Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Reading Mr. Ripley

When I put together my list of books to read for this year, I didn't realize how many books I selected that were published in the 1950s and 60s. This shouldn't be very surprising, because it is one of my favorite periods. As most of my readers know, my favorite poet is Frank O'Hara, who wrote during the 50s and 60s. I'm also interested in the treatment of queer characters in the novels of the period.

Yesterday, I finished another book off my list, which has a strong queer undercurrent and was published in the 50s. I just read Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley. This is a book I've wanted to read for years, but never got around to it. I am a big fan of the film version that came out in the late 90s starring Matt Damon and Jude Law. In fact, the film holds a special place in my heart because it was tied to my journey to accepting my own gayness. I didn't come out until I was 20 and I was about 17 when the movie came out. I specifically remember watching it and it making me feel more and more confused. This had quite a bit to do with the cock shot of Jude Law in the film. I later wrote a poem about the film and my sexuality, but that was well after I came out of the closet.

Highsmith's book is suspenseful crime fiction at its best. She does such a fantastic job of creating the complicated character of Tom Ripley. We are pulled in by him and even understand him. This is an accomplishment considering he kills people and steals someone's identity. This is actually the first book in a series Highsmith wrote about Tom Ripley.

Like in many books from the period, Tom is never quite identified as fully homosexual. He has homosexual tendencies and desires that are hinted at, but not fully acted upon (at least in the first book). The book is an interesting exploration of jealousy and admiration. Tom is taken in by another man and his life. For many who struggle with their sexuality, this is a relatable feeling. I often remember looking at straight guys and wishing I could be more like them. That, of course, faded with my full acceptance of who I am. Tom isn't so lucky. He becomes obsessed with the Dickie Greenleaf character, because Dickie represents this traditional view of masculinity that Tom is never able to achieve. Tom is also limited in his ability to live an open gay life in the 1950s (though that is not directly considered in the novel).

Having seen the film version first, I was a little nervous about how the book would change my view of the film. There are some striking differences, but I think both accomplish a similar task in slightly different ways. The first half of both are fairly similar, but the second halves take different turns. In part, this is a good examination of the differences between film and literature. In the book, Tom is alone a lot more in the second half. In the film, they create a character named Meredith, played by the wonderful Cate Blanchett, who befriends Tom as he is posing as Dickie Greenleaf. Obviously, it is much harder to get everything across on film, if the character is alone.

The book, however, does such a great job of getting us inside Tom's mind and how repulsed he is by the majority of people. There are some wonderfully humorous lines in the book especially about Marge (Dickie's girlfriend), who won't give up the search for Dickie after Tom has murdered him. The interactions between Marge and Tom are more interesting in the book than in the film. The film made Marge a more likable character as played by Gwyneth Paltrow.

In all, I like both the book and the film. I still believe it is one of Matt Damon's best performances. He embodies Tom Ripley and really brings the character to life. If you haven't seen the film, I do recommend it.

The book also is interesting because it portrays a queer character as a criminal and murderer. This is a common occurrence in the literature and film of the time period. You actually still see it in a lot of film today. A good portion of male villains are often portrayed with effeminate qualities (look at almost any Disney film). This can be troubling and, in some cases, offensive. Highsmith's book, however, dives a bit deeper into the psychology of it. Tom does not have queer qualities as a simple explanation for his actions or as an excuse for them. As I said before, it also provides an interesting exploration of masculinity in the 1950s. The post-WWII male is hyper-masculine. In this case, it works well and doesn't come off as a cheap ploy or an easy way out. Tom is a complicated figure and has many sides to him. I'm interested in reading her other books in the series and seeing where she takes Tom.

This book has added to my knowledge of the period and of the treatment of queer characters. Tom Ripley is a character you can't easily forget much like that cock shot of Jude Law.

-Stephen (Talented)

1 comment:

  1. Never saw the film, but adore Jude Law! After reading this, the film is now on my Netflix queue! (Thank heaven for freeze-frame!)
    Thanks for the heads-up, pardon the pun.