‘JUST A NOTHING’: ASEXUAL ERASURE IN ADAPTATIONS OF THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY

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By Molly Ellen Pearson

Few novels with openly queer protagonists are as enduringly loved, or have achieved such acclaim, as Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley.

Tom Ripley is a charming, Machiavellian antihero whose talents include ‘forging signatures… and impersonating practically anybody’, and whose unreciprocated worship of Dickie Greenleaf, the prodigal son of a New York shipping tycoon, leads him to kill Dickie and assume his identity. He is also asexual, yet not a single adaptation of Highsmith’s work has addressed this. With a new adaptation in the works, in the form of a Showtime drama directed by Steven Zaillan and starring Andrew Scott, it’s important to acknowledge and reflect on the ways in which this aspect of Ripley’s character has been erased.

In Highsmith’s novel, Tom describes his sexuality thus:

‘I can’t make up my mind whether I like men or women, so I’m thinking of giving them both up.’

The statement is presented as a joke, but it’s revealing — in the sexual sense, it’s made clear throughout the novel that he ‘likes’ neither. Where it does not concern him directly, Tom reacts to the erotic with a schoolboy mixture of squeamishness and hilarity. He can ‘hardly keep from giggling [at]… the lush, reclining female body’ of Saint Rosalia’s statue in Palermo, finding its sexualised depiction of religious ecstasy ‘vastly amusing’. Where he is its immediate object, however, his response is distaste and fear:

‘He imagined a dark, panting young face following him home… Tom hunched in his overcoat and walked faster as if he were fleeing a sick, passionate pursuer.’

Tom’s aversion to all things sexual is central to his characterisation in the novel. He feels secure in his friendship with Cleo because ‘she never wanted or expected him to make a pass at her’, and dismisses Dickie kissing Marge as ‘cheap, obvious, easy’.

At the same time, Tom’s adoration of Dickie is painted in clearly romantic terms; he is drawn to Dickie’s ‘handsome’ looks and ‘the proud way he [carries] himself’, and fantasises about killing his girlfriend Marge for ‘interfering’ with ‘the bond between them’. In a moment of vulnerability with Peter towards the end of the novel, he briefly wonders whether ‘the same thing that had happened with Dickie could happen with Peter’. Tom’s asexuality and the fact that he is romantically attracted to men are given equal weight in the novel, but adaptations of the novel exaggerate the latter and ignore the former entirely.

Minghella colludes with both Marge and Dickie, reinforcing the message that homoromantic asexuality is ‘worse’ than homosexuality

The most famous adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley to date is Anthony Minghella’s 1999 film, starring Matt Damon, and it characterises Tom as overtly homosexual. He takes voyeuristic pleasure in watching Dickie have sex with his girlfriend Marge (in contrast to Ripley of the novels, who is ‘disgusted’), avidly watches him bathe in a scene described by reviewer Hugh Montgomery as ‘candlelit [and] smoulderingly erotic’ and, later in the novel, embarks on a fateful relationship with Peter Smith-Kingsley (Jack Davenport). Minghella’s film eschews the complexity of portraying Tom as an asexual, homoromantic character, opting instead for a more accessible queer narrative designed to cater to allosexual audiences. In doing so, he makes a clear statement on what kind of queerness is acceptable.

The most problematic aspect of Minghella’s adaptation is that its portrayal of Tom is informed by Dickie’s and Marge’s perceptions of him in the novel rather than the one offered by the narrative itself. This encourages the audience to view Tom from the perspective of two privileged, allosexual cishets. Both of them repeatedly suspect Tom of being sexually attracted to men, as in a scene absent from the film, in which Tom watches a troupe of male acrobats on the beach. He is not, as Dickie supposes, deriving sexual pleasure from the act of watching them. Tom’s is not a scoptophilic gaze; in fact, his first impression is that they are ‘playing some kind of game’. Highsmith repeatedly refers to Tom’s pursuit of wealth and an identity as a member of the leisure class as a ‘game he [is] playing’, implying that Tom is watching the young man’s ascent in a moment of identification, which is reframed by the homophobic Dickie as one of homosexual voyeurism.

Patricia Highsmith, author of The Talented Mr Ripley, pictured in 1962. Credit: Harper & Brothers

Marge later concedes that although Tom ‘may not be queer [,] he’s just a nothing, which is worse’. By writing Tom’s asexuality out of the film, Minghella colludes with both Marge and Dickie, reinforcing the message that homoromantic asexuality is ‘worse’ than homosexuality, and reframing his narrative as one of predatory homosexual desire. This is all the more tragic because Highsmith’s Tom is dogged by the anguished sense that he is ‘nothing’, both socially and sexually. Marge’s opinion of him is not unusual; this is how he is typically perceived. When Tom is forced to renounce Dickie’s identity to prevent arrest, he reflects:

‘He hated becoming Thomas Ripley again, hated being nobody, hated… feeling that people looked down on him and were bored with him unless he put on an act for them’.

In his essay ‘Ripley’s Glam’, Mark Fisher observes how Tom ‘experiences this nothing in classic existentialist terms, feeling himself to be inchoate, a void, unresolved, unreal’, and though Fisher does not equate Tom’s feelings of emptiness with the twofold prejudice he faces for his lack of interest in sex and romantic interest in men, the ‘void’ of erasure and dismissal — the pain of which reverberates through the text — is clear.

In 2020, it is high time we returned to The Talented Mr Ripley. Asexual representation in television is currently dominated by heteromantic characters who find happiness in opposite-gender relationships; Todd Chavez in Bojack Horseman is a classic example. More diverse and intersectional portrayals are desperately needed. Perhaps Zaillian’s upcoming series will be the one to finally portray one of literature’s most iconic asexuals in all his complexity.

Featured image credit: Sbirro11


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