It’s an unfair competition – any booklover will tell you that the book is better than the movie in nine out of ten times. Well, this is the tenth time.
Anthony Minghella’s way of setting the mood is probably why I tend to like his movies. It’s a poorly hidden secret that The English Patient is my favourite movie (and even less clandestine is my obsession with Ralph Fiennes as a result of it). What might surprise you, though, is that I don’t love the movie exclusively or even mainly for Fiennes, the story, or the fact that it has me in tears every time. I love it because of its visual beauty. That golden light, the single frames of the desert, the amazing scenery in both settings of the movie – it makes the little hairs in the back of my neck stand up just to think of it. You’ll find much of the same in The Talented Mr. Ripley too. The way Minghella and his team manage to convey the mood of the Italian countryside in the 1950s, the way they use light, shadow, camera angles and music to show the emotions of the characters – it strikes me every time I see it how brilliantly this is done.
In short, it is a good movie. However, this still does not explain why I feel it is better than the book. It is, after all, an acclaimed book, and it cannot have been completely horrid, since it made me read the subsequent four Ripley books (all five are known as “the Ripliad”, Wikipedia informs me). My main reason for preferring the movie is that for this story the movie format seems to be a better fit. Secondly, the movie has a more elegant structure. Finally, Minghella took the best elements from the book and left out the not-so-good ones.
I know that Highsmith’s novel has some standing within its genre, so it might be arrogant of me to maltreat it like this. Especially since I don’t actually appreciate the genre all that much. Thrillers, crime and mysteries – I personally have a fairly low tolerance for most books in these genres. There are some exceptions (Agatha Christie being the most notable one), and I’m not saying that I cannot appreciate others. It just takes more for me to read and enjoy these than general fiction. Ironically, though, I quite like movies within the same genres. It’s a matter of taste, and I simply seem to prefer my murders on screen rather than on paper. In this case, though, my criticism isn’t so much against the novel as it is one praising the movie.
The visual plays a significant role in the story – Tom Ripley’s transformation, his slipping into one character after another – this is something that is ultimately easier to show in a movie, and especially when you have a skilled actor like Matt Damon to do it. Highsmith’s idea is a good one, but a movie is a better format for execution of the idea.
Finally, I prefer the ending in the movie to the one in the book. This is where the movie leaves out some elements (possibly attempting to avoid a “Ripliad” of movies as well – though if this was the intention, it was not successful, since at least three more Ripley-movies were made, only one of which I have seen, featuring John Malchovitz as Ripley. Strangely enough I found this one terrible).
One thing I should point out is that I read the book only after having seen the movie (while I read book number two before I saw movie number two – can we see a pattern? If so I am ignoring it). While this affects how you read the book, I still think I would have preferred the movie (in fact, I think I might not have read the book if it hadn’t been for the movie, and even if I had read the book first I very likely wouldn’t have bothered watching the movie afterwards).
Bottom line – in this case there were a number of reasons why I preferred the movie. The most important one, however, was that it told the story better than I felt the original book did. This is almost never the case. Partly because very few movie makers employ all the possibilities the format has for great storytelling (it seems that entertaining is more important). Partly because many authors are great storytellers makes the most out of their format. And partly because, as a booklover, what I adore the most about a great book is that it gives me the opportunity to form my own pictures, my own details, my own soundtrack, even. A movie, even a very good one, does not allow me this pleasure. This is why the movie almost never can compete with the book.