The Talented Mr. Ripley
Produced by Paramount Pictures and Miramax Films
Directed by Anthony Minghella
Screenplay by Anthony Minghella, from the novel by Patricia Highsmith
Released by Paramount Pictures

Anthony Minghella’s screen version of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley has beautiful photography, good acting, and real suspense. What it lacks is the element that would have made it an important film: Highsmith’s vision. Minghella has replaced her cold-eyed nihilism with cautionary melodrama. In his hands, Highsmith’s novel has become a tale of class envy coated with a patina of political rectitude. To the moral and theological issues Mr. Ripley poses, Minghella’s film is tone deaf.

No surprise here, of course. Literary works of any sophistication rarely translate to the screen successfully. As a rule, the better the book, the poorer the film. Lesser novels, on the other hand, often improve in cinematic translation. Highsmith’s own Strangers on a Train makes the point. Published in 1950, this was her first novel. As such, it is a remarkable performance, but certainly not first-class fiction. Then Alfred Hitchcock turned it into a powerful film, a commercial and critical success that endures today. Although he changed Highsmith’s plot and characters drastically, he grasped her intention and honored it fully. The result was a subtle Conradian narrative depicting a soul’s tormented struggle between respectable ambition and amoral ruthlessness, a mortal combat between the proper self and its bedeviling double.

Highsmith’s Mr. Ripley, published in 1955, is the first in what would become five novels featuring the eponymous character. A distinct advance upon Strangers, it is a novel of wit and complexity. As such, it poses a daunting challenge to the would-be screen adapter. Minghella either was not up to this challenge or deliberately evaded it.

Following Highsmith in general outline, Minghella invents new characters and incidents to smooth away the original’s sharper edges. His narrative begins with a wealthy shipbuilder named Greenleaf, who desperately wants his feckless son, Dickie, to join him in the family business. But his heir apparent has other plans. Studiously ignoring the paternal call to duty, he remains on indefinite holiday in Naples, indulging his passions for jazz and sailing. When Greenleaf senior mistakes the well groomed Tom Ripley for one of Dickie’s classmates, he hires him to travel to Naples to convince the prodigal to return. Ripley, however, is not what he appears. He is a poor boy with little formal education and a desire to rise in the world at whatever cost, even—perhaps especially—the cost of his own identity. “I would rather be a fake somebody than a poor nobody,” he remarks at one point.

Once set in motion, the film’s plot gathers fateful momentum. In Naples, Ripley inveigles his way into Dickie’s life, claiming to have admired him at a distance while they were both at Princeton. The two young men soon become friends while romping about Italy, supported by Greenleaf senior’s largesse. But then Dickie notices some oddities. Disconcertingly, Ripley imitates his host’s manner and handwriting. At the same time, he hasn’t the marks of an Ivy League rich boy. He doesn’t sail, ski, or womanize as Dickie and his friends do. His clothes are gauche, a fault compounded by his penchant for trying on Dickie’s wardrobe. Then, in a motorboat off the coast of San Remo, Ripley confesses he has fallen in love with Dickie’s way of life and proposes that they live together. Worse, Ripley’s proposal hints that his love of Dickie’s life may extend to his person, despite Dickie’s involvement with a young woman named Marge. Dickie recoils in disgust, hurling an irrevocable insult: “You [are] a leech and it’s boring.” Ripley reacts impulsively, striking Dickie with an oar. In the furious fight that ensues, Ripley kills him unintentionally.

A talented forger and mimic, Ripley easily assumes Dickie’s identity and funds so that he can live comfortably in Rome. His idyll is short-lived, however. As suspicions mount, he’s forced to juggle both identities to avoid detection. After a series of grotesquely comic quick-changes, he is left at the conclusion in straits that are at once hideous and ambiguous.

The film tells its story entertainingly enough with a plot enlivened by several cleverly contrived twists and by performers who are all up to their tasks. As the envious and demented outsider. Matt Damon strikes just the right balance. Behind owlish black-rimmed glasses and an ungainly manner, he exudes watchful, reptilian cunning. Jude Law plays Dickie as one possessed of all the self-assurance and irresistible charm privilege can buy. He is arrogant and cruel golden youth incarnate, romancing Marge while carelessly impregnating a Neapolitan working-class girl. As Marge, Gwyneth Paltrow looks understandably wistful about her tenuous status in Dickie’s mercurial affections.

Yet the film never rises above its melodramatics. Like Rene Clement’s far duller adaptation of the same novel, Purple Noon (1960), it goes out of its way to furnish a supposedly “moral” ending, something Highsmith conspicuously (and correctly) eschewed. We’re left with a fairly conventional murder story graced with a few portentously unorthodox flourishes. As a consequence, the film is haunted by an aura of so-whatness. Even if you haven’t read Highsmith, you can’t help feeling a bit cheated.

Minghella’s departure from Highsmith is nowhere more evident than in the words his Ripley speaks at the film’s opening: “If I could just go back and erase everything, including myself,” he mutters remorsefully as he emerges from under a black screen that is being peeled away in diagonal strips. The ending returns to this moment. As we hear Ripley say these words once again, the black strips are replaced one by one, sealing him in darkness. This visually clever framing device betrays Highsmith’s conception. Such remorse is utterly foreign to her Ripley.

In the novel, Ripley is a conscienceless sociopath whose sense of authenticity has been erased long before the story begins. Ripley was orphaned in early childhood and raised grudgingly by a guardian aunt. As a consequence, he never developed a genuine self By the time we meet him at age 25, he has become a moral and psychological cretin. Although he doesn’t seem to realize it, he clearly despises himself. He displaces this self-hatred by detesting all that is conventionally normal. Although he conforms outwardly to social expectations, he harbors a sulfurous, if inchoate, cynicism. He enjoys fooling people with his normal appearance and cleverly mimics officialdom in order to gain leverage over others. After losing a job at the Internal Revenue Service, he uses the agency’s letterhead to dun people on false charges of tax underpayment. He preys upon their guilt, shrewdly assuming that few Americans arc entirely honest when filing their returns. Although he cannot cash the checks they anxiously send him, he takes pleasure in proving that no one is as straight as he pretends. It’s as though he needs to demonstrate to himself that official society is as much a fraud as he is.

What Ripley doesn’t realize is that his little ruse weirdly parodies the practice of his miserly aunt. She sends him checks at irregular intervals, made out in odd amounts—$12.95, $6.48—much like the larger amounts—$119.54, $253.76—he puts down on his bogus bills. He compensates for his aunt’s niggardly support by getting others to pitch in more generously, at least on paper.

Ripley is a wounded narcissist who thinks he is entitled to have all the world nurture and indulge him. At the same time, his narcissism isolates him from others. This is, in part, why he is so profoundly confused about his sexuality. He is attracted to a young lady with whom he shares a taste in art precisely because she doesn’t expect him to make a pass at her. He socializes with a young man who works as a window dresser but is repelled by homosexual advances. At bottom, he is hopelessly trapped in his own self-embrace. Although he wants to escape, he is prevented by his inability to understand either himself or others.

All of this comes into focus when Highsmith’s Ripley, unlike Minghella’s, deliberately decides to murder Dickie. His violence is triggered as much by the look in Dickie’s eyes as by his insult. In Highsmith’s words, Dickie’s eyes are:

shining and empty, nothing but little pieces of blue jelly with a black dot in them, meaningless, without relation to him. You were supposed to see the soul through the eyes, to see love through the eyes, the one place you could look at another human being and see what really went on inside, and in Dickie’s eyes Tom saw nothing more now than he would have seen if he had looked at tire hard, bloodless surface of a mirror. . . . It struck Tom like a horrible truth, true for all time, true for the people he had known in the past and for those he would know in the future: each had stood and would stand before him, and he would know time and time again that he would never know them, and the worst was that there would always be the illusion, for a time, that he did know them, and that he and they were completely in harmony and alike. For an instant the wordless shock of his realization seemed more than he could bear. . . . He felt surrounded by strangeness, by hostility.

This is nothing less than a description of Hell. Ripley’s warped self is locked in its own Stygian chamber. Some commentators have made Ripley a martyr to misunderstood homosexuality, a man suffering for his difference in the context of the intolerant 50’s and therefore driven to pathological extremes. As evidence, they adduce Highsmith’s admission of her own youthful bisexuality and her pseudonymously published lesbian novel, The Price of Salt. No doubt her proclivities and her reportedly horrendous upbringing colored her fiction. (Her mother informed her that she had tried to abort her by drinking turpentine, jocularly observing that this might explain why Highsmith liked its aroma as a child.) Nevertheless, Ripley cannot be explained so reductively. Highsmith’s Marge comes much closer to the truth when she implores Dickie to drop him. “He may not be queer. He’s just a nothing, which is worse. He isn’t normal enough to have any kind of sex life, if you know what I mean.”

Other than his aunt’s endless reminders of how intolerable a financial drain he was, we never learn what happened to Ripley as a child, leaving him an emotional amputee. When accused of being queer, he doesn’t understand. He childishly thinks of himself as “one of the most innocent and clean-minded I people I he [has] ever known.” But contrary to his imagined sexual innocence, his murder of Dickie has an unmistakably sexual cast. When Dickie is removing his trousers to go swimming, Ripley “pick[s] up the oar, as casually as if he were playing with it between his knees,” and then attacks him.

The murder is Ripley’s horribly self-aborting attempt to make contact with another. Committing it, he gains the illusion of escaping his claustrophobically self-centered existence. Since he is unable to form a relationship with Dickie, he appropriates Dickie’s identity instead. “This was the clean slate. . . . This was the real annihilation of his past and of himself, Tom Ripley, who was made up of that past, and his rebirth as a completely new person.” A few days later, walking the streets of Paris in the guise of Dickie Greenleaf, he is enchanted to hear Christmas carols being sung in the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Afterward, at a bar-tabac, he orders hot milk that is “almost tasteless, pure and chastening, as [he] I imagined a wafer tasted in church.” This parody of transubstantiation may seem peculiarly blasphemous given its murderous context, but it is nonetheless entirely apt. Ripley sacrifices Dickie in order to redeem himself under the other man’s guise. Instead of salvation through the Real Presence, he effects a ghoulish and transient deliverance from his private hell by means of an ersatz presence in and through Dickie, the Christ of wealth and position. On the emptiness of Ripley’s achievement, Highsmith is unequivocal. His salvation is wholly and corruptibly material, as his fanatic devotion to Dickie’s possessions makes perfectly clear. “The cufflinks, the white silk shirts, . . . the old brown grain-leather shoes. The kind advertised in Punch as lasting a life-time, they were all his and he loved them all.” Rarely has the word love been used so chillingly. Later, we’re told that “possessions reminded him that he existed, and made him enjoy his existence. . . . And wasn’t that worth something? He existed.”

Self-invention achieved at the expense of others and sustained by means of possessions—is this not a portrait of salvation in our materialist culture? Ironically, mad Ripley actually does become Dickie after all—a selfish, upper-class snob, brutally using others for his own pleasure and convenience.

Only at the novel’s conclusion do we realize we’ve been reading a Jekyll-and-Hyde story told solely through Hyde’s point of view. Ripley fascinates us because, in his visage, we catch a glimpse of our own gnarled self-absorption as though reflected in “the hard, bloodless surface of a mirror.”

Minghella leaves all of this out of his film. Why? In an interview with the New York Times, he alludes to concerns that were raised during the film’s preparation. Journalists had asked him how he planned to deal with the homosexual content. Did Minghella cave in and deliberately soften Ripley’s character? Does this explain his addition of a highly sympathetic homosexual character? If so, score another perverse victory for political correctness and mourn the loss of what could have been a morally complex film, one that, like its source, would have challenged our preconceptions of who and what we are.