Ripley, No not that one, or, ‘Matt Damon and Murder.’

by TheLitCritGuy


Let’s talk about death, or more specifically murder. Before people start thinking that I’ve gone into some sort of depressive or homicidal funk I think I should contextualize my remark. For the next year I’m at grad school doing a Master’s degree in the pretentiously named ‘Gothic Imagination.’ So, until about June of 2013 I’ll be slowly starting to develop my expertise on all things dark and evil, (sadly not including things like this, but you can’t have everything)

From the first beginnings of the novel as we would recognise it there has always been something about the dark side of recorded experience that seems to have wide-spread appeal – it may sound like stating the completely bloody obvious but shock, sensation and violence has always sold well. Or at least since about 1780 which is certainly long enough to work out that occasionally a bit of blood helps boosts the sales figures.

So far, so common sense right? I think so. However there is a certain demographic that has a greater appetite for some blood and guts in their daily reading; namely the good people of my home land. The British – my people. Yes, that noble land of tea, rain, manners, rain, queues, rain and people talking about the weather has proven to be a fertile ground for writers wanting to explore the darker side of human experience. To see evidence of it today you only need to go into any major bookstore and nine times out of ten the largest section there will be for crime. It’s not just in literature that this taste for the macabre comes out, and it certainly isn’t just limited to here in the UK. One only needs to look to journalism to see that British and American tabloids have been titillating their reader with salacious crimes and scandals for decades – centuries even.

The historical record sort of suggests then, that beneath the somewhat stoic and emotionally mild psyche lies a dark side and this is what we’ll be looking at with the classic 1955 thriller, ‘The Talented Mr Ripley.’ Before diving into the novel properly though, it’s important to make a few points about the general state of crime fiction pre and post-World War II and how this novel made such a difference. To start with violence and murder was an alienating and shocking act. One of the first ever gothic novels, Matthew Lewis’s ‘The Monk’ featured a sinister and rapacious friar who murders a woman who had interrupted him in the act of raping her daughter. The intention was to shock the reader with the sheer horror of what they were reading. Interestingly as scientific knowledge advanced and led into the beginnings of psychiatry novelists began to be more interested in the development of deviancy and the WHY behind murder rather than just the HOW.

The turning point comes at the end of the 1800s when the great writer Henry James publishes his renowned essay, ‘On The Art of Fiction’ where he sets forth that writers should be providing readers with direct access to consciousness and this is how we should judge literary merit. Accepted as truth the modern novel that we have today was born – crime writers took a slightly more hybridised approach. When examining literary and generic history the modern crime novel takes elements of James’s essay and combines it with the lurid horror of the gothic and the sensation fiction of the 1850s. The result is a heady brew of dark psychology and a plot that always keeps moving – compulsively readable stuff so it’s no wonder that this kind of writing has been popular (in it’s current form) for about 70 years.

With that as some context let’s move on to the novel itself, and as per usual I’ll try to recount the plot without giving away too much in terms of spoilers. Tom Ripley is a young man struggling to survive in New York, mainly getting by on a series of small time cons before he’s approached by the shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf. Greenleaf wants him to go to Italy to track down his wayward son, Dickie. Arriving in Italy Ripley insinuates himself into Dickie’s life and proceeds to completely take it over. As I said, without spoilers that’s probably as much as I can tell you without revealing plot details but what makes the book so good is how incredible Patricia Highsmith is as a writer. Reading it, one might first easily assume it’s a more sophisticated Agatha Christie novel – it seems to have much in common with Christie’s representation of a superficially placid upper class seething with murder but that isn’t the best comparison. As it deals with class but also Americans, the best comparison I can come up with is that of F. Scott Fitzgerald – the whole novel has the same feel as Gatsby, with gauche and elegant people swanning around beautiful post-colonial locations. Although in Ripley’s case, instead of being riddled with the neurosis and ennui of the bourgeoisie, it’s more psychotic rage and greed.

The novel is a tautly plotted insight into the mind of a truly dangerous man and the English adaptation took over forty years to hit the big screen. Was it worth the wait?

Yes. It’s fantastic and if you haven’t, you should totally go out and watch it as soon as you can.

The film was directed by the much missed Anthony Minghella and was lucky enough to land a trifecta of leading actors who had to break into the A-list; Jude Law as Dickie, Gwyneth Paltrow as his love interest Marge and Matt Damon as Tom Ripley. All three do an excellent job – the breakout star is probably Jude Law who enjoyed the most attention critically, but personally I think Damon is absolutely stunning. Initially it’s hard to feel threatened by the boyish face and his evident love of the lifestyle that being with Dickie allows him. But slowly, you see the monster beneath the surface, in stares that last too long and an intense chemistry between him and Law and the slow build up to the first murder makes it all the more shocking. Paltrow does good work too, but her initial distrust of Ripley never really seems more than an affectation and out of the three she is probably the weakest.

There are differences from the novel that I won’t spoil here and my one criticism of the movie is that the journey is more interesting than where you end up (just like this blog I suppose…) and some may well find Ripley’s vivid amorality hard to cope with but there is much to enjoy here and praise for that should go to the film’s direction. Minghella, for those who don’t know was the man behind the English Patient, which won him his Oscars. Interestingly the style is broadly similar despite the disparate subject matter with Minghella putting lots of emphasis on good quality cinematography and some quite stunningly beautiful locations.

So to some up, it’s a film made by an Oscar-winning film maker featuring the best actors of a generation making their move into the big time; as an adaptation it isn’t perfect – Damon went on the record saying he’d like to make the film again but stick even more closely to the novel but that shouldn’t put you off. Adaptations need flexibility and the creative freedom for the directors to make their own decisions and whilst I don’t agree with every choice I certainly admire the time, energy, talent and skill that everyone obviously put into this.

Read the book, watch the film and see what you think, because after all, it’s the discussion that matters and not necessarily the conclusion that we reach. Oh look at that – it’s the end of this blog.