Jonathan Erdman of Theos Project, a frequent commenter on Ktismatics from nearly the beginning, recently went on a backpacking trip in the Black Hills, sparing some room in his pack to carry the Tom Ripley novels with him for entertainment. When Jonathan returned to Indiana and civilization(?) he sent me an email asking if I’d read these books. Only the first one, I told him — The Talented Mr. Ripley. I read it in Nice, having checked it out from the English-American Library there, which I found apropos since so much of the action takes place near where we were living at the time. I liked the book; Jonathan said he thought it was the best of the three. Then the next question: book or movie? There’s an old French version of the book, made in 1960, but it’s the more recent version that comes to mind, the one starring Matt Damon as Tom Ripley and featuring Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Cate Blanchett in supporting roles.
Patricia Highsmith, a Texas-born emigree, brought out the first installment in the Ripley series in 1955. Not generally regarded as a great author, Highsmith wrote what might be termed high-end pulp fiction. Alfred Hitchcock made a great movie from Highsmith’s first novel: Strangers on a Train. Maybe filmmakers can see in Highsmith’s books the potential for making a very good movie out of a pretty good book. Usually novels cover too much ground and dig too deeply to make a really successful transition to film. If it’s a really good novel then a movie that remains true to the book tends to fail. The successful film adaptation has to leave big chunks of the book behind, then build a movie out of the pieces he keeps. The Lord of the Rings movies did that: left out long slogging treks across Middle Earth in order to focus on the colorful characters, the festive scenes and the dramatic climaxes. Though I love the world Tolkien created, though I liked wandering through it with the characters, though I’ve read the books three times now (twice aloud to our daughter at bedtime), the books really are kind of weak dramatically and literarily. What the books do with slow immersion, the movies accomplish with spectacle and plot. A movie version closer to the books would feel more like Lawrence of Arabia — a slow march through bleak terrain. Still, the Rings movies were great spectacles.
Patricia Highsmith wrote Tom Ripley as a sociopath, which makes him nearly impossible for the reader to relate to. He has no personality of his own; his motivations are nearly inhuman; he’s on the outside of normal humanity looking in. All he can do is imitate, to turn himself into a simulacrum of a real human being. When you look for depth of character you find none at all. In the book you might infer that Dickie is a live wire and either a nice guy or a snob, but Highsmith shows him to us through Tom’s eyes as someone whose surface accomplishments and possessions are plenty good enough for Tom to destroy, to steal and to mimic. And then Ripley has this pathological inability to believe that he’ll get caught, repeatedly compounding his ruthless disregard for the human condition assuming that nobody else is really going to care much what happens to their dead friends and family members. That Highsmith could actually make the reader sort of root for Ripley I found kind of remarkable. It’s either a tribute to us “real” humans, who can project humanity onto a rock, or an acknowledgment that we aren’t as deep as we think we are. Or maybe it’s Highsmith’s unique talent.
You’d think this sort of flat character going through a series of harrowing adventures would be ideal for the movies. Because a movie is so short it can’t offer a whole lot of character development. And because modern Hollywood movies have become so non-literary and so auditory-visual, character development has to rely on pretty flimsy clues — and on the personae of the actors who occupy the roles. But Hollywood also wants the viewer to identify with the characters — something Highsmith slowly, almost unconsciously coaxes out of the reader. The filmmakers equip Ripley with a homosexual attraction to Dickie, which humanizes his motives and makes him easier to relate to. And though Matt Damon is sort of chameleon-like as an actor, he does carry his intrinsic regular-guy persona into the role. It’s a good movie, but it’s not a particularly strange movie.
The book relies on the protagonist’s flat otherness for its unique attraction. The movie performed usual Hollywood trick of imbuing a flat screen persona with the simulacrum of humanity. It’s as if the filmmaker, Anthony Minghella, is Tom Ripley, doing to the book version of Tom what Tom did to Dickie.