While Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” may be the most famous film of her work, Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels have been a favorite for adaptation. Nicknamed The Ripliad, the quintet chronicles the exploits (in both senses of the word) of American anti-hero Tom Ripley as he lies, forges, thieves, disguises, and kills in order to attain and then maintain a perfect European bourgeois lifestyle. Like Lolita, another novel published in 1955, The Talented Mr. Ripley is about the rapaciousness of American culture against the threadbare but elegant Old World. In Highsmith’s depiction, we find ourselves not only condoning Tom’s amoral attempts to preserve this world, but also positively cheering him on. Like the name of his French country house, Belle Ombre, Tom Ripley is a beautiful shadow.
Ripley remains one of the rare modern characters to be reinterpreted multiply by world cinema — French, German, English, Italian, and American — testifying to the series’ international flavor, as well as the character’s own adaptability. Because of this, it is perhaps unsurprising that directors have gravitated toward the three Eurocentric novels — The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley Under Ground, and Ripley’s Game — while the last two, The Boy Who Followed Ripley and Ripley Under Water, which include more American characters and even scenes, haven’t made it to screen.
The Ripliad, on film:
“Purple Noon”/“Plein Soleil” (1960)
Based on The Talented Mr. Ripley
Directed and co-adapted by René Clément, this film made French actor Alain Delon a star. With its dialectic of careless expatriate wealth in a struggling postwar Italy, “Noon” forms a companion piece to another 1960 film, Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.” Delon’s Ripley is symbolic of this world: flawlessly nonchalant on the outside, yet constantly aware of the brittleness of its foundation. Despite an ending that betrays the character, the film otherwise perfectly evokes the seemingly eternal summer of the first novel.
“The American Friend”/“Der Amerikanische Freund” (1977)
Based on Ripley’s Game, with elements of Ripley Under Ground
If “Purple Noon” feels like a holiday, this is an abrupt cut to winter. Highsmith herself offered acclaimed German director Wim Wenders the then un-published Game to adapt. The darkest of the series, the novel shifts between Ripley and his object of amusement, an innocent man dying of leukemia. The film replicates the novel’s mood in the stark, murky look of Hamburg and New York. An understated Dennis Hopper plays into the isolation bred from Ripley’s criminal activity; his fiendish toying with the fading Jonathan — Bruno Ganz — communicates a longing to connect.
“The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999)
Perhaps the best known of the adaptations, Anthony Minghella’s film adhered more closely to the original, despite adding and repurposing a few characters. Matt Damon’s taut Ripley encapsulates the character’s outsider nature without much of his cool resourcefulness, a quality notable in Damon’s subsequent Jason Bourne. Looking uncannily like Delon, Jude Law, in an Oscar-nominated performance, steals the film as Dickie Greenleaf; even after death, his rakishly charming playboy remains the axis upon which the characters and their fates pivot, as cruel and vital as the heat of the Italian sun.
“Ripley’s Game” (2002)
Italian director Liliana Cavani brought the second version of Game to screen, moving the action from France and Germany to Italy. This adaptation presents everything in excess — the extent of Ripley’s wealth, his crimes, his willingness to commit those crimes, characters’ motives, even Jonathan’s English accent — thus removing the emotional drive of the original novel. John Malkovich’s Ripley falls in line with many of his bizarrely charming psychopath roles; Dougray Scott as Jonathan and Ray Winstone as a comedic gangster co-star.
“Ripley Under Ground” (2005)
Unreleased for years before going straight to DVD overseas, this adaptation of the second Ripley novel was helmed by former James Bond director Roger Spottiswoode. Expanding the novel’s back story and streamlining its main action, the film packs a lot of plot into a relatively brief run time, patching it together with Highsmith’s characteristic black comedy. Barry Pepper as Ripley leads an all-star cast of Willem Dafoe, Alan Cumming, Tom Wilkinson, and Ian Hart — who played Ripley in BBC 4’s 2009 radio adaptation of The Ripliad.
Which of the Ripleys do you prefer? Who would you like to see take on the role?