Patricia Highsmith's Major Novel-to-Film Adaptations: A Guide

May 25, 2023
Dimitris Passas

"My New Year’s Eve Toast: to all the devils, lusts, passions, greeds, envies, loves, hates, strange desires, enemies ghostly and real, the army of memories, with which I do battle — may they never give me peace." (Patricia Highsmith/New Year's Eve, 1947)

"What was it to love someone, what was love exactly, and why did it end or not end? Those were the real questions, and who could answer them?" (The Price of Salt: [Illustrated Edition], p. 204)

A cynic and purported misanthropist; a bold woman who proclaimed her sexuality in dark times; an author who, throughout her career, defied norms and struggled to utter an independent literary voice; a crime writer who set to examine the pathologies of the human soul in her own unique way; a slippery lover whose romantic entanglements always ended in mayhem; All the above and much more, Patricia Highsmith is a name that marked American literature during the course of the 20th Century and provided a fertile ground for the directors who adapted her works into the silver screen. The Texas-born author has been hailed by the great Gore Vidal as "one of our greatest modernist writers" and "one of the most interesting writers of this dismal century" while Graham Greene, in his brief prologue of Highsmith's collection of short stories Eleven, named her "the poet of apprehension", a spot-on outlining of the author's distinctive writing style that whirls around the themes of identity, deviance -in many forms-, lust, isolation and insanity. Highsmith won several venerable awards such as the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, for The Talented Mr. Ripley (1957), the Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French Ministry of Culture (1990), the Silver Dagger Award from the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain (1964), and, more recently, she was Named one of Time magazine’s The 50 Greatest Crime Writers: Rule-breaking master of amorality (April 2008). Her body of work consists of 22 novels and numerous short stories while the film adaptations of her works are more than 20, some of them featuring respected directors behind the cameras and notable cast.

Highsmith's proverbial resentment for humanity is well-documented. She has famously stated that "Everything human is alien to me" while elsewhere she added: "My imagination functions much better when I don't have to speak to people." Director Eva Vitja, the director of the recent documentary on the life of Patricia Highsmith, Loving Highsmith (2022), while she admits that “Her image is determined to a great extent by … her reputation as a grim, misanthropic crime writer" (Porter Anderson/Publishing Perspectives), also hints to an alternate description of the American author as manifested in her personal notes: “When I began to study Highsmith’s notebooks and diaries and met with her former friends in various countries, I was extremely moved and surprised to discover a completely different person. It became clear to me during the course of my research and the filming of this work how powerfully the themes of her writing are determined by love.” (Publishing Perspectives) It should be highlighted for those who wish to delve deeper into the literary phenomenon of Patricia Highsmith, there is the compilation of her personal notes, spanning more than 50 years (1941-1995) and consisting of more than 8.000 pages, that was eventually published in 2021 (Liveright; First Edition (November 16, 2021) under the title "Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks: 1941-1995", edited by Anna Von Planta. It is there that the reader can get a glimpse into Highsmith's tempestuous mind and also discern the inconspicuous links between the author's life and her work. Richard Bradford, the author of the biography Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires: The Life of Patricia Highsmith, remarks: ""From her earliest years as a writer, Highsmith recorded in her notebooks an uncanny perception of her real life and its fictional counterpart as aspects of the same narrative". (R. Bradford) While Bradford's bio is not entirely lacking merits, it doesn't come close to Andrew Wilson's Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith, the most detailed and comprehensive biography of the author Highsmith to date.

From Alfred Hitchcock to Claude Chabrol and from Rene Clément to Anthony Minghella, directors from both sides of the Atlantic deemed Highsmith's oeuvre as worthy of several on-screen interpretations. However, there is some controversy regarding the level of adaptability in respect to Highsmith's novels. A minority of literature fanatics and critics think that the way in which the author tackles universal subjects and motifs does not lend itself well to a feature film adaptation which will inevitably have to cut some -major or minor- parts of the books in order to be regarded as watchable. Nevertheless, that didn't diminish the resolve off many honored auteurs who did their best in regards to keeping the spirit of the text(s) intact and the first one in order is none else than the grand master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. In 1951, the English director created the, highly popular at the time, movie Strangers on a Train, based on the namesake novel by Highsmith which was published only a year earlier. The film was the decisive factor that boosted the author's reputation and after its release, Highsmith's name was solidly established as one of the most distinctive voices in American crime fiction. It should be mentioned that while most of the readers and critics consider Highsmith to be a crime writer, she is far from being the conventional type. Yes, the staples are there: the murder, the police investigation, the suspense etc., but her novels are not so much about the plot per se. They are primarily character studies of troubled protagonists, who are far from being likable or identifiable to the reader, mostly living in isolation, both mental and -sometimes- physical, who become embroiled in heinous acts without showing any sign of remorse.

In Highsmith's fictional universe there is absolutely no room for justice, either legal or poetic. As she had explicitly stated: "For neither life nor nature cares if justice is ever done or not." ("Strangers on a Train"-p. 252) According to the author, each man carries his own law within himself and the punishment, in any form, is eventually imposed by one's own self. Deux ex Machina never appears in Highsmith's novels. The main characters are always profoundly damaged with the author rarely providing the readership with reasons why the protagonists ended up having such a twisted perception of reality. The complete lack of moral scruples of her characters is one of Highsmith's trademarks and the bedrock upon which she builds stories of murder, jealousy and havoc with no catharsis providing a sense of relief in the end. There is no such thing as a happy ending in the Texan author's work (with the exception perhaps of The Price of Salt which was, however, published under a pseudonym). Furthermore, Highsmith discerns a connection between deviance and murder. After reading the author's diary notes for his biography, R. Bradford observed: "Then we consider how frequently the word 'murder' appears in her notebook entries on her lesbian relationships it is evident that sexual deviancy (...) overlapped, for her, with notions of killing." Highsmith was an author with a proclivity to go against the grain and she challenged traditional philosophical notions, especially that of the inherent benevolence of human nature. From her viewpoint, man is intrinsically evil, thus the protagonist's of her novels are vile, sometimes so repulsive that a certain amount of effort is required in order for the reader to keep watching the story unfold through their crooked perspective. Regarding that matter, Bradford writes: "She never killed anyone or committed a serious criminal offence, but she regarded those who did as honest representations of the sheer wickedness of human nature."

A large part of the public opinion today knows Highsmith due to her provocative statements regarding Jews and the Nazi Germany that earned her the label of anti-Semite. It is rumored that she had exclaimed in public: "I am sick of Jews", causing awkwardness and sulkiness to the audience that heard her. But Semites were not the only population that Highsmith frowned at; the hate list of the legendary author also includes Blacks, Latinos, Catholics, Evangelicals, fundamentalists of any sort, and so on. Furthermore, even the portrayal of women in her novels is often characterized by negativity. When someone asked her why she preferred male protagonists instead of females, Highsmith replied: "Women are tied to the home... Men can do more, jump over fences." Perhaps the roots of those hateful tendencies can be traced in the author's childhood and the highly complex and problematic relationship with her mother. Highsmith was not fond of family as an institution and she had succinctly encapsulated her stance on the matter as follows: "One situation – maybe one alone – could drive me to murder: family life, togetherness." Highsmith's extravagant persona and the peculiarities of her idiosyncrasy fed a large number of biographies, monographs, documentaries etc. that attempted to grasp the essence of her work by looking hard at her life's events that marked her existence. The aforementioned diary is teeming with references to failed, sometimes even disastrous romances, mainly with women who were most frequently married or engaged.

As far as the filmic adaptations of her novels are concerned, Highsmith generally avoided talking about them, largely because she had no say in the production. In an interview that she gave to Gerald Peary in 1988 in Toronto, Highsmith talked more extensively on the movies based on her books with the negative comments outweighing the positive ones. Her conclusive words were: “I started screenplays two or three times, and I can assure you that I failed. I don’t think in the way a playwright thinks. So if people have bought something of mine, they know by now that I will decline writing it for the movies. Anyway, I don’t want to know movie directors. I don’t want to be close to them. I don’t want to interfere with their work. I don’t want them to interfere with mine.” (Gerald Peary/ I will now begin to cite the most successful and popular silver screen adaptations of Highsmith's novels, hoping to provide a concise picture to the readers of this article.

"STRANGERS ON A TRAIN" (1951/by Alfred Hitchcock)

Released in 1951, only a year after the publication of Highsmith's novel, Hitchcock's classic can be found in every recommendation list about classic suspense movies and rightly so. Hitchcock purportedly asked Highsmith to adapt the novel into a screenplay, but it was Raymond Chandler, the American godfather of noir, who was eventually assigned to write the script. However, when he finished reading the novel, Chandler said that he "saw it as advocating nihilism, moral anarchy and homosexuality, a license for murderous compulsion" (R. Bradford). Thus, it was eventually Czenzi Ormonde who softened some of the most prickly aspects of the text and blunted some of its most striking edges. As a result "the film is disturbing enough, but it is Hitchcock's candy to Highsmith's arsenic" (R. Bradford).

"THE PRICE OF SALT" or "CAROL" (2015/by Todd Haynes)

Highsmith wrote The Price of Salt using a nom de plume, Claire Morgan, for reasons that I will explain in a while. The book acquired a notoriety as the story features two homosexual women and chronicles their peculiar liaison which becomes the epicenter of the narrative. Keep in mind that the notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy, the man responsible for a massive witch hunt of communists and liberals, has stated a year before the book's publication that homosexuals, due to their deviant nature, are more prone to communism than the other, "ordinary", folk. It was in this climate that the book was published and Highsmith opted to use a pseudonym fearing that she would be designated as a "lesbian writer" as well as to avoid the government's persecution that sometimes resulted in harsh punishments such as imprisonment. Known for his unique sense of cinema aesthetics, Todd Haynes directed a beautiful movie casting two great actors in the roles of the two protagonists: Cate Blanchet and Rooney Mara with Sarah Paulson and Jake Lacy completing the ensemble cast. The story takes place in the 1950s and Haynes transports the audience several decades back with everything in place and plausibility not being an issue. Blanchet and Mara give their best in their respective roles and, thus, The Price of Salt remains today as one of the higher-rated and beloved movie adaptations of Highsmith's works.

"DEEP WATER" (2022/by Adrian Lynn)

This is the most recent Highsmithian adaptation, however in general terms it doesn't succeed in conveying the essence of the intriguing original source -one of Highsmith's best in my opinion-. Adrian Lynn's name made me hopeful before the film's release, however the final result remains in shallow waters, not least because of the weak performances in the main roles, both Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas seem to be uncomfortable in their characters and the, loyal to the novel, screenplay can't save the day of a lukewarm viewing experience. As all those acquainted with Patricia Highsmith's work are aware, she is fixated with certain themes that recur in her books and they are always closely related with obsession, the thirst for revenge, and the outbursts of senseless violence by the characters who espouse a distorted concept of love which often becomes synonym of compulsion. The story of Deep Water revolves around a married couple and the challenges they face as the wife seems to adopt a rather promiscuous behavior, feeding the obsession of the husband who ends up killing rival men. Sadly, the film left me with a bitter aftertaste due to the hugely wasted potential.

"THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY" (2014/ by Hossein Amini)

This movie proved to be a pleasant surprise for me as The Two Faces of January is one of the few novels by Highsmith that I haven't read. The director is the Iranian Hossein Amini, who is widely known as a screenwriter for films such as Drive, Shangai and Our Kind of Traitor while he was also involved in several popular television projects like McMafia and The Alienist. The movie features Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, and Oscar Isaac who form a peculiar triangle set on the center of the plot. The narrative begins in Athens where Chester (V. Mortensen) and Colette (K. Dunst) are spending their vacation. A nasty incident which takes place in the hotel they stay force them to flee and embark on an adventure without known risking a guess as to how it will end for the protagonists. The plot is thick, Amini is also the film's screenwriter, and the intrigue/suspense is kept alive throughout the movie's runtime. I believe that this production along with Anthony Minghella's 1999 The Talented Mr. Ripley constitute the crown jewels of the Highsmith cinema adaptations to date.

"THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY" (1999/by A. Minghella)

In one of the most well-polished Highsmithian adaptations, Anthony Minghella's adaptation of the first novel in the infamous "Ripliad", consisting of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley Under Ground, Ripley's Game, The Boy Who followed Ripley, and Ripley Under Water, and, the Englishman of Italian descent, Minghella also signs the screenplay, crafting a spectacular thriller and keeping the book's events and spirit intact. I had my doubts in respect to casting Matt Damon in the role of Tom Ripley, a grifter and con man who thrives in stealing identities from others, as his physique and face didn't correspond to my image of the protagonist. However, Damon does a terrific job in his poρtrayal of Ripley and Jude Law is equal impressive as Dickie Greenleaf, Tom's "friend" and victim. The only cacophony regarding the casting, which also includes the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, is Gwyneth Paltrow as Marge, but perhaps this is because the actual role is a rather dowdy one. The production values stand at the highest possible level and the final result is a hearty viewing experience that will stay with you for a long time after finishing watching. It should be added that the movie was nominated for 5 Oscars (2000 Academy Awards) for Best Screenplay and Best Actor in a Supporting Role among others.

NOTE: This is not the first attempt at adapting that particular novel. In 1960, the Frenchman Rene Clément directed Purple Noon featuring the same story, albeit with some -rather significant- alterations. Alain Delon played Ripley and, surprisingly, Highsmith herself described his performance as "excellent", a rather out-of-character statement by the American crime writer.

"THE AMERICAN FRIEND" (1977/by Wim Wenders)

Multi-awarded German filmmaker Wim Wenders needs no introduction as all cinephiles are aware of his highly influential work as a prominent representative of the German New Wave of the 1970s along with Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog. The American Friend, the third installment in the Ripley saga, represented Wenders' international breakthrough and the film was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival while it has been cited as Best Foreign Film by the National Board of Review in the United States. Ripley has grown up, though even in his most mature stage doesn't stop playing games with the lives others. His target now is a local picture framer who is dying from cancer and finds himself in desperate need of money. Tom will involve his victim in situations that get out of hand and the film reaches an exceedingly gratifying climax in the finale. Wenders was respected by Highsmith and she has said about him: “There’s something about him that’s OK. His artistic quality, his enthusiasm.” (G. Peary/ This has to be the adaptation that Highsmith appreciated more than any other.


On a final note, I would like to recommend two more movies that share critical affinities with Highsmith's overall work and carry a similar aura in terms of plot development and characterization. The first is a French film, the 2015 A Perfect Man (Un Homme Idéal), directed and co-written by Yann Gozlan. The story revolves around an aspiring writer, Mathieu (Pierre Niney) whose attempts at publishing his work always lead to a dead end. By chance, he finds a manuscript among the belongings of a recently deceased old man, a novel about the Algerian war. The protagonist decides to steal the book and send it to the publishers under his own name. The reception is outstanding and Mathieu becomes the hottest debutant author in the country. However someone knows and begins to blackmail Mathieu who now risks the life he built upon the foundation of a blatant lie.

The second movie is Giuseppe Capotondi's 2019 The Burnt Orange Heresy, casting both young and more seasoned actors such as, the always impressive, Elizabeth Debicki and Donald Sutherland. The narrative concerns a tale of greed and corruption in the high-end world of contemporary art with an act of forgery becoming the plot's catalyst. Apart from the aforementioned protagonist the cast also features the legendary rock star and Rolling Stones frontman, Mick Jagger in a surprise role. It all begins when newfound couple, James (C. Bang) and Berenice (E. Debicki) visit the mansion where the living legend of contemporary art, Jerome Debney, lives in total isolation from the loud world. James, an unscrupulous arriviste takes advantage of a situation and walks away with a canvas signed by Debney and so the story goes. Claes Bang's performance as James is reminiscent of Tom Ripley's innate immoralism and he will not hesitate to kill in order to get what he wants. The Burnt Orange Heresy is a thoroughly underrated production that deserves wider praise and respect, while it will prove the optimal choice if you want to watch a genuinely entertaining movie with the suspense level moving upwards as the story reaches its final climax.

Join the Discussion