Patricia Highsmith—Adaptations

EDITORS’ PICKS, Features, FILM, Film Society
From Plein Soleil to The Talented Mr. Ripley, a closer look at the screen iterations of Patricia Highsmith’s classic antihero, Tom Ripley.

With the imminent release of Todd Haynes’s highly anticipated adaptation of Carol (from the 1952 novel also known as The Price of Salt), the timing is perfect to consider other adaptations of Patricia Highsmith’s work, starting where the journey began for her most famous creation: the classic antihero, Tom Ripley, in Plein Soleil (Purple Noon), René Clément’s 1960 version of her seminal 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley. How does the film stand up today against the original novel and the 1999 Anthony Minghella adaptation, also called The Talented Mr. Ripley?

Not unlike other literary titans such as Hemmingway, Orwell, or the near unfilmable Philip Roth, Highsmith has found her work adapted for the big (and small) screen with varying levels of critical and commercial success over the years. But when one considers the specificity of her tone and writing style, it becomes clear why the adaptors who have taken the greatest artistic liberties with her stories have achieved the best results. Highsmith never strayed from the confines of crime fiction, and due to the constrictions that the censors of the time placed on literary society, she often struggled to engage with the topics most pertinent to her—most notably, her own homosexuality. Carol is the story of a lesbian love affair between a younger and an older woman, and is notorious for being the only time that Highsmith dealt with the risqué topic in such a blatant manner (the book was published under the pseudonym, Claire Morgan), and also for the ambiguous ending which implies that the same sex couple actually end up together, in a time when homosexuality was still very much illegal. It will be interesting to see how Haynes deals with this subject matter when same sex marriage is now recognised across much of the world and the subject matter is no longer considered taboo.

However, it is exactly the constrictions Highsmith was forced to work with which give her stories their individual flare. They are far more than the simple cops and robbers tales that hundreds of other crime writers, such as her near contemporary P.D. James, peddle out—and which are often so easily realised for the screen. There is always another layer, something going on behind the scenes, desires brimming just beneath the surface, or hidden and repressed deep inside, that both entice and repel the reader, and almost uniquely—and perhaps reflecting the way that Highsmith saw her own self in society—the stories are frequently told from the point of view of, and are sympathetic toward, the wrong-doer. Her writing, often tonally one-note, is at its strongest when describing a sickening and bloody murder sequence, but like so many of the truly great writers, it is often what she doesn’t say that speaks the loudest.


‘Strangers on a Train’ (1951)

It appears that both Clément and Minghella knew this, and so decided to remain honourable only to the over-arching skeleton structure of Highsmith’s novel, choosing to construct their films around their own individual take on Tom Ripley’s coming-of-age story. In 1951, Alfred Hitchcock successfully translated the sub-theme of repressed homosexuality in his adaption of Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers on a Train, but Bruno Antony’s latent sexual desire for protagonist Guy Haines only served to mark him as the twisted villain against Haines’s hetro-normal hero. A trick very common in mainstream fiction at a time when society was still very far from acceptance of anything but the classic idea of marital relations. Sodomy laws were not repelled in any American states until after 1962, and most people in the USA of the fifties were still brought up to consider homosexuality an aberration.

There is no doubt that although he struggles to identify or label his own repressed feelings, the Tom Ripley of the novel is desperately in love with Dickie Greenleaf. A love though that never turns physical, and which soon turns into something else altogether. As Highsmith has it, “A crazy emotion of hate, of affection, of impatience and frustration was swelling in him, hampering his breathing.” Tom’s solution on discovering that Dickie’s friendship is slipping away is first to plan and then enact his murder, and subsequently to take over Dickie’s life, imitating him and claiming all his assets as his own. This leaves the reader ultimately asking whether it was just Dickie’s lifestyle that Tom coveted, and not his love. Highsmith kept Tom’s sexuality ambiguous throughout all of her further dealings with him over the years, but one does maintain the feeling that it is the inner conflict of his character in his first outing that intrigued readers the most. Could Tom’s feelings toward Dickie be put down to delayed boyish same sex affection considered common in teenagers, was he actually in love with him and failed to realise it, or was there always something much darker at play?

So, in 1960, how did Clément choose to deal with such taboo subject matter in a film intended for a mainstream audience? He chose to ignore it. Perhaps in exact inverse proportion to how Minghella confronted it from the safety of nearly 40 years of sexual liberation later. The young Alain Delon’s Tom is no doubt in the thrall of the older and more dominant Maurice Ronet’s Philippe (Dickie) Greenleaf, but the impression is that it’s more of a fraternal hold that he has over him, not unlike that of an older brother. Philippe delights in bullying Tom, correcting his lower-class table manners, and even leaving him stranded in a dingy so he contracts sunstroke, all feeding Tom’s motivation and leading up to the moment that he tells Philippe of his plan to murder him and take over his life. None of this is in the novel or the Minghella version and the shift in tone creates a very different and perhaps more straightforward film.


‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ (1999)

The murder is also premeditated in the novel, but Minghella chose in his script for it to be a crime of passion; Matt Damon’s Tom acts in the moment, bursting from pent up jealousy and rage as Jude Law’s Dickie finally vocalises his rejection. The way Tom chooses to deal with the fall out of this life changing moment quickly aligns his character with both other versions, but Minghella’s scene adds drama in a different way, offering its audience a reason to understand why Tom acted the way he did. An audience in the late nineties would feel empathy for someone rejected in homosexual love, unlike an audience of 40 years earlier. Clément’s Tom builds the drama before his murder by explaining to Philippe what he is about to do, which has the audience asking themselves whether he is going to go through with it or not.

There are just three key scenes that feature in all the versions, each with a very different meaning and impact. Other than Dickie/Philippe’s murder, there is also the murder of Freddie Miles, where we find Highsmith’s Tom nearly fainting; Minghella’s Tom somewhat passive to the whole situation; and Clément’s Tom decidedly distanced, even sitting down to devour a roast chicken whilst Freddie’s defunct body lies just a few feet away.

The other moment is the dressing up scene. In the novel Tom spies on Dickie and Marge kissing and flees back to the house in a jealous rage, calming only when he dresses up in Dickie’s suit and shoes, where he is then caught by Dickie. In the novel the scene acts as a turning point for their relationship, as it is Dickie that becomes uncomfortable and begins to pull away from Tom and closer to Marge. In the Clément film, Tom retires from the sitting room where Philippe and Marge are getting amorous and impersonates Philippe whilst staring in the mirror, proclaiming his love for Marge, perhaps showing us his real desire. The Minghella version is by far the most dramatic and has Dickie walking in on Tom dressed up in top hat and dinner jacket (and no trousers) singing along to a show tune. Not only do his camp actions suggest Tom’s sexual leanings to Dickie, they also expose his real musical tastes. Music takes a much more dominant position in the Minghella version, and allows the principles to expose their true characters (Dickie’s into the upbeat good time jazz; Tom’s performance of ‘My Funny Valentine’, sung directly at Dickie, leaves little to the imagination regarding his true feelings), and also serves to date the piece and let its audience know exactly when it is set. In all versions the dressing up scene acts as a spooky precursor for Tom’s eventual assumption of Dickie’s identity.


‘Plein Soleil’ (1961)

Patricia Highsmith apparently didn’t like Clément’s adaptation because it implies that Tom is caught at the end. The film was noted as forward thinking in its following of an amoral character, but the decision to have him caught clearly complied with the restrictive classical moral code that insisted all criminals pay for their crimes, and in classic style, Delon’s Tom finds himself undone by his own actions. After emptying Philippe’s bank accounts and escaping Rome after Freddie’s murder, we fully expect Tom to flee the country, but instead he chooses to return to Mongibello, with one clear purpose in mind; he stages Philippe’s suicide and leaves all his money to Marge. And here Tom finally reveals his true motives—it was Marge that he wanted all along. It is still a story of power and envy, with Marge as the ultimate prize. This twists the love triangle in a different direction to how Highsmith and Minghella both present it—instead of having both Tom and Marge compete for Dickie’s affections, even after he’s dead, Tom and Philippe are competing for Marge’s. It’s a classic story devise common to so many films, and presumably made by Clément due to the controversial nature of Highsmith’s original text. Tom’s appearance in the town means that he is around when Philippe’s body is subsequently discovered, which ultimately leads to his presumed arrest after the film has finished.

Despite getting away with his murders, Damon’s Tom also ends up paying for his crimes, but in a decidedly different fashion. He is forced to murder Jack Davenport’s Peter Smith-Kingsley, with whom he has spent the last third of the film forming a reciprocated homosexual relationship with. Tom tells Peter to ask him what he would change about that very moment when they are aboard the ship bound for America, and when asked says, “nothing.” Moments later, though, he finds himself strangling Peter to death, because he would have unwittingly exposed his true identity had he lived. The moral statement Mingella is making in the decidedly more liberalised modern world is that if one chooses to live their life the way that Tom does there are going to be costs.


‘Plein Soleil’ (1961)

Interestingly neither film version offers Tom’s backstory, whereas the novel does. This is fairly typical in cinematic terms and allows the audience to make up their own minds about who he is and how he becomes who he is throughout the novel, but perhaps most pertinently the novel allows us direct access into Tom’s thought process. Highsmith’s Tom is naive, unsexed, planning low level fraud but unwilling to go through with it just yet. He’s looking for something, but unsure quite what it is or what it looks like. Damon’s Tom is alone, poor, and on the outside looking in. He’s an opportunist that we know for a fact doesn’t know Dickie, but pretends to have attended Princeton with him in order to take the free trip to Italy. He is the most deceiving Tom, but also the one that is the most exposed emotionally—perhaps another sign of the time in which the film was made. We are offered nearly nothing by Clément’s Tom except confused information. He claims to have known Philippe as a boy, but Philippe later tells Marge that he has made this up. We don’t know who to believe. There is a distance maintained by Delon’s brooding, James Dean-esque performance that keeps Tom at arm’s length, but one that was never evident in the original novel.

Patricia Highsmith, it seems, was a victim of the times in which she lived. Like Tom Ripley she was an outsider because of her sexuality, something that would dog her for her whole life, and would manifest itself in failed relationships, psychotic episodes, and heavy drinking. There is little doubt, though, that had she not experienced life in the manner that she did, that there would have been no Bruno Antony, no Carol Aird, and certainly no Tom Ripley.

‘Plein Soleil’ screened previously at the Wellington Film Society.
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Filed under: EDITORS’ PICKS, Features, FILM, Film Society


Tom Webb is a recent arrival from the UK who has worked in Programming at the BFI, where he also wrote for Sight and Sound magazine. He has an MA in Film, TV and Screen Media, and a Script Development diploma from the National Film and Television School. As well as writing on film and television, he has also produced, written, and script-edited short films that have been shown internationally.