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The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, Essay Example

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Words: 1191

Essay

Novel

While the suspense and thriller qualities of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, are certainly important, it is arguable that the most significant aspect of the book is its tone, or style.  Published in 1955, this is fiction that consistently and powerfully adheres to a specific kind of writing.  More exactly, it carries on the traditions of the 1940s detective story, and through a hard, plain style.  Every scene, and from the opening on, reads virtually like a noirtype of thriller, with language and description never veering from a tough and realistic presentation of what is occurring. In the beginning, for example, when Tom Ripley perceives he is being followed, the rhetorical questions he asks himself fully reflect the “tough guy” detective genre: “Or should he beat it over to Park Avenue and try losing him in a few dark doorways?” (Highsmith 9).  Nothing is left for the reader to guess at, in terms of what is happening at any point.  When Tom becomes aware that he is no longer wanted by Dickie, there is no ambiguity: “It was too much: the foreignness around him….and the fact that Dickie hated him.  He felt surrounded by strangeness, by hostility” (88).  This clear, plain, hard style then dominates.

At the same time, this pragmatic, “detective” style allows Highsmith to achieve some strong effects.  Character, for example, is always clearly illustrated, and vividly.  The reader can see Tom, Marge, Dickie, and the others plainly, and as dimensional men and women interacting.  This in turn goes to how the plot and the point of view are served by the style and the tightly drawn characters.  There is a consistent momentum to the storyline, even as Tom goes through multiple behaviors and variations in both safety and his violent conduct.  Because the style and character as so directly presented, momentum is enhanced; action, more than anything else, moves the story along because there are few distractions.  Then, and perhaps as importantly as the tone, Tom’s point of view drives the entire novel.  He does not narrate, but Highsmith offers the reader only what the world means to Tom as important.  As he assumes Dickie’s identity, Tom’s thinking is all that matters: “Now, from the moment when he got out of bed and went to brush his teeth, he was Dickie, brushing his teeth with his right elbow jutted out” (132).  The effects of the style, characters, international settings, and even violent plot all gain through this non-judging, straightforward, viewpoint.  The real achievement of the novel, then, lies in how it brings the reader into the mind of Tom, even as that mind is so deviant.

Film

The film, The Talented Mr. Ripley, exists essentially as a period, and psychological, thriller. While set in the mid-20th century and staying true to the nature of the era, it tells a very modern story because it centers on a sociopath.  From the first introduction of Tom Ripley, the audience perceives that he is fixated on ideas of being a certain kind of person, and that this fixation rules his life.  This goes beyond the desire for wealth and power, although these things are extremely important to him.  Instead, and as is made clear through Damon’s performance, Tom fully believes that those leading privileged lives are far superior, and that becoming “one of them” would be the most valuable goal he could achieve.  He enters the film and always remains within it as a driving force of “hunger” or need.  This being his motivation and thinking, he has no real moral compass; he can only see reality through this lens of distorted meaning, and actual lives and consequences of his actions are secondary matters.

Unfortunately, the intensity of Tom’s character as a sociopath is such that the other main characters are less impactful or developed. There is the sense that Dickie Greenleaf is the spoiled, self-indulgent “charmer” and that Marge is basically a lovely person, but they are still more in place to reinforce Tom’s craving to be them.  Only the character of Freddie Miles rivals Tom’s in strength, and simply because he is the one so mistrustful of him; this sets him apart from the world that accepts Tom’s pretenses. It must also be said that, in terms of plot, the film suffers from uneven pacing. Momentum is crucial in a suspense/thriller, and the suspense is harmed by too much time emphasizing the good life Tom is after.  Lastly, and interestingly, point of view has more than one effect here.  Some empathy for Tom is created early on, and partly by virtue of Tom’s desperate desire to please. Soon, however, his own actions then confuse and frighten the audience.  This is in fact the film’s best quality, because it brings the audience into the circle of people won over by, and later horrified at, Tom Ripley.

Book and Film

When book and film are set side by side, certain and important differences become evident. One of these goes to style. That is, and even as the novel describes the rich worlds of the Greenleafs and the Italian scenes, film enables a far more dimensional – and attractive – sense of the settings, and this creates a “softness” not in the novel.  This is both advantage and disadvantage. On one level, it brings the audience more to how seductive these worlds are, so there is a greater potential of understanding Tom’s desperation.  On another, however, it also diffuses the impact of Tom’s character itself as ultimately violent and disturbed.  In terms of theme, wealth and privilege cannot matter more than life, so the emphasis on the luxurious is basically pointless.

A more obvious difference lies in the character of Meredith Logue as invented for the film, as Tom meets no such heiress in the novel. Here again, the differences has several sides to it.  Meredith’s attraction to Tom and his interest in her, before he even enters Dickie’s and Marge’s lives, works to reinforce the sexual ambiguity of the character.  More exactly, without Meredith, the film would move more directly to the idea of Tom as desiring Dickie, as well as his life.  Then, Meredith adds suspense, in that she is exposed to Tom’s pretenses before anyone else, and she then foreshadows the more important role she will play later in the film.  At the same time, however, this early example of Tom’s sociopathic tendencies weakens the suspense of his involvement with Dickie and Marge. The audience already knows at least some of what Tom is capable of, and this would have more impact, as it does in the novel, with Tom’s sudden belief that he has no choice, in the boat murder scene.  Ultimately, then, and while the movie has a great deal to recommend it, it lacks the sharp and hard intensity of the novel. Ironically, the film as expanding the visual and physical dimensions of the story weakens the core impact, which is the developing sickness of Tom Ripley.

Works Cited

Highsmith, Patricia. The Talented Mr. Ripley. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 2008. Print.

The Talented Mr. Ripley. Dir. Anthony Minghella. Perf.  Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Cate Blanchett. Paramount, 1999. Film.

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