How do you like your murderers? I take mine tall, dark, and grappling with the reality of their true selves. Written in 1955 by Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley is the first novel in a four-part thriller series known as the Ripliad in which Tom Ripley, a cunning but antisocial young man, finds himself entangled in the crimes he commits, ranging from art forgery to murder. The 1999 film of the same name, directed by Anthony Minghella, loosely follows the same plot and stands on its own as it takes so many liberties with its interpretation of the novel that even the genres of the film and the novel are different. A rich character driven drama with elements of suspense, the film divorces itself from the plot-driven novel’s genre, a psychological thriller. A pattern set by the film’s predecessor, a French adaptation titled Purple Noon (1960), clearly inspired the film’s deviations from the novel. The most striking difference between the film and the novel is the murder of Tom’s friend Dickie Greenleaf and the role Tom plays in his death. The audience’s perception of our titular character changes significantly along with his motives for murdering Dickie.
The basic framework of the plot, however, is the single thing that remains relatively unchanged. Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) goes to Mongibello because Dickie’s father, Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn) asks him to convince Dickie (Jude Law) to come back to America. At Mongibello, Tom stays with Dickie, who spends most of his days with a woman named Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow). After a period of time, Dickie and Tom begin to drift apart as Dickie begins to rekindle an old friendship with Freddie Miles (Phillip Seymour), a friend from America detested by Tom. As Tom and Dickie take one last trip together, Tom kills Dickie with an oar out on the ocean in a small rowboat and assumes his identity. This is where the similarities begin and end between the novel and the 1999 film. Based off of a 1955 book and getting an adaptation almost half a century later, it’s safe to assume that the film wasn’t made for those who had already read the book, especially because the changes made are so drastic that the genre itself changes between the two.
The novel is plot driven, with very little time given to dialogue once Tom kills Dickie. Even then, much of the lead up is devoted to Tom’s desires to stay in Europe and ‘reinvent’ himself. Just as the few months that he spent living as Dickie, the months that Tom spent living with Dickie are hardly described to the audience. The movie, on the other hand, is a character driven drama where the relationships between characters and their personalities are not only better developed, but enhanced. It’s not just that Tom sees Freddie Miles as an obnoxious American, it’s that Freddie introduces himself by driving a bright red Fiat into a crowd of Italians and blasting jazz music before asking Dickie “don’t you want to just fuck every woman you see just once?” Dickie and Marge aren’t just friends who keep each other company as the only other Americans in Mongibello, they’re young lovers who intend on getting married. Tom isn’t just a maybe-kind-of-sort-of sexually ambiguous guy who’s friends with Dickie, Tom’s relationship with Dickie is ruined after they share a tense moment when playing chess together as Dickie relaxes in a bathtub. Tom then pursues a romantic relationship with Peter Kingsley-Smith (Jack Davenport), a casual acquaintance in the novel, months after Dickie’s death. Everything in the movie is heightened, and not for the worse.
This is a decision that makes sense. It’s a way for the film to create a sense of humanity for the audience. In the novel, the audience develops very few attachments to the characters. Readers are viewing characters from the third person limited perspective of Tom, a man who seems to hate almost everybody he meets. Part of the problem with adapting The Talented Mr. Ripley is trying to engage with the protagonist as an unreliable narrator. The 1999 film sidesteps this issue by using the camera as the provider of an objective perspective. Pulling this perspective back from Tom’s control, however, means that the writers needed to take some liberties and add new depths to the characters and their relationships.
Though its source material is the novel, the film’s inspiration isn’t just the 1955 book, but the other Tom Ripley adaptation, Purple Noon (1955). Purple Noon also heightened the characters and changed their relationships. Just as the 1999 film, Marge and Dickie are fiancees and Dickie is actively cruel towards Tom. Both films create a more sympathetic Tom Ripley and, in turn, a more justified death for Dickie. It’s an interesting pattern for the film adaptions to turn Dickie into an antagonist. The novel showcases Dickie as aloof, but not particularly unkind. He spends his days painting and traveling with his friends, his death was a result of his trying to gently distance himself from Tom. He and Marge aren’t necessarily romantically involved, but he cares for her and stays in Mongibello because he doesn’t want her to be alone and feels guilty when he realizes that Marge feels left out when he meets Tom. In the The Talented Mr. Ripley film, however, Dickie isn’t just aloof, he’s cold and mean to the people he no longer finds amusing. He cheats on Marge both on-screen and off-, getting a new (invented-by-the-film) woman pregnant, an event which leads to the woman committing suicide. He talks about other women with Freddie Miles in front of Marge before having sex with her to make it up to her in a boat where he knows Tom can conveniently hear them. Marge tells Tom about “the thing with Dickie. It’s like the sun shines on you and it’s glorious, and then he forgets you and it’s very very cold. When you have his attention you feel like you’re the only person in the world. That’s why everybody loves him. It’s always the same […]”
These reimagined characters create drama and intrigue for the audience that was missing in Highsmith’s original novel. Making Tom’s homosexuality and romantic feelings for Dickie more apparent was also just something more doable in the late 90s than it was in mid-century America or France. There’s a new dimension added to the driving emotion of the film when Tom isn’t just killing out of a desire to live (literally) as Dickie does, but out of heartbreak and anger. It makes Tom more sympathetic as he finally lashes out at Dickie’s abuse after spending the past hour of the movie doting over him. In the novel, Tom quickly and methodically decides that he needs to kill Dickie in order to take his funds and travel Europe, because he’s scared of being sent back to America without the money from Dickie or his father to financially rely on. As Tom looks at Dickie as he sleeps on a train ride, it is revealed that “he wanted to kill Dickie. It was not the first time he had thought of it. Before, once or twice or three times, it had been an impulse caused by anger or disappointment, an impulse that vanished immediately and left him with a feeling of shame. Now he thought about it for an entire minute, two minutes, because he was leaving Dickie anyway, and what was there to be ashamed of any more?” Tom asks Dickie out on a boat ride with him specifically so that he can take an oar to his neck. As he sits in the boat, he feels scared because he knows that he can’t stop himself from killing Dickie anymore and worries that he may not be successful in doing so. It doesn’t sadden him that he’s going to kill Dickie. This is simply how Tom will survive. He has cut himself off emotionally and in doing that, the text reads dry. Dickie’s death is quick. There is no place for sentimentality here.
In the film, Tom is arguably driven by Dickie to kill him. On their perfectly innocent boat ride, the two begin to argue about their relationship to each other and the others around them. Dickie tells Tom that he wants some space between them because he finds him boring, to which Tom responds by telling Dickie that he’s been his authentic self while Dickie refuses to acknowledge his feelings for anybody, including Tom. This sets Dickie off. Piano notes begin falling on top of themselves, violins and voices sustain high notes, creating a sense of unease and tension. The camera has been increasingly shaking with the force of the water, it is impossible to focus or feel any sense of stability. He begins slapping Tom, telling him he’s “a third class mooch” and asking him “who are you? Who are you to be saying anything to me?” He turns to face the engine, trying to drive the boat back to land as he continues to berate Tom. The music swells and the camera bobs up and down with the waves. Quick jump cuts switch between Dickie’s twisted expression and Tom’s look of embarrassment and horror. Tom tells Dickie to shut up as he speaks louder. Finally, Tom picks up an oar and hits Dickie across the head. The music stops. He turns around, seemingly unscathed until the damage reveals itself and blood begins to pour violently out of his right side temple. Tom puts down the oar and asks if he can help before Dickie lunges at him, threatening to kill him for what he’s done. The two struggle against each other. When Tom is free of Dickie’s grasp, he pushes him over, grabs the oar, and brings it down against Dickie’s chest and head, begging him to calm down and stop. As he delivers the final blows, all the audience can hear is Tom’s labored breathing, the crashing of waves, and seagulls. The camera zooms into the water before superimposing onto an overhead shot of the crime scene. The music returns, steadier and more coherent now as a haunting piano refrain plays. Filled with blood sloshing against its sides, the boat is pushed by the water into view. Tom is shown lying in Dickie’s arms, clearly having positioned his body to briefly act as though they were lovers. The music is gentle. The scene is sad. It is the most memorable shot of the film. Differences such as these make the film and novel so different, yet equally compelling. It’s not quite clear what’s worse, a cold and conniving Tom Ripley desperate to do anything to achieve his goals, or a warm-hearted and naive Tom Ripley that feels driven to murder out of heartbreak and necessity. Though the film plays fast and loose with its interpretation of the novel, it manages to keep a sense of suspense and the basic plot of the novel. The characters have been translated onto the screen to become more sympathetic (Dickies and Freddies of the world notwithstanding) and this creates a more emotionally compelling narrative for the audience. The Talented Mr. Ripley, whether on the screen or in the pages of a book, is a text that has been able to morph well into the needs of both mediums.