The Cinematic Mr. Ripley: Introducing A MovieThoughts Series

Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) has an interesting reputation. During her own life, she released many bestselling crime thrillers, often adapted into films – the most famous being Strangers on a Train. Born in Texas, she spent most of her adult life in Europe and her literary reputation in America was never high. Since her death, she has been reconsidered and is now seen as a deeply problematic person, but a brilliant novelist. Her best-known work, five novels about the young American criminal Tom Ripley (or “the Ripliad”), are still in print. So far, three of the Ripliad novels have been adapted to film.

Since the whole novel series is being developed into a TV show by Steve Zallian and a movie based on Highsmith’s novel Deep Water is coming in March 2022, I thought it would be interesting to look at the films based on the Ripliad so far. In chronological order based on the books, the movies are:

  • Purple Noon (1960) directed by René Clément, adapted from The Talented Mr. Ripley
  • The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) directed by Anthony Minghella, adapted from the novel of the same name
  • Ripley Under Ground (2005) directed by Roger Spottiswoode, adapted from the novel of the same name
  • The American Friend (1977) directed by Wim Wenders, adapted from Ripley’s Game with elements from Ripley Under Ground
  • Ripley’s Game (2002) directed by Liliana Cavani, adapted from the novel of the same name

Why write about these movies? For three reasons.

First, while many of Patricia Highsmith’s books were made into films, it’s hard to find information or reviews of most of them. Blogs like The Case for Global Film have talked about European films based on individual Highsmith novels, many hard to find. Twelve years ago, Nathaniel Booth wrote Blogspot thoughts on the five Ripley films. At 8 and 12 years ago, Highsmith aficionado Nick Jones wrote about the adaptations of Ripley Under Ground and Ripley’s Game. Both writers had fascinating thoughts, but left room to explore. I’m hoping this series will be a resource for Highsmith fans or researchers interested in the Ripliad.

Second, the Ripliad and its adaptations highlight an important moral question about thrillers. Different genres raise different questions. Adventure thrillers are about using violence to achieve a goal, which has often given them an interesting relationship with rightwing politics. Crime thrillers are about crime, which from a Christian viewpoint, raises interesting questions about how to read (or write) them. Do stories about crime give the impression that life is random, or do they affirm order? Do you need to end the story with the killer caught, or is the tragedy of evil escaping more effective? Sorina Higgins gives an interesting look at these questions “Is A ‘Christian’ Mystery Story Possible?” an essay on detective fiction and Charles Williams’ thriller War in Heaven.

Highsmith’s thrillers provide a particularly interesting lens for considering these questions, because she made her worldview (in her novels and life) quite clear. Highsmith commented in her book Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, “I find the public passion for justice quite boring and artificial, for neither life nor nature cares if justice is ever done or not” (pg. 56). Grey Gowrie, in his introduction to Everyman Library’s collection of three Ripley novels, described Highsmith as an “existential nihilist,” (xiii) playing with questions about alienation that also interested Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett (xvi).

The Ripliad is perhaps the clearest description of Highsmith’s existential nihilism, following a killer who is never caught nor shows remorse. In October 1954, while writing the first Ripley novel, Highsmith recorded the following in her diary:

What I predicted I would once do, I am already doing in this very book (Tom Ripley), that is, showing the unequivocal of evil over good, and rejoicing in it. I shall make my readers rejoice in it, too.

Page 195 in Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith by Andrew Wilson

Even Tom admits his immorality in the second novel, after a co-conspirator accuses him of starting all the problems:

“I detest you – because all this is entirely your fault. I should never have agreed to it – true. But you’re the origin.”

Tom knew. He was a mystic origin, a font of evil.

Ripley Under Ground, Page 180

Each filmmaker who has adapted a Ripley story has dealt with the fact that nihilism is written into the story. Each filmmaker, in different ways, has taken a different approach to that nihilism, some following it and others subverting it.

Third, in a time where carefully integrated movie series are the norm, the “Ripliad movies” stand out. Today, if a successful book gets adapted into a half-successful movie, you’ll likely see a movie based on the sequel next summer. Movie based on books have become less about finding neat ways to transform the material, more about building brands. These five movies are based on one novel series, but none of them are sequels to each other. There have been attempts to make them seem connected: when The Talented Mr. Ripley was in production, Variety reported plans for Ripley’s Game were moving forward and a producer was trying to acquire both films to present them as a series. You can see this attempt in Warner Brothers’ trailer for Ripley’s Game, where the narrator declares that Tom Ripley has returned “after 20 years… with a new face.”

In the end, any attempt to see these films as one franchise breaks down. Even when these movies overlap in source material, the treatments differ widely. In the end, any attempt to see these films as one franchise breaks down. Even when these movies overlap in source material, the treatments differ widely. As Guy Lodge put it, “Ripley’s screen legacy is as shape-shifting as he is.” It’s far more interesting to see these films as individual renderings of the same character. Doing so provides a look at how versatile adaptation can be.

Tune in next week for my review of Purple Noon.

10 thoughts on “The Cinematic Mr. Ripley: Introducing A MovieThoughts Series

  1. Pingback: A Blog Series Banner: The Cinematic Mr. Ripley – G. Connor Salter

  2. Pingback: Movie Review: Purple Noon (The Cinematic Mr. Ripley #1) – G. Connor Salter

  3. Pingback: Movie Review: The Talented Mr. Ripley (The Cinematic Mr. Ripley #2) – G. Connor Salter

  4. Pingback: Movie Review: Ripley Under Ground (The Cinematic Mr. Ripley #3) – G. Connor Salter

  5. Pingback: Movie Review: The American Friend (The Cinematic Mr. Ripley #4) – G. Connor Salter

  6. Pingback: Movie Review: Ripley’s Game (The Cinematic Mr. Ripley #5) – G. Connor Salter

  7. Pingback: MovieThoughts Review: Deep Water (2022) – G. Connor Salter

  8. Pingback: The Cinematic Mr Ripley: Final Thoughts and Factoids – G. Connor Salter

  9. Pingback: My Review: Cari Mora by Thomas Harris – G. Connor Salter

  10. Pingback: The Most Reluctant Convert: An Extended Movie Review – G. Connor Salter

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