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Don’t Watch ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ — Read It

A Matt Damon movie is no substitute for the novels of Patricia Highsmith

As we crawl into another month of quarantine, we’re increasingly starved for communal experiences that aren’t, you know, reality. In other words, shared entertainment. There’s a virtual book club reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for example. On the other end of the spectrum, the whole of America seems to have watched Tiger King on Netflix. Now that the streaming giant actually tells you which content is most popular on a given day, you can binge the top titles and immediately join a lively social media conversation around them. This may be driving us toward middlebrow tastes, but whatever, it’s the end of the world, we’re allowed.

With a complete halt to cinematic releases, however, movie nights are devoted to older favorites, again as dictated by what’s available on Netflix and the like. It so happens that the 1999 adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley is right in the sweet spot of nostalgia (it’s about 20 years old), escapist scenery (beautiful shots of Rome, Venice and Italian beaches), attractive actors in the prime of youth (Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett), high-wire tension (there are murders!) and charged queer subtext that, along with the summery European setting, has placed it in conversation with 2017’s Call Me By Your Name.

Plus, it’s right there when you log in, and everyone else seems to be revisiting it, so why not you?

Now, I should say that there’s nothing wrong with streaming The Talented Mr. Ripley. I’m of the view expressed in this tweet — it’s “so beautiful and so cringeworthy.” I’ve also seen it called the movie version of a J. Crew catalog, and this, too, is a fair review. What I mean is that the film itself is rather bad, though intriguing as both a lavish mess and weird artifact of its time, which no doubt contributes to its current popularity.

Nevertheless, and despite my standing reluctance to perform “the book was better” snobbery, I’m afraid I have no choice but to demand that you at least read the 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley before letting the haphazard late-1990s update infect your brain. It’s a matter of respect for the author, Patricia Highsmith, one of the great suspense writers of the 20th century. She’s the reason you got Carol (based on her book The Price of Salt), so the least you can do is honor her vision of Tom Ripley, a character so wickedly compelling that she followed his exploits through another four novels. He is forever her creation.

My beef with director Anthony Minghella’s Ripley begins with the title character: Highsmith paints him as a rather shabby figure, a two-bit New York con man whose petty schemes are sure to land him in jail pretty soon. Besides that, he’s pointedly unremarkable, almost faceless — a homely, nondescript look that makes no impression. So of course Hollywood casts Good Will Hunting heartthrob Matt Damon, who first appears as a well-groomed classical pianist hired for rich people galas and will, rather quickly, reveal his washboard abs.

This is a narrative disaster for the simple reason that Tom Ripley ought to be first dismissed as a grubby prole and needy striver, thereby making his ascent to wealth and status through sociopathic deceit and crime a full, shocking transformation of his image — as well as a satisfying comment on good old-fashioned American bootstrapping. Ripley is the self-made man as shapeshifting monster. 

The screenplay does women no favors, either. Focused on the (actually rather tepid) homoeroticism between Damon and Law, it keeps Gwyneth Paltrow’s Marge Sherwood at arm’s length — pretty, boring and naïve until the very end, whereas Highsmith’s Marge is Ripley’s worthy opponent from the start, the keen observer who begins to unravel his lies and fatal attraction to her handsome fiancé. Cate Blanchett’s character is striking though entirely superfluous, nonexistent in the novel and a baffling addition given that the movie sags from a runtime of two hours and 20 minutes, in miserable comparison to Highsmith’s tight plotting.

Another groaner of a change is that Jude Law’s Dickie Greenleaf is an accomplished jazz saxophonist instead of a mediocre, frustrated painter. Worst of all, the piercing psychodrama of the piece is blunted, mostly to keep Ripley sympathetic as long as possible: He appears to know the sensations of guilt and remorse, his murders resembling freak accidents and defensive violence when they’re supposed to be cold-blooded (if sometimes improvisational) choices.  

Too many novels are called “unfilmable.” Clearly, it was possible to turn The Talented Mr. Ripley into a movie that thrills and delights in kind — the irreplaceable Philip Seymour Hoffman in particular matches the droll, black-hearted Highsmith mood — but the book gives you what only the book ever could: a dizzying interiority, this headlong rush of thoughts that come to unspeakable ends, the sheer creepiness of studying the person you desire and also wish to become.

None of it readily translates to on-screen action, and that is a mark of Highsmith’s genius on the page: You must enter her world on her terms, not by way of the glossy camp later attached to it. There is something primal and terrifyingly human in Ripley’s drive to master himself and others; it is ultimately facile, if temporarily fun, to portray him as a twink who kills because he cannot break free of the closet. Highsmith doesn’t allow for this reductive identity.

And the act of reading, of course, forces a complicity that the idle moviegoer may avoid — it is you who propels the action, and you can’t leave the room or scroll your phone. What better way to experience this amoralist fable?

If you want to truly lose yourself during lockdown, then trust me: Log out of Netflix and read Highsmith’s magnificently depraved fiction. It may not be what Twitter is abuzz about right now, but it is the stimulation you’re really after. Do not settle for less.