The Ripliad: Part 1

Patricia Highsmith has written a couple of my favorite books of all time (including The Blunderer), but I’ve never gotten around to reading the entire Ripliad–her five book series about serial murderer Tom Ripley.

So this Holiday season I decided to finish the series and also re-watch some of the cinematic incarnations of Tom Ripley.

So far he’s been played by Alain Delon (Purple Noon, an adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley), Dennis Hopper (The American Friend, an adaptation of Ripley’s Game), Matt Damon (The Talented Mr. Ripley–probably the most widely seen of all the adaptations), John Malkovich (Ripley’s Game) and Barry Pepper (Ripley Under Ground–unreleased in the US, and unseen by me).


The character is introduced in The Talented Mr. Ripley, which I re-read at Christmastime for the first time in 13 years (since the last film adaptation came out).  The book opens with Tom Ripley on the run through the streets of New York, believing that a recent IRS scam has caught up with him…but it turns out his pursuer is Herbert Greenleaf, the father of a mostly forgotten acquaintance in Tom’s past.

Greenleaf hires Tom to go to Italy and try to persuade his son Dickie to come home.  Tom is unsuccessful, but manages to weasel his way into Dickie’s life and midway through comes up with a scheme to kill Dickie and steal his identity.

The book ends just as it began, with Tom on the run and paranoid that he’s about to get caught…except the stakes are much higher.

Reading the book over again, I was struck at how matter-of-fact Highsmith is–the prose is straightforward, no pussyfooting around.  While she describes her character’s internal monologue even when she’s writing in the third person, it’s always in blunt, declarative sentences like “Tom decided to kill Dickie.”

Tom is a fascinating character, a quick study who is constantly preparing for social interactions and then evaluating his performance later.  He’s eager to please, but in the end comes to view everyone around him as either an asset or liability.  It’s a difficult role to translate to the screen, but there have been many interpretations over the years:


The book was first adapted by Rene Clement as Purple Noon (1960), starring Alain Delon (in an early lead role) as Ripley.  The movie begins in medias res–Tom is already in Italy, and has already formed a chummy relationship with his mark, here renamed Philippe Greanleaf.

Delon’s portrayal is smooth and subtle, not altogether unlike his character from Le Samourai.  It’s a tabula rasa approach to the role, and successfully coasts on Delon’s natural beauty.  He is very creepy yet seductively appealing, and Clement adds a scene where Ripley explains his entire plan to Greenleaf just before killing him–a nice touch that neatly replaces some of Highsmith’s expository prose.  It’s a great, star-making performance and you can see why for some people he’s the definitive Mr. Ripley.

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While some of the story mechanics have been changed, the general spirit of the movie is very close to the original novel (aside from the ending–more on that in a moment), but Clement’s depiction of the relationship between Tom Ripley and Philippe/Dickie’s sometime girlfriend Marge is very different from the novel.

Highsmith paints Marge as a dimwitted, over-priviledged twit who dotes on Dickie and resents Tom for intruding on their relationship.  After Tom murders Dickie, he alternately regards Marge as a nuisance who he should have killed, or uses her as an easy way to keep up the illusion that Dickie is alive (by sending her letters, making phone calls, etc.)  Not a very flattering portrait.

The Marge of Purple Noon as played by the elegant Marie Laforet, is part of a subtle love triangle with Tom and Dickie.  When Tom kills Dickie, it’s as much to steal Marge as it is to start a new life.  It’s not as wickedly funny as Highsmith’s approach to the relationship, but it obeys the cinematic law that every movie must have some kind of sexual tension in it.

Purple Noon wraps things up with a fairly standard “crime doesn’t pay” coda.  While the discovery of Ripley’s crime is well staged, it just isn’t as potent as the book and seems out of character with the story flow.  The movie is available to watch on Hulu Plus at this link.


The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) is the second adaptation of the novel, written and directed by Anthony Minghella and starring Matt Damon in the title role.  The all-star cast includes Jude Law as Dickie, Gwyneth Paltrow as Marge Sherwood, and Cate Blanchett as “Meredith Logue,” a new character invented for the film.

Minghella interprets the novel as a grand tragedy, and Damon’s Ripley is a much more conventionally sympathetic outsider–a little boy lost.   Nowhere is this more apparent than in Dickie’s murder, which Minghella paints as a crime of passion–almost an accident, really.  Ripley doesn’t even get the idea to steal his identity until after the deed is done and his gradual transformation into a monster is emotional and tragic.

It’s an interesting character arc, but it’s worlds away from Highsmith’s novel which doesn’t even have a conventional character arc–Ripley is a calculating sociopath from the beginning and stays that way.

Which isn’t a diss on the movie, which I think works splendidly on its own terms.  Minghella was a wonderful writer, and his ear for dialogue really makes the supporting characters come alive in ways that they never did in the novel.  I think I only found one line of dialogue that made it intact from Highsmith’s original, when Dickie walks in on Tom playing dress-up and mutters “I wish you’d get out of my clothes.”

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I have to confess I saw this movie before I read any of the books, and at the time it was one of my favorite movies of the 90’s.  Looking back on it now having read the rest of the Ripliad, my feelings are a little more mixed.


Next time, I’ll take a look at Ripley Underground (the book only, since I can’t find the film) and Ripley’s Game along with its various film versions.


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