Never mind poor Albus Dumbledore; there may be no character from literature from the past century whose sexuality has been debated and scrutinized more than that of the Talented Mr. Ripley himself. To some, Patricia Highsmith’s complicated character is the prototypical twink scamster whose story might as well have predicted Andrew Cunanan and the series of murders he committed, as recently explored in Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story. To others, Tom Ripley is an antihero who has come to represent the twisted psychological effects that homophobia and a life in the closet can wreck. And to others, he’s just a bizarre case of “no homo.” (“Hey, just because a bro sometimes gets passionately obsessed with another bro to the point of murder doesn’t make him gay.”)
Since the last time Hollywood touched the character, in 1999’s Matt Damon–starring The Talented Mr. Ripley, the discussion has mostly been relegated to college lit courses and book clubs, but it may be thrust back into the mainstream again in a major way. Deadline reports that a television series adaption of Highsmith’s five Ripley novels is considered a “hot package” in Hollywood at the moment, with multiple networks and streamers said to be interested. Steve Zaillian, the blue-chip Hollywood screenwriter of projects like Schindler’s List and Gangs of New York (and, more recently, HBO’s miniseries The Night Of), is set to write and direct much of the first season. Not much is known about the particulars of the project aside from that.
Of course, considering that the Ripley character first appeared in print in 1955, in The Talented Mr. Ripley, and on film five years later (in the French adaptation of that novel, Purple Noon), it’s not as if there’s much mystery left to Ripley’s story. He’s a poor orphan raised by a cruel aunt who derides him as a sissy. He escapes to New York and refashions himself as a sophisticated Princeton graduate, and his desire to live the life of a glamorous ex-pat in Europe leads him to all sorts of scams and murders. The character has been highlighted as an early example of the antihero; even as his actions and desires are clearly evil, readers can’t help but root for him, and much of the thrill of the series comes from him getting away with it all by a hair’s breadth. Given television’s obsession with antiheroes, maybe it only makes sense that Ripley finally makes his way to the medium. The likes of Tony Soprano and Walter White certainly owe quite a bit to him.
But the antihero thing is all text; it’s the subtext of the character that makes him more interesting. The fact that others perceive Ripley as possibly gay, and that Ripley himself is aware of and worries about that perception, is written into the books, but Highsmith never seems too concerned about providing a concrete answer to the question. In the first novel, Ripley becomes obsessed with the trust-fund playboy Dickie Greenleaf; readers are not and never have been quite sure if Ripley wants to be Dickie or be with Dickie.
“I don’t think Ripley is gay,” Highsmith once said in an interview with Sight and Sound, as if she wasn’t 100 percent certain herself. “He appreciates good looks in other men, that’s true. But he’s married in later books. I’m not saying he’s very strong in the sex department. But he makes it in bed with his wife.”
Highsmith’s good friend Phyllis Nagy (who scripted the recent movie Carol, adapted from another Highsmith book) has said that in private conversation Highsmith has allowed that her character could have been bisexual at the very least.
Whatever the case, Highsmith didn’t seem all that interested in the subject. Complicating (or perhaps explaining) that matter is the fact that Ripley may have been a sort of autobiographical character for Highsmith, herself a lesbian attracted to women of privilege, though with an early history of attempting to “cure” her homosexuality.
Certainly Zaillian has a choice to make about how to approach the matter. Sure, it would be possible to present a version of Ripley without any queer subtext whatsoever (Purple Noon and Wim Wenders’s The American Friend, an adaptation of a later Ripley novel, did, though neither is too fondly remembered). However, audiences might view that as nothing less than queer erasure, especially in wake of the rightful fuss over Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody (and Dumbledore in Fantastic Beasts, for that matter).
It would also be possible to push the subtext of the books just a little bit further to the surface, like Anthony Minghella’s 1999 film did (it’s the one that weighs most heavily in the current imagination, so many might be expecting just that). And yet these days, with audiences demanding better onscreen representation of marginalized communities, does subtext cut it anymore? Even if it’s canonized subtext, in 2019 it risks coming off less like a coded exploration of life in the closet and more like teasing and queerbating to wider audiences.
Is it possible to present a version of Ripley whose closet case status is acknowledged more textually, or a version who grows to be more accepting of his own desires? We don’t see why it couldn’t at least be considered. Creators would certainly risk running into criticism that Ripley isn’t exactly a positive portrayal of a queer man, but if we’re going to have a million antiheroes running around our TV screens anyway, shouldn’t we at least get one queer one?
Zaillian, it should be noted, doesn’t have much of a background in tackling queer themes. He did write the script for 2001’s Hannibal (another sophisticated sociopath steeped in homosexual subtext), but otherwise there’s not much in his oeuvre to suggest he’s interested in exploring such themes. That’s not to say he couldn’t pull it off.
He might be relieved to know that he does have the posthumous blessing of Highsmith, who also had a background in script writing, to do what he pleases with the character.
“Really, I don’t mind too much if they take liberties with my plots, because they’re trying to do something quite different from a book, and I think they have a right to change the story as much as they wish,” she once said. “I couldn’t write a book with the idea in my mind that it was going to be a film. That would be like thinking of a statue when you’re painting a picture.”
So producers are free to do what they please—the question is what will modern audiences decide to watch?