Vital Signs

Presence, Real and Ersatz

The Talented Mr. Ripley
Produced by Paramount Pictures and Miramax Films
Directed by Anthony Minghella
Screenplay by Anthony Minghella, from the novel by Patricia Highsmith
Released by Paramount Pictures

Anthony Minghella's screen version of Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley has beautiful photography, good acting, and real suspense. What it lacks is the element that would have made it an important film: Highsmith's vision. Minghella has replaced her cold-eyed nihilism with cautionary melodrama. In his hands, Highsmith's novel has become a tale of class envy coated with a patina of political rectitude. To the moral and theological issues Mr. Ripley poses, Minghella's film is tone deaf.

No surprise here, of course. Literary works of any sophistication rarely translate to the screen successfully. As a rule, the better the book, the poorer the film. Lesser novels, on the other hand, often improve in cinematic translation. Highsmith's own Strangers on a Train makes the point. Published in 1950, this was her first novel. As such, it is a remarkable performance, but certainly not first-class fiction. Then Alfred Hitchcock turned it into a powerful film, a commercial and critical success that endures today. Although he changed Highsmith's plot and characters drastically, he grasped her intention and honored it fully....

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