf, the man with whom Tom Ripley becomes deadly fascinated, is a painter. Because of all this, filmmakers have a lot to work with when it comes to setting. Originally published in 1955, the book occurs in roughly the same time period, and it has since been adapted twice to film, once as a BBC Radio 4 production, and once as a stage production for Northamption’s Royal Theatre. For brevity’s sake, I’ll be concentrating on the film adaptations.

Five years after the book was released, René Clément and Paul Gégauff adapted it for film, with Clément directing. Instead of using the book’s original title, they called it Plein Soleil, elsewhere known as Purple Moon. Alain Delon stars as Tom Ripley, with Maurice Ronet as “Phillipe” (instead of Richard/Dickie) Greenleaf, and Marie Laforêt as Greenleaf’s girlfriend, Marge.


Plein Soleil/Purple Noon Poster and DVD cover


The film follows the book fairly well, except in two respects – in this, Tom ends up dating Marge rather than deeply disliking her, and the ending is very different from the book. I won’t say how, so as not to completely spoil the story, but I will say that Highsmith has no trouble letting deplorable characters get their way. Reportedly, Highsmith found many elements of the adaptation satisfying, but she dismissed the ending as a “terrible concession.” I have yet to see this adaptation, but despite the differences, it still looks well done and interesting.

Scene from Purple Noon
In the book, doing this (or even witnessing this) would have made Tom Ripley very uncomfortable, for a number of reasons.

For those interested in viewing the movie, it is not available for streaming through either Netflix or Amazon, but it is available on DVD on Netflix, and for sale on DVD (and VHS, as it happens) at Amazon.

The Talented Mr. Ripley movie posterIn 1999, four years after Highsmith’s death, Anthony Minghella adapted the book again under its given title. This time, Matt Damon played Tom Ripley, with Jude Law as Dickie Greenleaf, and Gwyneth Paltrow as Marge. Oddly, a whole new character is added into the story, an heiress named Meredith (Cate Blanchett), to whom Tom introduces himself as Dickie. Also, the character of Peter (Jack Davenport, who you probably know from Coupling), a friend of Marge’s, is expanded. Though it has been a long time since I’ve seen this movie, I’ve watched it a few times and I like it as its own entity, as long as I don’t compare it to the book too much. Major plot elements remain the same, but I’m not entirely sure why these additional characters were necessary. Because of Meredith and Peter, the ending is also a bit different, though I think it’s one that Highsmith would have found more appealing, even if I suspect she would’ve been annoyed that her existing story was not deemed complex enough by Minghella.

The film’s setting retains its bright and beautiful Italian imagery, which makes Ripley’s calculated takeover of Dickie’s life all the more unsettling. He is almost painfully awkward as himself, something Damon captures well, and it is only as Dickie that he feels more confident.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) beach scene
This movie was also my formal introduction to Jude Law. Mee-yow.

In this version, Tom still dislikes Marge, though it isn’t as overtly stated as it is in the book. Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law play their respective characters well – Marge, the insecure writer; Dickie, the spoiled trust fund kid.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) sailing scene
It would be impossible (or very wrong, at least) to adapt The Talented Mr. Ripley without sailing scenes.

The 1999 version alludes more to Tom’s burgeoning feelings for Dickie, beyond just envying his life. Even the book does not directly say that Tom is in love with Dickie, but one can easily connect the dots. Beyond becoming Dickie, Tom doesn’t even know how to articulate or even deal with those feelings, so a big “I love you” moment would be really out of place. From what I remember of this film, not a lot is made of Tom’s attitude towards women, a nervousness, due to the treatment he received by his aunt as a boy. His aunt was one of the many over the years who would call him a “sissy” and would wonder openly why he couldn’t just be “normal.”

The Talented Mr. Ripley is only available on DVD through Netflix, but is free to stream for Amazon Prime members ($2.99 for non-members).

I wonder if the complexity of Tom Ripley’s character is something that makes filmmakers nervous. Are we more prone to accepting dark characters in a book than we are onscreen? And how much does Tom’s not-straightness contribute to that? I find it unusual that our culture can accept film depictions of physical violence with little discomfort, in a lot of cases, but the psychological violence brings more anxiety. I think this difficulty is what keeps interest in Patricia Highsmith’s work alive, and I wonder if we’ll ever see a more faithful film adaptation.

By Sara Habein

Sara Habein is the author of Infinite Disposable, a collection of microfiction, and her work has appeared on The Rumpus, Pajiba and Word Riot, among others. Her book reviews and other commentary appear at Glorified Love Letters, and she is the co-manager of Electric City Creative.

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