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The Various Mr. Ripleys

The Various Mr. Ripleys

One of fiction’s most famous impostors returns on Thursday with the debut of Netflix’s “Ripley,” the latest adaptation of a character invented in the 1950s by the author Patricia Highsmith. In eight episodes, all written and directed by the Oscar-winning screenwriter Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List,” “The Night Of”), a classic chameleon changes colors yet again, returning to a few core elements of Highsmith’s original creation while also boosting the creepiness quotient.

Over nearly seven decades, Tom Ripley has appeared in five books by Highsmith, five films, multiple television episodes and even a radio show. He has been played by interpreters as varied as Matt Damon, Alain Delon, Dennis Hopper, John Malkovich and now, Andrew Scott. What has made him so enduring?

The details change, but the foundation of the character remains the same: a con artist who becomes a killer, someone so enamored by upper-class comfort that, once he experiences it, will do anything to hang on to it. Ripley dreams of a better life for himself, which makes him relatable. What makes him fascinating is his willingness to go to murderous lengths to secure it.

As a new version of Tom Ripley arrives, here is a look at how this grifter has evolved over the generations.

By the time Highsmith created Ripley, she was already an accomplished writer. She burst onto the scene in 1950 with her first novel, “Strangers on a Train,” which would be adapted into the Alfred Hitchcock film a year later. Other acclaimed Highsmith works include “The Two Faces of January,” made into a 2014 film starring Viggo Mortensen; and “Deep Water,” adapted into a 2022 film starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas. Using the pen name Claire Morgan, Highsmith also wrote “The Price of Salt,” renamed “Carol” for Todd Haynes’s 2015 film adaptation.

The books collectively known as the “Ripliad” remain her signature achievement. The series started in 1955 with “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” a thriller that has been adapted multiple times and influenced other, similar tales of men replacing other men. Highsmith’s Ripley is a low-level con man asked by a shipping magnate to find his layabout son, Dickie Greenleaf, who is wasting his trust fund in Italy with his friend Marge Sherwood.

Tom quickly becomes enraptured with Dickie’s life, as the skeptical Marge and abrasive friend Freddie Miles view him with suspicion. When it appears that Dickie wants to cut Tom loose, Ripley murders him on the water with an oar and attempts to take his place. Highsmith’s Ripley is always one step ahead of reality, willing to do anything to stay there. He is more amoral than immoral, unwilling or unable to consider anything beyond his own self-interest.

The character would appear in four sequels: “Ripley Under Ground” (1970); “Ripley’s Game” (1974); “The Boy Who Followed Ripley” (1980); and “Ripley Under Water” (1991). But the first story has remained the one most identified with Ripley, even as different artists have made him their own.

The first adaptation of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” was on TV, in a 1956 episode of the anthology series “Studio One.” (One of the writers was Marc Brandel, who had once been engaged to Highsmith.) The French film “Purple Noon” (1960) presented the first cinematic version of Ripley, introducing the world to Alain Delon, in his first major role.

Co-written and directed by René Clément, it begins in Italy, eschewing the criminal setup of Highsmith’s novel. It presents the most impassioned Ripley — he is motivated more by vengeance than by a desire for wealth. This Greenleaf, named Philippe (played by Maurice Ronet), is a cruel, abusive snob. When he catches Ripley in his clothes — a key turning point in all versions of the tale — Philippe acts out against him, belittling Tom and stranding him on a dinghy in the hot sun to teach him a lesson. Tom decides to kill Philippe and take his place.

From there the film hews close to the source material. However, Clément sends his Ripley into a trap at the end, perhaps recognizing that movie audiences in 1960 wanted to see their villains punished, even if they were as charismatic as Delon.

This 1999 film by Anthony Minghella kept Highsmith’s vicious opportunism while changing a few key elements, upping the body count and aggravating some purists.

Matt Damon’s take on Ripley is less of a schemer — his cruelty tends to be improvised, the result of emotional torment rather than sociopathic planning. This Ripley isn’t a criminal at the start, merely someone who stumbles into the elder Greenleaf’s life and gets sent to Italy by chance. He is also clearly attracted to Dickie, which is hinted at in other versions but made explicit here. (For the record, Highsmith told Sight & Sound in 1988 that she didn’t think Ripley was gay, even if her original text allowed for that interpretation.)

Featuring one of the best casts of its era, with Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Cate Blanchett, among others, Minghella’s version uses a well-known source to craft its own story, ending with a scene that is somehow both heartbreaking and disturbing in equal measure.

Other Ripley books were adapted to varying degrees of success over the years. The best of the bunch is Wim Wenders’s “The American Friend” (1977), which blends elements of “Ripley’s Game” and “Ripley Under Ground” into something new and very Wenders. Bruno Ganz is excellent as a dying painter manipulated by Ripley, played here by Dennis Hopper, who has an eccentric, enigmatic take on the character.

John Malkovich starred in a 2002 film version of “Ripley’s Game,” and Barry Pepper played the character in a little-seen adaptation of “Ripley Under Ground” in 2005. Jonathan Kent played Ripley in “Patricia Highsmith: A Gift for Murder,” a 1982 episode of the British arts and culture series “The South Bank Show.” BBC Radio 4 adapted all five Ripley novels in 2009, with Ian Hart as Ripley.

Originally commissioned by Showtime, the new “Ripley” moved to Netflix last year while the show was still in postproduction. With Scott (“All of Us Strangers”) in the title role, it follows the narrative of the Highsmith original while adding its own distinctive touches: Black-and-white cinematography by Robert Elswit (“There Will Be Blood”) amplifies the cool detachment of the con artist, portrayed by Scott as a criminal with ice in his veins. Johnny Flynn plays Dickie, and Dakota Fanning is Marge.

But as usual the main focus is Tom Ripley, who keeps slinking his way through books, films and TV, unconcerned about the damage he leaves in his wake.

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