Adapting Miss Highsmith

If Patricia Highsmith (1921 – 1995) had only written the so-called ‘Ripliad’ – the five novels chronicling the murderous schemes of her most famous character Tom Ripley – she would be regarded as one of the most important figures of 20th century crime fiction. In reality, the Texas-born author wrote 22 novels as well as several collections of short stories in a career spanning 45 years. Drawing consistently from her own experience – her personal preoccupations, romantic relationships as well as her travels in Europe and beyond – she was able to imbue her stories with real authenticity. Described by Graham Greene as the ‘poet of apprehension’, she specialised in tightly plotted thrillers exploring the fear, jealousy, guilt and violence bubbling under the surface of outwardly civilised characters. Neurotic men dominate her fiction, antiheroes with a plethora of dark secrets and obsessions (‘Highsmith writes about men like a spider writing about flies’ wrote a critic for The Observer). She was equally capable of studies of great sensitivity and tenderness, as evidenced by one of her few forays outside the thriller genre, Carol. The acclaimed lesbian romance – published under a pseudonym in 1952 as The Price of Salt – was adapted for the screen in 2015 and voted the Best LGBT film of all time in a BFI poll. Todd Haynes’ film is included in this 12-film season of Highsmith adaptations, several of which are very rarely shown on the big screen. Films by cinephile favourites such as Alfred Hitchcock, Claude Chabrol and Wim Wenders feature alongside lesser-known works by Claude Autant-Lara, Hans W. Geissendörfer, Claude Miller, Michel Deville, Liliana Cavani and others. All twelve titles represent compelling exercises in literary adaptation. The author’s own favourites included Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, René Clément’s Plein Soleil and Wenders’ The American Friend (even though her initial reaction to the latter was mixed to say the least). The fact that all three of these make significant departures from her original novels is proof that Highsmith was well aware that literary adaptation was not necessarily about being faithful to the source. ‘Journalists frequently ask, ‘What do you think of the films that are made from your novels?’’ the author recalled, ‘[…] I try to answer the question ‘Was it a success as a film?’’

Pasquale Iannone