Advertisement

Everything you need to know about Netflix’s Ripley & 'The Talented Mr. Ripley' through the years

Everything you need to know about Netflix’s Ripley & 'The Talented Mr. Ripley' through the years

It’s been a good year for series so far...

True Detective: Night Country was a significant return to form for the anthology series; 3 Body Problem had a slow burn start but yielded many rewards; and The Regime is an absurd delight.

I still haven’t been able to muster the emotional fortitude to watch One Day yet, considering how David Nicholls’ novel robbed me of all eye moisture. But I’ll get around to it soon.

However, there is one show that drops today on Netflix which I’m giddy about: Ripley, the new adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”

I’ve been a fan of Highsmith’s novels ever since I can remember, and no one described her better than fellow author Graham Greene: Highsmith was “the poet of apprehension.” She created intricate and psychologically dense murder-mysteries that oozed distrust and paranoia, making you feel like you had to doublecheck the locks of your lodgings before you opened one of her books.

If you’re not already familiar with her work, you can probably tell it lends itself rather well to the big (and small) screens. Her novels and short stories have been adapted for film and television many times since Hitchcock first got us worried about the consequences of befriending fellow travellers with 1951’s Strangers on a Train.

The results over the years have been great (the aforementioned Hitchcock; 1981’s Eaux Profondes with Isabelle Huppert), middling (The Two Faces of January) and a bit naff (Once You Kiss A Stranger ; Robert Sparr’s interpretation of "Strangers on a Train", 2009’s Cry of the Owl).

Patrica Highsmith
Patrica Highsmith - AP

However, there’s one book that has been adapted the most, and it’s my favourite of Highsmith’s, purely because of the sustained air of mystery and the feverish malaise it provokes through profoundly disturbing implications. And that’s "The Talented Mr. Ripley".

For those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure, here’s the very leanest of plot skinnies. Struggling to make ends meet in New York, Tom Ripley is hired by a wealthy shipping magnate to head to Italy to convince his wayward son, Dickie, to return home and join the family business. Tom exaggerates his friendship with Dickie to gain his father’s trust (and loosen to his purse strings); he heads off to Europe - all expenses paid. He contrives to meet Dickie and his fiancé Marge, and slowly worms his way into their leisurely lives. However, his actions become the first step to obsession, deceit, betrayal, and murder.

There, all caught up.

Highsmith created the character of Tom Ripley, a con artist protagonist / smooth sociopath antagonist you bizarrely root for, and included him in five of her novels - "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (1955), "Ripley Under Ground" (1970), "Ripley's Game" (1974), "The Boy Who Followed Ripley" (1980), and "Ripley Under Water" (1991). The first is arguably the strongest and, by my count, there have been six feature films featuring the character of Ripley, as well as two TV versions.

The new Netflix show will be the third.

Andrew Scott as Tom Ripley
Andrew Scott as Tom Ripley - Netflix

Starring the in-demand and BAFTA-winning Andrew Scott as Tom Ripley and a superbly cast Johnny Flynn as Dickie, Ripley looks like it may be third time lucky – especially since the eight-episode limited series was created, written and directed by Steven Zaillian, the man behind the screenplay for Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York and David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. He also wowed everyone with the eight-part series The Night Of in 2016 – winning five Emmys for his troubles. Plus, Zaillian has described Scott’s characterization thusly: “He has the range to play the many personas of Ripley over the course of the story, beginning as a petty criminal who feels he deserves better than his meager circumstances, to someone who can be whatever he needs to be in order to improve that condition.”

Sounds like they’ve understood the brief.

Before you embark on the show - all shot in black and white - here’s a chronological rundown the notable adaptations featuring Tom Ripley. Some you should rush to watch and others you’d do well to avoid. I know I wish I had.

Full disclosure: I haven’t managed to get a hold of the 2012 Indian Tamil-language adaptation, Naan, nor been able to find the two TV adaptations - a 1956 episode of the anthology television series Studio One, and the 1982 The South Bank Show episode dramatizing segments of "Ripley Under Ground". However, the five I have seen should be enough to be getting on with.

Plein Soleil (Purple Noon)

Plein Soleil
Plein Soleil - CCFC

Year? 1960

Adapted from? “The Talented Mr. Ripley”

Who’s Tom? Alain Delon

What’s Tom up to? Directed by René Clément, this sunkissed French / Italian co-production cast the then fresh-faced Alain Delon as Ripley - his first major movie role. This is the adaptation that is arguably the most faithful to the novel – even if the finale takes one sizeable liberty...

Worth watching? Without a doubt. This is the film that made Delon a star, and while he does show off his on-screen magnetism, purists will argue he was a bit too dreamboaty to accurately portray Tom Ripley. Regardless, the direction is precise; the vibrant locations and sets work; and the tension is there in spades. Akira Kurosawa and Martin Scorsese have cited Plein Soleil as one of their favourites, even if Highsmith disliked the film’s "moral" ending – which is understandable, considering it does imply that Ripley will be caught by the police. She labelled that as a “terrible concession to so-called public morality that the criminal had to be caught."

Der amerikanische Freund (The American Friend)

Der amerikanische Freund
Der amerikanische Freund - Filmverlag der Autoren

Year? 1977

Adapted from? “Ripley’s Game”

Who’s Tom? Dennis Hopper

What’s Tom up to? Set in Hamburg, The American Friend is a loose adaptation that finds Ripley indulging in an art forgery scheme where he deliberately increases the price of paintings of a successful artist. When he is asked to murder a gangster by a French criminal, he coerces a terminally ill picture framer into becoming an assassin...

Worth watching? Yes. Directed by Wim Wenders, the legendary German filmmaker was a great fit for Highsmith’s world, injecting all the moodiness and moral greyness Highsmith's story requires. Dennis Hopper lent his talents to making this an introspective character study, and is matched throughout by Wings of Desire ’s Bruno Ganz. Hopper’s portrayal, however, was radically different from suave Ripley on the page, wearing cowboy hats and denim jackets, and leading many to consider his take as something of a betrayal. There was also a notable absence of the novel’s eroticism - which is a damn shame. That said, Hopper fully captures the essence and ruthlessness of the character, and this heavily atmospheric take on the 1974 novel makes it a noir gem to treasure.

The Talented Mr. Ripley

The Talented Mr. Ripley
The Talented Mr. Ripley - Miramax International

Year? 1999

Adapted from? “The Talented Mr. Ripley”

Who’s Tom? Matt Damon

What’s Tom up to? This one had some big shoes to fill, as up until 1999, Plen Soleil was considered the ultimate and untouchable Ripley adaptation. However, a starry cast including Matt Damon, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett, Gwyneth Paltrow and Philip Seymour Hoffman made this film soar. The story was altered in parts (some romance strands are added; Ripley is much more insecure than his book counterpart) and director Anthony Minghella created an atmospherically enveloping, haunting, and consistently compelling watch.

Worth watching? A resounding “yes”, as Minghella’s psychological thriller is arguably the best Highsmith adaptation and the strongest Ripley film. It’s a lush evocation of a time and place, as well as an exploration of what lurks beneath surfaces. The symbolism throughout works wonders, as every motif and double reflection highlights themes of deception and fractured morality. Damon nails every beat to make a fascinating anti-hero: Ripley is charming yet insecure; awkward and simultaneously cold-blooded; calculating but in over his head; despicable but relatable. Yes, he isn’t quite the calculating sociopath the books make him out to be, but Damon is captivating in every scene. The movie also leans into the queer dimension of Ripley's fascination with Dickie – something that the second-best Ripley film failed to do. Damon has never been better, and neither has Law, who makes every frame his own. Add glorious wardrobes and a soundtrack to die for, as well as that deliciously bleak ending, and you’ve got yourself the high watermark this year’s Ripley will be competing against.

Ripley's Game

Ripley's Game
Ripley's Game - Entertainment Film Distributors

Year? 2002

Adapted from? “Ripley’s Game”

Who’s Tom? John Malkovich

What’s Tom up to? Adapted from the third book in Patricia Highsmith’s series, Ripley’s Game sees a Berlin-based Ripley having to deal with one of his cheating art forgery partners. This goes south and ends in murder. Years later, when the partner resurfaces, Ripley ropes in an acquaintance for a hit job. Thus begins a twisted game of cat and mouse.

Worth seeing? All things considered, yes. It’s a sizeable letdown compared to 1999’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, but Ripley's Game never presented itself as an official sequel. It remains an enjoyable little thriller chockablock full of the manipulative antics that makes Highsmith’s novels so addictive. Malkovich is strong in the role (and will appear in the new Netflix series as a different character) - even if the screenplay makes his Ripley spout too much psychobabble, featuring repeated references to “the game” and “the rules of the game”. He’s a bit more Hannibal Lecter than a purist’s reading of Tom Ripley. Still, director Liliana Cavani clearly embraced Highsmith’s style and themes, appreciating that Tom Ripley is a charming man who toys with the lives of others in often ruthless ways. Plus, the ending – which won’t be spoiled here – is excellent. Unlike the next entry...

Ripley Under Ground

Ripley Under Ground
Ripley Under Ground - Fox Searchlight Pictures

Year? 2005

Adapted from? “Ripley Under Ground”

Who’s Tom? Barry Pepper

What’s Tom up to? Roger Spottiswoode, the director behind Turner & Hooch and the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, adapted the second Ripley novel which sees Tom take up the fake identity of his recently deceased friend and acclaimed painter Philip Derwatt. He joins forces with Derwatt’s inner circle to forge the late artist's paintings. But when one of Derwatt’s works turns out to be a fake, the scheming bunch get entangled in a twisted game that threatens to expose them.

Worth seeing? Avoid this one. Pepper can’t nail what makes Ripley so complex, instead playing him in a misguidedly lighthearted manner. There’s no suspense, and the general clunky tone of the film makes Ripley Under Ground come off as a Euro pudding spin on The Thomas Crown Affair. It’s without a doubt the weakest Tom Ripley film. So, much less pressure for 2024’s Ripley then...

If you haven’t yet read any of Highsmith’s novels, get to it - and Plein Soleil and The Talented Mr. Ripley are required viewing.

I’ll be tearing through what appears to be The Sinister Mr. Ripley as soon as it drops – impatient to see what Andrew Scott & Co. have in store, with what will hopefully be a visually monochrome but atmospherically polychrome confirmation that 2024 is turning out to be one vibrant year for series...

I'll leave you with the poster for Ripley, which is all kinds of good:

Ripley (2024)
Ripley (2024) - Netflix

Ripley arrives on Netflix on Thursday 4 April.