I hadn’t realized this at first, but I think a lot of the movies I’ve been watching since starting this blog-journal could be grouped in pairs. So maybe we’re in a Book Adaptations section here, following Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby with Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. I really like The Talented Mr. Ripley, the movie and the novel both, and though I think that they are more different from each other than the Gatsby’s are, I’m glad about it. The Ripley movie managed to rescue itself from something that would not have “needed” fixing in 1955, and what Minghella did with his adaptation was actually pretty dang progressive for 1999.
To talk about this though, I’m going to have to reveal some central plot points at the end of the movie, so unlike the rest of my write-ups this one is NOT spoiler-free, sorry sorry!
Ok, so for those of you still here, let’s talk about the Patricia Highsmith novel a bit. What is so captivating about The Talented Mr. Ripley The Book, is probably how coolly straightforward it is in tone. The book trades on the disparity between that tone and its subject matter: a protagonist who is the human embodiment of the @wolfpupy Tweet: “have to stop saying ‘how am i going to kill my way out of this one’ every time there is trouble going on, or at least not out loud.” Highsmith’s Tom Ripley is deeply chilling, but he’s also sensitive and vulnerable enough to illicit a weird sympathy. Actually, maybe the trait that most aligns us with him is that Ripley is talented. We like watching cleverness, so when we catch ourselves rooting for him, appalled at ourselves, maybe what we’re actually hoping for is just that the plan works. We shouldn’t hope that though, because the plan is horrific. It’s a complicated complicity. Anyone who has watched Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal will recognize this feeling, and also get why this story (set in Italy, no less) was one of Fuller’s touchstones for the third season of that show.
Now, the movie still wraps you up in that uneasy investment Tom Ripley’s deadly deceits, but without the cool, removed narration of the novel, this Ripley becomes a different sort of monster. His yearning is painfully visible in film-form, and it is most directed, as it is in the book too, at Dickie Greenleaf. Highsmith, a queer woman who wrote the recently adapted Carol under a pen name, is neither explicit nor exactly subtle about Tom’s desire, but there’s a reason why she got away with that: Tom Ripley is bad. Tom Ripley is a textbook Gay Villain, his love for men tied up in his amorality. There is something wrong with Tom, and his queerness is part of it, and it will lead to nowhere good.
But what flew for a mass audience in the 1950s is, of course, very uncomfortable for audiences today! And for the first half of the movie, it honestly looks pretty bad. Until, taking a left turn from the novel, the movie introduces Peter, and the story changes beautifully.
Peter Smith-Kingsley exists in the book, but briefly, and not like he does here. Because in the movie, Peter is gay, and Peter is good. He is kind and caring, well-adjusted, happy. And most importantly, it is Peter who offers Tom a way out. Directly, with none of that midcentury ambiguity, we are shown that Tom Ripley could be rescued through the love of a good man. Loving men is no longer monstrous, but what can save him. “Tom has nightmares. That’s not a good thing,” Peter tells him gently, “Tom has someone to love him. That is a good thing.” And so the movie’s new thesis statement reveals itself — but it’s too late. Tom has gone from being a representation of something, to being one specific, terribly broken individual, and thinking he has no choice, he destroys this chance at love and happiness. It’s heartbreaking, one of the most devastating scenes I’ve ever watched, and in true Ripley fashion, still chilling.