The author Patricia Highsmith was often scathing about adaptations of her work because of the liberties directors took with storylines, while some actors were praised for staying faithful to her characters. ‘He was excellent. He had elegance and humour, and the proper fondness for his mother,’ she said of Robert Walker as the slick psychopath in Alfred Hitchcock’s film of her debut thriller Strangers on A Train, from 1951. We’ve yet to meet the definitive Tom Ripley, her most enduring creation, who emerged in The Talented Mr Ripley (1955) and reappeared throughout her career. (There were plans for further books for ‘The Ripliad’ when she died at 74 in 1995.) The erudite and epicurean serial killer has been portrayed by Dennis Hooper, John Malkovich, Matt Damon, and soon Andrew Scott from the BBC series Fleabag. It was Alain Delon’s Ripley in Plein Soleil (1960) who came close to the perfection Highsmith expected, as he was ‘very beautiful to the eye and interesting for the intellect’.
Ripley was responsible for nine deaths throughout five novels – Ripley Underground, The Boy Who Followed Ripley among them. His notoriety shifted from the page and screen to the real world, and an official mental disorder diagnosed as Ripley Syndrome. ‘The psychopath is an average man living more clearly than the world permits him,’ Highsmith wrote. In Ripley she invented a cunning, sociopathic anti-hero new to literature and cinema. The American film critic Roger Ebert noted:
‘It’s insidious, the way Highsmith seduces us into identifying with him and sharing his selfishness; Ripley believes that getting his own way is worth whatever price anyone else might have to pay. We all have a little of that in us.’
The Talented Mr Ripley was reputedly the easiest book Patricia Highsmith ever wrote. It was as though he were writing it for her, and she returned the compliment by signing her letters with his name. Critics, friends and enemies even, concluded that Ripley was compelling because he was based on someone the crime writer had intimate knowledge of: herself. ‘I learned to love with a grievous and murderous hatred early on’, Highsmith bragged. A hatred born of what? The knowledge that her mother tried to abort her by drinking turpentine? Society’s attitude to her homosexuality? Did she, like Ripley, simply harbour a desire for the social stature of his first victim Dickie Greenleaf, the rich socialite?
Her initial impression of Ripley conjures up Nick Carraway’s first glimpse of Gatsby. From a balcony in Positano on the Amalfi Coast – the fictional Mongibello of the novel – Highsmith spotted an awkward, pensive young man heading to the beach. Why was he alone? What was on his mind? Years later he’d evolved into the character who murders Greenleaf and takes on his identity and wealth, while travelling through Europe; dining on marrons and giblet gravy; carrying an alligator skin Gucci wallet; wearing the kind of grain-leather shoes that were ‘advertised in Punch’.
The decline of the friendship between Ripley and Greenleaf begins when the latter finds his friend dressed in his clothes, and informs him Dickie’s girlfriend Marge Sherwood suspects Tom is ‘queer’. She later confides by letter: ‘All right, he may not be queer. He’s just nothing, which is worse. He isn’t normal enough to have any kind of sex life.’ Accustomed to such accusations, Ripley had concocted a response that became tiresome to old acquaintances: ‘I can’t make up my mind whether I like men or women, so I’m thinking of giving them both up.’ When the two men are alone at sea in San Remo, Tom looks at Dickie and thinks he could kiss him or kill him. He opts for the latter.
Since the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of The Talented Mr Ripley there have been successive attempts to bring the books to the screen. Now, finally, there is Andrew Scott cast in the forthcoming series produced by Showtime in the States. Last year, the actor led the cast in an Old Vic production of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter. The performance was shown in cinemas throughout the country, introduced on screen by a slight, American man none of us in the auditorium knew. Why was he alone? What was on his mind? He was the husband of the diver Tom Daley and he was explaining how several female love interests were played by men because this is what dear Noel would have wanted, had homosexuality been legal in 1939. Cinema audiences have become accustomed to seeing history re-written to accommodate a cosmetic diversity that is largely, if not purely fiction, the most crushingly ludicrous example being Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood. There are other instances too numerous to mention, but as a taster, here’s two: the Bollywood dance sequence in 1950s Pinner from Rocketman, and Churchill practically high-fiving a black fella on the Bakerloo Line in The Darkest Hour.
To second-guess the intention of an author by switching the race, sex or sexuality of characters is likely to make adaptations and revivals even more farcical. There’s the possibility we’ll now see Ripley portrayed along the lines of the gay serial killer in Ryan Murphy’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace. This, however, is not in keeping with the intention of a writer as protective of her characters as Patricia Highsmith. ‘I don’t think Ripley is gay,’ she told an interviewer in 1988. ‘He appreciates good looks in other men, that’s true…I’m not saying he’s very strong in the sex department. But he makes it in bed with his wife.’ Ripley remained the solitary, pensive man she spotted on the beach, a ’queer’ outsider too abnormal to have a sex life and experience intimacy. A fact that becomes evident in an existential panic following the confrontation between Tom and Dick back there in Mongibello. Ripley accepts that he will never truly know people, beyond brief moments of harmony and friendship that are ultimately illusory: ‘For an instant the wordless shock of his realization seemed more than he could bear.’
Reluctantly, we root for Ripley, even though his world is one in which evil triumphs over good
This is central to what makes him both sympathetic and familiar. Reluctantly, we root for him, even though his world is one in which evil triumphs over good. A prospect that Highsmith rejoiced in: ‘I shall make my readers rejoice in it, too.’ In that first Ripley book, the narrator suggests the killer’s stories and alibis are plausible because he imagines them so intensely that he believes them. This was as true for Highsmith and her success as a storyteller as her fictional alter-ego, the talented Tom Ripley.
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