Every Mr. Ripley, Definitively Ranked

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. After several years, yet another writer or director dusts off Patricia Highsmith’s most indelible protagonist, Tom Ripley, for a new adaptation of the character and his misadventures. For nearly 70 years, the initial trilogy of Ripley novels have beguiled and inspired artists and studios to try their hands at adapting what might be the pinnacle of the first wave of American serial crime fiction.

There’s good reason for this. The Ripley series is more than a guilty pleasure airport/beach read, though it is also that. Highsmith essentially adapts another formative work of American fiction, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, taking its tragic protagonist and exploring the origin story of the great man that is only intimated by Fitzgerald’s narrative—his naked ambition, his dishonesty, his desire to make himself into something more than his humble Midwestern circumstances. Ripley is Gatsby warts and all, an amoral character willing to lie, manipulate and kill to put as much distance as possible between the poor orphan he was and the man of wealth and taste he invented.

The first novel was innovative, a book written entirely from the POV of a sociopath, with Highsmith refusing to inject any judgment or morality into the narrative, only giving us occasional glimpses of what the world makes of our narrator. Throughout The Talented Mr. Ripley, as the walls continue to close in—as they do in many of the Catholic-coded heists and noir thrillers of the era—you keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it never does. Highsmith gives us the ending we all want in our malformed, grubby American hearts: The villain gets away with his crimes, and rides off into the Italian sunset with his ill-gotten fortune.

Like Tom, Highsmith herself was an expat who ran away from home and fetishized the glamour and sophistication of the world she made for herself. Like Tom, she was gay, and wrestled with that identity her entire life. We see this in the execution of Ripley’s existence once he’s gotten everything he believes he wants. It’s Anglophile cosplay, Gatsby’s vision of Montenegro, Eurotrip vacation porn. At Belle Ombré, his cottage in the French countryside, Tom spends his days painting and tending to a promising rose bush in a well kept English garden, having his beloved servant Mme. Annette grab a few filets of sole from the fishmonger in town to sear in butter and serve with a Claret of renowned vintage from the in-ground cellar, a fire in the stone hearth and snifters of brandy for dessert to go with conversation, perhaps the stirring overture in the third movement of a favorite opera played on the gramophone after supper with his rich, pretty, pleasant and agreeable beard wife. It’s a poor kid’s dream of wealth, class and refinement. The reality is pretentious and boring, which is probably why he keeps robbing and killing people even after the necessity to do so goes away.

As time has gone on, our estimation of Highsmith has risen from talented genre novelist to interpreter of the modern American condition. Her Ripley speaks to an inherent, essential darkness in the American character—he’s the avatar of a country of immigrants who lied, manipulated and killed for their state, and have never stopped fixating on social status and who gets to make the rules and decide order and rank ever since. Tom is perhaps the prototype of the charming sociopath. He’s a confidence man, a thief, a fence, a forger, a killer—but perhaps above all other things, an author of elaborate, fabulist plots, just like Highsmith.

Since we’ve met Ripley in Highsmith’s novels, we’ve seen many other Ripleys, both in fiction and in American life, which only speaks to why the novels have continued to maintain their stranglehold on our imaginations. A few key Ripley characteristics:

  • Their motivation is to join a group that’s closed off to them. The barriers to entry can be based on class or status, but the character always sees becoming an insider as key to their self-actualization.

  • There's a requisite element of deception to gain access.

  • They don't care—or at least aren't as concerned with—who they hurt as long as they get what they want.

Once you begin looking for Ripleys in both art and life, you begin to see them everywhere. Most recently, and blatantly, we had Barry Keoghan as Oliver Quick in Emerald Fennel’s high-camp freakout, Saltburn—but a few key, relatively recent Ripleys include Mark Zuckerberg, Lydia Tàr, Saul Goodman, Jordan Belfort, Mrs. Doubtfire, Kevin Durant, Daniel Plainview, Lewis Strauss, Rupert Pupkin, Bob Benson, Anna Delvey, Erik Killmonger, and George Santos, among many, many others.

Today, on Netflix, history expands, as Andrew Scott steps into Dickie Greenleaf’s loafers for Ripley, the most faithful and expansive adaptation of the novel to date. The eight-episode season appears to be the first of many, which will theoretically explore all of Highsmith’s Ripley novels.

Counting the new series, the first three Ripley books have been adapted six times across seven decades by some of our greatest actors. It’s quietly become one of the most decorated roles in Hollywood history, up there with Hamlet, or…The Joker. So for fun, let’s rank history’s many Ripleys to learn something about the character, and perhaps, ourselves.

A brief aside on methodology: This is not a movie ranking. While the quality of the movie and the pen behind the adaptation of course shapes the character on screen, what we’re primarily concerned with here is the performance of the Ripley in question in terms of believability, and fidelity to Highsmith’s intention, as assessed by me, written in digital stone, forever. Il meglio albergo!

6. Barry Pepper, Ripley Underground, dir. Roger Spottiswoode (2005)

We all know that Patricia Highsmith’s most famous creation, Tom Ripley, didn’t “serve cunt.” But what this film presupposes is: maybe he did?

Ripley Underground is an outlier in many ways. It’s the only adaptation of the second novel in the Ripley trilogy, a great psychological profile/fine art scam novel that in some ways is more fun than the first. It’s the only one that sets its story in contemporary times. And it’s the film that strays the furthest from Highsmith’s source material, while somehow making for the least imaginative translation.

Pepper’s Ripley is a bleached-and-feathered, chest-waxed actor struggling to make rent. I recently saw the satire Josie and the Pussycats, and was reminded of it constantly while watching this, because both share what can only be described as a Hot Topic aesthetic. Its cast features gods and relics from that bubblegum era of pop film, like Jacinda Barrett, Claire Forlani, and a coke-shoveling Alan Cumming, but also character actor deities Tom Wilkinson and Willem Dafoe(?!). Pepper, meanwhile, turns in an incredible piece of gelled-and-frosted TRL-hair and B-cup-cheekbone acting. If our motley crew of Ripleys were a boy band, he'd be Donnie Wahlberg.

5. Dennis Hopper, The American Friend, dir. Wim Wenders (1977)

Wenders’ adaptation is based on Ripley’s Game, the twice-adapted third book in the trilogy, which has a somewhat convoluted plot about a scumbag fence who wants to manufacture a mafia war in Germany by using a mild-mannered British picture framer living in France as a hitman to kill the principals of two separate crime families. The picture framer, Jonathan Trevanny, is dying from myeloid leukemia, and wants to leave financial security behind for his wife and young son.

In the novel, it’s more of a two-hander, with Highsmith at times awkwardly splitting perspective between Ripley and Trevanny, from paragraph to paragraph. The film, set in Germany, with Trevanny now called “Jonathan Zimmerman,” is Bruno Ganz’s movie. Ripley's Game in some ways is a slightly tweaked return to the scene of the crime of Highsmith's first novel, Strangers on a Train, another story about an unassuming man in the thrall of a psychopath. Here, there’s an added layer of pathos—Tom Ripley takes exception to being snubbed by Zimmerman at a social function, then decides to fuck with him by ensnaring him in an acquaintance’s murder plot for his amusement, and when his plan works better than he thought it might, swoops in to try and save him. Ganz, with his sunken, frowning eyes and jowls, probably turns in the single best performance in any of these films, both falling apart and alive and ecstatic; impending death and bleak circumstances have shocked him into briefly reclaiming the life that will soon be taken from him. It’s stunning and deeply-felt work in a movie otherwise full of emotionless gangsters and wealthy snobs, and makes Wenders’ adaptation the second best work on this list.

Ripley is largely a peripheral phantom menace here, showing up sporadically through the first two acts, then taking over the third. This is perhaps the furthest any film gets from the character on the page. Dennis Hopper’s Ripley is a coarse, violent, volatile, stoned and cokey cowboy, and occasionally a silly, sensitive, introspective and curious sophomore philosophy-major type—which is to say, he’s Dennis Hopper.

4. Alain Delon, Purple Noon, dir. René Clement (1960)

Released just five years after the publication of Highsmith's novel, Purple Noon starred Alain Delon as the first onscreen Ripley, and still the hottest (by default, being the hottest human being that has ever lived.)

Delon and Clement’s Ripley is more concerned with logistics than other adaptations. Greenleaf is dispatched rather quickly and easily, leaving most of the film for the “how” of assuming the identity of another human being, the document-manufacturing and signature-forging.

Maurice Ronet’s Dickie Greenleaf is also the best Dickie to date, a cruel and sadistic scumbag; his heightened version of the character is a Dickie you’re glad to see ruthlessly murdered by Tom. And on that note, briefly, a list within a list:

The Incredibly Competitive Definitive Dickie Greenleaf Rankings

3. Johnny Flynn (Ripley, 2024)

2. Jude Law (The Talented Mr. Ripley, 1999)

  1. Maurice Ronet (Purple Noon, 1960)

Ultimately, the fundamental failure here is not Delon’s. Ripley is a deeply American text, and its core ideas and themes get somewhat lost in translation in French hands. The film mistakes the novel for a simple, smart genre exercise. Its queer coding is completely lost—or at least downplayed, as Tom seduces Marge towards the end—and in classic French-noir fashion, Tom is caught by virtue of a stupid and careless mistake he’d never actually make.

3. Andrew Scott, Ripley, dir. Steven Zaillian (2024)

Much to admire in the God Zaillian’s newest interpretation, a passion project he wrote and directed all eight episodes for. It’s the queerest reading of the character, and not just because Andrew Scott is the first openly gay Ripley (in a bold casting choice, Freddie Miles is played by the nonbinary actor Eliot Sumner). This adaptation, which adapts a scant 300 page novel across eight admirably patient episodes, is for the Highsmith diehards—by far the most slavishly devout to the text, not just beat by beat but moment to moment, and not always to its benefit.

Scott is a brilliant actor with the unfortunate weight of history on his shoulders. The 47-year old Brit was an interesting decision to play a young, insecure, ambitious American predator. The casting, I would guess, was a choice made with subsequent installments in mind—Scott will make more sense as the composed, stately and established Ripley, running his schemes and living a life of affluence in the French countryside off Dickie’s inheritance.

Here, he seems slightly out of place; he’s supposedly coming of age but already seems to have found his station in life. And because Ripley leaves in many of the contrivances and conveniences from Highsmith’s text that subsequent adaptations either excised or wrote around, Scott’s Ripley is often a beneficiary of luck rather than devious design, which further confuses Scott’s restrained, controlled performance. But this adaptation does stray from the text in its final hour, writing its own ending complete with a surprise cameo from Ripley lore that should have bearing on the second season, in the event we get one—which we should all be rooting for. Onwards and upwards.

2. Matt Damon, The Talented Mr. Ripley, dir. Anthony Minghella (1999)

Minghella’s near-perfect film is the most human and emotional interpretation—the script is the true origin story of a sociopath, and Damon shows us the flop sweat, how badly Tom wants this life. Every major change made to the text only improves on the source material. Tom desperately cuddling Dickie’s corpse, the blood sloshing in the bottom of the boat. The folded-in A-plot about Dickie getting a woman pregnant, which fleshes out Dickie while strengthening Tom’s alibi. Tom is a better criminal and a better person in the film, crying with grief as he literally strangles his chance at love, truth, and happiness. The film more or less closes Highsmith’s holes of convenience. Freddie Miles is little more than a plot contrivance on the page. It’s the script—and of course Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance— that breathes life into what became one of the GOAT PSH's best characters. It’s the final draft of the Ripley story.

So why not #1? Because Damon’s Tom is so human, his motivations (and sexuality) so clear, it takes a bit of the edge off of Ripley, the unsettling, calculating criminal who takes some pleasure in his evil. Damon’s Ripley is lovesick, and if Dickie and Marge would have him, you get the feeling he’d have been happy to serve as an awkward third wheel forever. It makes for a better Ripley film, but there's one other Ripley actor who got just a little closer to the character.

1. John Malkovich, Ripley’s Game, dir. Lillia Cavani (2002)

Ripley’s Game is a good time—another adaptation of the third Ripley novel, this time with a fun British cast that include a pre-Game of Thrones Lena Headey, Dougray Scott, and Ray Winstone. The script takes some liberties to make the story more of a dramatic and exciting gangster film, adding a set piece where Trevanny kills a target at the zoo and a climactic showdown at Belle Ombré. It’s Cavani, so rather than a shootout, there’s a bear trap and a wrench and plenty of gore.

More than any other interpretation, Malkovich absorbs and can convincingly navigate Tom’s odd principled code and inhuman coldness. He’s an accomplished piano player who snacks on white truffle risotto and views murder as an impersonal, unfortunate necessity; a behind-the-eyes-OCD murderer, devoid of conscience or emotion, but not at all a nihilist. He’s the Tom that swoops into action during the Derwatt scam but kills without hesitation when he must in Ripley Underground, the Tom who rapidly transforms from antagonist to guardian angel in Ripley's Game, and kills out of a duty-bound morality that only makes sense to him.

It’s still the most faithful and inspired translation of Tom Ripley, fixture of American fiction, from the page to the screen. At least, until the next one.

Originally Appeared on GQ