Quarantine Book Club: Why The Talented Mr. Ripley novel and movie are the perfect escapist combination
In this current climate, being an ally for inclusion is at its utmost importance. For me, that has meant evaluating how much of an ally for all groups I have been (and how I can improve). It's also Pride Month, so I've been delving into LGBTQ+ film history with documentaries like 1980's Paris Is Burning and 2014's The Case Against 8, both absolutely captivating looks at how far we've come in the last half-century, and how far we have to go. And recently on Twitter, I stumbled across a 25-second clip from The Talented Mr. Ripley — the movie borne out of the 1955 Patricia Highsmith novel, part of a canon that touched on LGBTQ+ themes (the author herself was openly gay).
In the clip, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman pulls off what can only be described as one of the greatest character introductions in history (see below), and it led me down a rabbit hole. Matt Damon, Hoffman, AND Jude Law at their peaks? I had to go straight to the source.
There's one scene in the film, especially, that stands out to me. It involves Ripley (Damon) playing chess with Dickie (Law), while Dickie is taking a bath. Naturally, Dickie is completely naked but doesn't hesitate to get out of the tub with Ripley right in front of him. The level of intimacy you need with someone to join them bath-side, especially without a clear sexual history, is enviable. Who wouldn't want to feel that free? Dickie feeds off Ripley's desire of him, while Ripley feeds off Dickie's radiant, wealthy, IDGAF status.
That led me to read the source material, Patricia Highsmith's now-classic novel. The sexual tension between Dickie and Ripley is less clear in the book, although there are hints swirling throughout their relationship that it's more than friendship. But Highsmith's novel focuses on Ripley nursing a different kind of lust: one for social and physical wealth. What struck me while reading the book was the craftsmanship of Ripley's constant forays into fantasy. Here's someone who we immediately recognize as a scammer: He's using the name of George McAlpin, parading as a member of the IRS, asking the rich and oblivious for tax money sent back to an office address that's actually Tom's bare-bones apartment. Tom is a chameleon who needs others to fill the emptiness inside him (oh, and his bank account).
The book made my heart pound, but also turned it ice cold whenever Tom took another defeat. Highsmith gives us pages upon pages of dramatic story lines, many of them made up entirely in Tom's own head. His daydreams intensify as he gets closer and closer to Dickie — there's a moment that sees him obsessing over a refrigerator that Dickie and his girlfriend Marge have recently purchased, when Highsmith writes, "The huge white form of the refrigerator sprang out of the corner at him. He had wanted a drink, with ice in it. Now he didn't want to touch the thing." She adds, "Tom realized suddenly why he hated the refrigerator so much. It meant that Dickie was staying put."
I found myself thinking that Ripley himself would make an excellent filmmaker — Tom is always fantasizing about the future. He fantasizes about his death. He fantasizes about traveling to Spain, France, Greece with first-class ease. Ripley builds a drama in his own head as if a movie of his life was playing right alongside him. I could physically see him yearning for that idealistic version of his life. The panoramic details of Mongibello, Italy, its cafes and nightlife, make the novel all the more escapist during a quarantine.
Next up in the Ripley pop culture universe is a Showtime series starring Andrew Scott — his taking on the role of Tom Ripley is a luxury for a TV fan, given his history as the sexy 'Hot Priest' in Phoebe Waller Bridge's Fleabag. Will Showtime do the story justice? It remains to be seen, but I'm optimistic. The Talented Mr. Ripley shines as a story alone, but with a little movie (and TV) magic, its all the more palpable and gripping.