Patricia Highsmith and Tom Ripley in the Movies

Continuing my assessment of the work of Patricia Highsmith’s five Ripley novels, I review two recent movies, one with Matt Damon, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and the other with George Malkovich, “Ripley’s Game.” Both of them were entertaining movies, but both took liberties with their source material, Highsmith’s novels. I also review the script of “Talented” by Anthony Minghella and show how he drastically altered the book’s content to fit his film concept.

“The Talented Mr. Ripley” – Screenplay

The screenplay and movie of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” are, in their own rights, excellent and quite effective, but they are a decided departure from Patricia Highsmith’s novel. We all know that the motion picture is an entirely different medium from the world of the novel, but some of the changes screenwriter Anthony Minghella made are questionable.

The novel deals so much with Ripley’s inner existence (it’s told entirely from his perspective) that it calls for the adaptor to externalize and use devices which will bring out what is going on in Tom Ripley’s warped mind; otherwise we’d have a movie of too many voice-overs. Some of the alterations used, I think, would not appeal to Highsmith, but the motion picture is an art unto itself which must externalize and make visual what is going on in the psyche.

A good line in the movie from Tom is “it’s better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody.”

Marge in the novel does not confront Ripley with Dickey’s murder as she did in the movie, and Dickie never said he was going to marry her. In the book Tom’s gayness is not as open as it is in the movie, but it is certainly there. In the novel Ripley commits “only” two murders, whereas in the movie he commits three.

The movie makes Freddie Miles much more of a presence than he is in the novel, more of an instigator who dislikes Tom and is opposed to him. He has Tom figured out, whereas in the book they don’t see very much of each other. Meredith, a major character in the movie, and Peter Smith Kingsley do not appear in the novel.

In one sense, because of the importance of all these other characters, Tom gets subordinated. Dickie is an amateur painter in the novel; in the flick he plays the sax. In the novel toward the end Ripley is almost always alone. He’s hemmed in by people in the film.

In the movie Dickie is a much more sexually active heterosexual. In the book there is no Silvana who finds herself with child.

Dickie says that one of Ripley’s gestures is spooky. If only he knew how spooky Ripley would become. Tom Ripley at times is like Uriah Heep, slavish, picking up things after his idol. Tom tells Dickie right off the bat, supposedly in jest, that he’s a forger, a liar, an impersonator.

In the movie there is more of a tone of a gay relationship although one-sided on Tom’s part. It’s a great movie script in its own right but a quite divergent adaptation of a brilliant introspective novel.

“The Talented Mr. Ripley” Movie/DVD

This is a beautifully crafted movie with fine acting, insightful direction, brilliant cinematography, and an artful script. The Italian locations are beautiful and striking. In its own realm of cinema, it is a superb production.

What interests me most, though, is how the film differs from Patricia Highsmith’s fine novel. The film medium should not slavishly follow another art form, the novel, but should it veer so far off course as this one? We know that Highsmith was not too happy with film interpretations of her work, but we wonder how she would have reacted to this. She died in 1995; this came out in 1999.

Anthony Minghella, director and screenwriter, took considerable liberties with the source material. In the movie Tom commits three murders rather than the two in the novel. He is gayer in the movie while he is more closeted in the book. The character of Freddie (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is more sinister, nastier, and more important in the movie. Meredith, a key player in the movie, is non-existent, and Tom does not have a love affair with Peter Smyth Kingsley.

In the book Dickie paints rather than plays the saxophone. He has no local girlfriend whom he gets with child. In the book Marge has no accusation scene with Tom and is far more passive. In the movie Dickie’s father cedes his son’s inheritance to Tom; in the book Tom steals it by forging the son’s signature. And so it goes.

Jude Law as Dickie Greenleaf steals the movie while a toothy and bespectacled Damon, though he does a fine job, seems more a witness than participant in the first part of movie. Tom is always trying to ingratiate himself with Dickie while Dickie often shows his complete disdain for him, calling him spooky, creepy, and a leech. Tom openly admits to his idol that he forges, lies, and does impersonations. Later, of course, he becomes Dickie for a time. Tom reads too much sexual meaning into some of Dickie’s actions.

The movie is so different from the book that the viewer/reader experiences Tom in two separate Ripley universes.

The movie makes Tom more guilt-ridden than the book in which he jettisons his conscience.

It’s an engrossing movie experience, well-acted with beautiful cinematography, but Highsmith purists may not be happy with the adaptation.

“Purple Noon” with Alain Delon was a movie based upon “Talented” in French.

“Ripley’s Game” Movie/DVD

“Ripley’s Game,” a movie version of the Patricia Highsmith novel, like the “Talented Ripley” (the Matt Damon flick) takes considerable liberties with her text. George Malkovich does a fine job in the part of Tom Ripley, although I feel he’s wrong, too effete, for the part. The beginning scene in Berlin, not from the book, is there to establish Tom’s character as a murderer and a crook who does errands for a thief named Reeves (Ray Winstone).

In the movie Ripley’s home is far too elaborate, too much like a palace rather than a country villa. A picture framer, Jonathan Trevanny, makes scurrilous remarks about Tom, and Tom decides to get back at him by setting him up through Reeves as an assassin. Trevanny goes along with the crime because he’s dying of cancer and wants to take care of his wife and son after his death.

In the movie Tom’s wife, Heloise, is his enabler as she is in the last four books of the series, but he didn’t let in her in on his nefarious schemes the way he does in the movie.

The killing scene in the zoo in which Trevanny kills a Russian mob boss is very effective. The picture framer gets talked into a second killing, this time on a train, and Ripley, cool and brutal, true psychopath that he is, turns up to help him. The most powerful scene in the movie: multiple murders in a WC.

Ripley says, “I’m a creation, a gifted improviser. I don’t have a conscience.”

In the last part of the movie the mob bodyguards come after Ripley and Jonathan at Ripley’s mansion, and the movie stays close to the book’s plot.

Judging it as a movie apart from a novel adaptation, it is extremely effective with a brilliant conclusion in which Malkovich at his wife’s harpsichord concert proves by his silences what a fine actor he is.

Dennis Hopper starred in “The American Friend,” another version of this novel.

BOLA TANGKAS
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BOLA TANGKAS