Literary travel: “The talented Mr. Ripley” by Patricia Highsmith

I received from my flatmates for my birthday a 20£ coupon to spend in a bookshop and the first book I picked up was “The talented Mr. Ripley”. I had heard about it and about the movies they made based on it, and this novel had been on my to-read list for years.

It is considered a masterpiece, a classic of the thriller genre. Published in 1955 by the young, but already famous (her first novel, Strangers on a train, had been made into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock) Patricia Highsmith, this novel soon became a bestseller.

I think this book was such a hit because it introduced a new kind of character: the antagonist, the evil guy, who becomes in the reader’s mind the hero. Tom Ripley might be the first anti-hero we know.

The young and poor Tom Ripley is asked by the rich entrepreneur Herbert Greenleaf to go to Italy to convince his son, Dickie, an old acquaintance of Tom, to come back home. Dickie has moved to a village in southern Italy, were he’s living a dissolute life, sailing and attempting and miserably failing to become a painter. But when Tom arrives to Italy, he soon becomes Dickie’s new buddy and starts enjoying the rich life he never had.

I’ve never been good in writing synopsis, because I never know how much I should say, afraid I could spoil the story to someone who hasn’t read it yet. So I’d stop here. You just should know there’s a murder, and, as you might already have deducted, our antihero Tom Ripley is the murderer.

“Wonderful to look at the dusty arches of its façade and to think of going inside tomorrow, to imagine its musty sweetish smell, composed of the uncounted candles and incense-burnings of hundreds and hundreds of years. Anticipation! It occurred to him that his anticipation was more pleasant to him than his experiencing.”

The peculiarity of this novel is how well-written this psychological thriller is: the author plays with the reader’s mind, until he/she starts thinking as Ripley himself, getting frustrated on how stupid he is: in fact, in a lot of situations, you have the feeling that he’s almost trying to get caught, challenging his fate in so many ways, that at the end he’s surprised on how good his luck is. And his naivety, often driven by his thirst for money, is completely opposite to the cold calculations he performs in planning his crimes. As I said, this is a psychological thriller, and we get then to know other peculiarities of Tom’s mind as well: in particular he’s continuously seeking the appreciation of others and he develops his friendship with Dickie in a weird way and the reader never knows if he’s actually in love with him.

“Everything was all right between him and Mr Greenleaf, Tom thought. And everything would be all right with Marge, too. She had swallowed the suicide explanation, and that was the direction her mind would run in from now on, he knew.”

Being Italian, I also liked the fact that the story is set in Italy, in particular in southern Italy. But reading the name of my little northern town in such a famous novel filled me with pride!

SPOILERS AHEAD!

As I said in a previous post, I love reading novels based on which a film was made. So, as soon as I finished reading this, I quickly streamed the 2000 movie. Let’s just say that this film has a wonderful cast of young actors who are very well-known nowadays: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Cate Blanchett, Jack Davenport. Matt Damon, who plays Tom Ripley, perfectly shows the psychological conflict of the character and, to be honest, is sometimes pretty scary. The actors are all superb and the script is very well written and the idea of Southern Italy is pretty close to the ’50s reality. I also liked that some Italian actors were involved, such as Stefania Rocca and Rosario and Beppe Fiorello.

What I didn’t like of this film, though, is that it looks like a bad copy, a different draft of the novel. The psychology of the characters is completely changed, and I think this is quite an important difference for a movie based on a psychological thriller. And ok, you may argue that the film is “based” on the book, but I hate when they change the story so much. So, Tom Ripley is not so naive anymore, he’s just a con man who soon becomes an out of control murderer and, as I said, he gets pretty scary. Dickie, on the other hand, is a jerk who enjoys living the bella vita with his father’s money, is actually in love with Marge, but also enjoys sleeping with the beautiful Italian girls. So, if on one hand we might actually be content with his death, we cannot at the same time like the antihero either, as would have been in balance, because he’s scary! While reading the book the reader actually cheers for Ripley, wants him to escape the police and live the life he thinks he deserves, watching the film you just want the police to catch him. The psychological trick created by Patricia Highsmith, the same characteristic that probably made the book a bestseller, has been completely ignored by whoever wrote the script. Moreover, while in the novel some sides of Ripley remain mysterious, such as the nature of his relationship with Dickie, in the movie they are easily shown: Tom is gay, in love with Dickie, and he’s jealous of Marge.

I understand that it could have been harder to show the complicate psychologies of the novel’s characters in a film, and that a homosexual killer could have made more audience, but I still think the story should have been changed less.

I realize I’ve been pretty critical in this last part of the post. So, if you have other opinions, or suggestions, do not hesitate to comment!

WHERE I READ IT: on a plane from Manchester to Zurich, on a bus from Amsterdam to Berlin, on a beach in Peschici, Italy

FUN FACT ABOUT THE AUTHOR: homosexual, Patricia Highsmith was never able to have a stable love relationship in her life. She underwent a therapy to “cure” her homosexuality. While working in a department store in order to pay the therapy sessions, she wrote the autobiographical novel Carol (The price of Salt).

Title: The talented Mr. Ripley

Author: Patricia Highsmith

Genre: thriller

Publisher: Vintage

Pages: 258

Price: £ 8,99

If you’re interested in reading this book, get your copy here (UK) or here!

In Italia, il romanzo è edito da Bompiani con il titolo “Il talento di Mr. Ripley”: puoi trovare la tua copia qui!

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