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The Criminal Mind Behind the Hit Netflix Series Ripley

Patricia Highsmith wrote 22 novels, many of which have been adapted into film and television (Photo: Getty)

Patricia Highsmith is the mastermind behind Ripley, the new successful series on Netflix. She was a controversial American novelist who lived in the last century and left a prolific body of work full of intense characters troubled by their own demons, much like herself.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) was the fourth novel in Highsmith’s more than twenty book repertoire, and several adaptations of this fictional story have been made for film, television, and radio, the latest being masterfully portrayed by Irish actor Andrew Scott.

But why was she controversial?

Highsmith was a great writer, but she was also known for being openly anti-Semitic, racist, misogynistic, and in short, a misanthrope who despised all kinds of people including women and homosexuals, despite being a lesbian herself.

These traits contrast with the fact that she fell in love and had romantic relationships with several Jewish women.

She once said, “There is no ‘morality’ in my life” and that her impulse is fueled by “rise and do it” and “the rest is feeling.”

She also said, “Perhaps I carry within me a serious and repressed criminal urge, otherwise I wouldn’t be so interested in criminals or wouldn’t write about them so often.”

The main character in the story that can now be seen on Netflix is a psychopath who does not shy away from moral barriers and advances in his goal of completely stealing a life, an identity. Analysts of Highsmith’s work point out that all the protagonists in her novels are dark, thieves, murderers, insecure, envious, or all of the above.

Highsmith left 38 notebooks of notes and 18 diaries that concentrated her life. In these writings, which were released about 15 years after her death in 1995, reflect the phobia that the writer felt towards the idea of couple life since she was very young.

She once stated, “One situation, perhaps one alone, could lead me to murder: family, or one family member.”

She said that writing served to “replace” the life she couldn’t live, so she invented stories and immersed herself in them.

“She wasn’t nice. She was rarely kind. And no one who knew her well could say that she was generous,” reads in the authorized biography The Talented Miss Highsmith: The secret life and serious art of Patricia Highsmith by her editor Joan Schenker published in 2010.

Her darkness, however, was the cause of those magnificent suspenseful stories that broke paradigms in their time.

“She was the first to turn a thriller into literature,” said French biographer Francois Riviere, quoted by DW, who pointed out that in Highsmith’s work she revolutionized the genre by putting the reader on the side of the killer.

The most tumultuous of her love affairs was with her own mother, Mary Coates, who attempted an abortion while she was in the womb ingesting a large quantity of turpentine, a story that Highsmith herself told to anyone who would listen.

With her biological father, Jay Bernard Plangman, she had very little contact because the couple divorced before she was born, and her father figure was Stanley Highsmith, from whom she took her last name.

After her birth on January 19, 1921 in Fort Worth, Texas, Coates gave the baby to her grandmother to raise her and she lived with her until she was 6 years old.

Upon returning to her mother’s house, young Patricia resented the presence of the stepfather whom she hated for believing he was the reason her mother separated her from her and had fantasies of killing him.

While still very young, she struggled with herself due to her homosexuality and went to therapy hoping to reverse her attraction to women and thus establish a heterosexual union.

She had a negative view of homosexuals because she believed they were fundamentally unfaithful, as well as promiscuous.

But only two heterosexual relationships are known among many homosexual ones. One with photographer Rolf Tietgens and another with novelist Marc Brandel, who proposed to her several times.

And, as she wrote about everything that happened to her, her diaries contained a detailed record of her many lovers. She described and rated them on a scale of 1 to 100. In her list, the writer noted the name, age, hair color, build, profession, the duration of the relationship, and the reason it ended, among other aspects.

Almost all the girls were blond and none scored less than 80 despite her belief that women are “boring”, “dirty, physically dirty”, and she thought they should not be allowed in libraries when they are menstruating.

Among the Jewish loves she had were American Ellen Blumenthal Hill and French Marion Aboudaram. These were well-known relationships, which suggests that the attraction she felt for them overcame her professed antisemitism.

When it comes to the Holocaust, the writer stated that the mass killing of Jews during World War II only served for the Jewish community to profit economically from it and called it “Holocaust Inc” or “semicaust” because to her it hadn’t been that serious.

It is also widely known that she once ended a party by painting a number on her wrist to mock prisoners of Nazi concentration camps.

Graham Greene said of the American writer that she was a “poet of apprehension” who dared to step out of the classic line of discourse and show “irrational” characters.

Editor Otto Penzler wasn’t as generous in describing her, as he stated that she was “a horrible human being,” “tough, cruel, unsympathetic, and unloving.”

What is true is that Highsmith struggled against herself and during her life she suffered from alcoholism, anorexia, anemia, and ultimately cancer.

Highsmith immersed herself in her stories and characters. She embodied men and women, was both victim and perpetrator, loved and allowed herself to be loved, expressed her contempt for humanity and also disdain for herself. She lived through her literary works and those who later saw adaptations of her works on television and film also saw her essence.

Highsmith’s work is extensive. There is a list of 22 novels, a dozen short story books, and also her extensive legacy of diaries and notes which, according to her biographers, were written with the certainty that they would become public after her death, which indeed happened.

“Writing, of course, is a substitute for the life I can’t live, can’t lead. All life, for me, is seeking the balanced diet that doesn’t exist,” she wrote in her diaries, some of which were published by The New Yorker in 2021 on the occasion of Highsmith’s 100th anniversary.

Although she once claimed not to like movies, there are at least 28 film adaptations based on her work.

The story of two men who meet by chance and make a pact to get rid of relatives who cause them problems – one would get rid of the other’s relative – was an immediate success. It was Highsmith’s first novel Strangers on a Train, published in 1950.

It was immediately brought to the screen by Alfred Hitchcock, a film that also enjoyed popularity.

Over 30 years later, a comedy directed by Danny DeVito called Throw Momma from the Train came out, based on the same concept devised by Highsmith. Each person does the other a favor of getting rid of a relative.

She also worked outside the world of literature. She worked as a clerk in a department store and from there got the idea to write her novel The Price of Salt (1952) which she signed under the pseudonym of Claire Morgan to hide the authorship of a story of love between two women.

However, decades later, she assumed authorship and renamed the work Carol, which was made into a film in 2016 with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as the protagonists.

Another novel of Highsmith’s that has been brought to the big screen is Deep Water (1957), which tells the unexpected and gruesome turn the already disturbed marriage of the couple Vic and Melinda Van Allen takes.

In 1981, it was adapted to film by French director Michel Deville, and more recently, in 2022, it was made into a movie by Adrian Lyne, who directed Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas in the leading roles.

Highsmith’s most adapted story for both film and television is that of Tom Ripley, a dangerous fictional psychopath she created and whom she referred to as the only person she could live with.

About this character, Highsmith not only wrote The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), but other adventures reflected in her novels Ripley Under Ground (1970), Ripley’s Game (1974), The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980), and Ripley Under Water (1991).

Tom’s life also quickly made it to the big screen. In 1960, actor Alain Delon portrayed him in the adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley called Plein Soleil.

Years later, actor Dennis Hopper embodied him in the film The American Friend (1977), an adaptation of Ripley’s Game.

In 1999, the very successful film The Talented Mr. Ripley, starring Matt Damon, with performances by Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, revived his fame.

In 2002, a new version of Ripley’s Game starring John Malkovich was released, and in 2005, Ripley Under Ground was made into a film with Barry Pepper in the lead role.

Currently, adapting to the times, Tom’s talents have become a Netflix series in which Irish actor Andrew Scott plays Ripley.

Highsmith liked Europe, she lived in England, France, and Switzerland where she died at the age of 74 when lung cancer ended her life. One of the reasons she liked Europe was that she felt akin to communist ideals and openly opposed the American lifestyle, and the rejection was mutual, as the United States did not like this creator of intense and uncomfortable characters and stories that almost never had happy endings.

Although she enjoyed being on the old continent, she still displayed her rejection of people and affinity for animals.

The author loved cats and had a collection of snails that she sometimes carried in her purse.

She admired the self-sufficiency of snails and said that it was “relaxing” to watch them mate because it was impossible to distinguish the male from the female.

One of her famous quotes reads: “I do not understand people who like to make noise; therefore, I fear them, and when I fear them I hate them.”

Sources: Archive, DW, Time, Los Angeles Times, Good Reads, The Guardian, The New Yorker


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