The novels of Patricia Highsmith, the high priestess of the psychological thriller, delve into the dark depths of the human condition. Lust, repressed desire, jealousy, suspense, class anxiety, rage—and usually at least one murder—are all recurring elements in her work.
The dramatic nature of Highsmith’s work, embodied by complex, riveting characters— from the charming but murderous grifter Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley to the aloof yet alluring housewife Carol Aird in The Price of Salt—lends itself well to the big screen. Strangers on a Train, Highsmith’s suspenseful first novel, was published in 1950 and made into a film just a year later by Alfred Hitchcock. Filled with blackmail, intrigue, and obsession, Strangers on a Train was the first of many film adaptations that would be made of Highsmith’s work, which comprises 22 novels and stories.
Though it’s been more than 70 years since her first novel was published, the thrills of Highsmith keep coming—her stories, though dark, tap into universal themes like moral conflict and forming identity, making them both apropos and timeless. Case in point: the new film adaptation of Deep Water, starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, which comes out on March 18. Though the film updates some elements of the story to situate it in contemporary times (Affleck’s character is a tech entrepreneur), Highsmith’s deft touch can clearly felt in de Armas’ adulterous and sharply observant housewife Melinda Van Allen, a classic Highsmith character: flawed, complicated, and yet somehow endlessly, discomfitingly relatable.
Below is our guide to every movie adaptation made of Patricia Highsmith’s work.
Strangers on a Train (1950)
Highsmith’s debut novel, Strangers on a Train, was published in 1950, marking the start of her notable career. This reputation was bolstered the next year, when Alfred Hitchcock, known as the “Master of Suspense,” adapted the book to screen. In Highsmith’s novel, a fateful chance encounter between two disgruntled strangers on a train has deadly consequences; architect Guy Haines wants to leave his cheating wife Miriam for his new love, Anne, while Bruno Antony, a wealthy psychopath wants to be rid of his overbearing father. Antony suggests that the men “swap” murders—Antony killing Miriam and Haines killing Antony’s father—since neither would have a motive, freeing them both from becoming suspects, while Haines considers the proposition nothing more than a joke. After Antony murders Miriam, it sets off a chain of events that involves blackmail, homoerotic obsession, an investigation, and more murder. The high-octane drama of Highsmith’s novel provided rich fodder for Hitchcock’s now-iconic film adaptation (the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2021), with a few key changes for the two main characters: in the movie, Haines is a celebrity tennis star who is incapable of murder, instead of an architect who kills to keep his secrets; Bruno Antony, meanwhile, was renamed by Hitchcock as Charles Bruno Anthony, whose homoerotic tendencies were heightened for the film. Hitchcock’s adaptation wasn’t the only reworking of Highsmith’s novel for film—director Robert Sparr’s 1969 thriller Once You Kiss a Stranger, took liberal inspiration from Strangers on a Train, with a gender flip for its main characters.
The Price of Salt (1952)
While Highsmith is best known for cold-blooded crime novels filled with murders and deception, her 1952 romance novel The Price of Salt, about a forbidden love affair between a housewife and a shopgirl, is regarded as one of her masterpieces. Centering on the obsessive romance that develops between Therese Belivet, a set designer whose day job is working a department store, and Carol Aird, a wealthy housewife trapped in an unhappy marriage, the book has been heralded as a groundbreaking work of queer literature, particularly because its relatively happy ending was a rarity in work about lesbians. Highsmith, wary of being pigeonholed or discriminated as a writer of lesbian pulp fiction, initially published the book under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, It was re-issued with her real name and the title, Carol, in 1989. The book got the silver screen treatment in 2014 with a highly acclaimed adaptation helmed by director Todd Haynes. Starring Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird and Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet, the film stayed mostly true to Highsmith’s text (an exception being that Therese is a photographer rather than a set designer in the film), thanks to an excellent adapted screenplay by Phyllis Nagy.
Where to watch: Pluto
The Blunderer (1954)
Mariticide—or at least the appearance of it—provides the drama for Highsmith’s third novel, 1954’s The Blunderer. Meek and bumbling lawyer and amateur writer Walter Stackhouse has had it with his high maintenance wife Clara after a decade of matrimony filled with her neuroses and demands. Triggered by Clara’s insinuation that he’s having an affair with a music teacher, Walter pursues a relationship with the woman in question, prompting Clara to attempt suicide unsuccessfully. Undeterred, Walter files for divorce, but before proceedings can begin, Clara is found dead, raising suspicions about his possible role in her death—especially since he’s just befriended the local bookstore owner, whose wife was killed in a similar fashion to Clara. The Blunderer has had two film adaptations over the years: the first, Le meurtrier (or Enough Rope), was a French thriller film that was loosely inspired by the novel, released in 1963 by the director Claude Autant-Lara; the second is the 2016 film, A Kind of Murder, which closely follows the themes and characters of Highsmith’s original work, save for some minor changes, such as Walter working as an architect and amateur crime instead of a lawyer. Directed by Andy Goddard the film stars Patrick Wilson as Stackhouse, Jessica Biel as Clara, and Vincent Kartheiser as the dogged detective investigating Clara’s death.
Where to watch: A Kind of Murder, YouTube
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)
Perhaps the most famous of Highsmith’s novels, The Talented Mr. Ripley introduced readers to the charming but psychopathic killer Tom Ripley, a character so compelling that Highsmith wrote four other novels about him. The novel begins when Ripley, a scrappy young man resorting to scams to survive in NYC, fakes a friendship with Dickie Greenleaf that results in Dickie’s father sending him to Italy to bring Dickie back to the U.S. Instead of returning home, Ripley grows his grift—he impersonates a wealthy acquaintance and gallivants around Italy with Dickie, developing a deep and homoerotic obsession with him that disarms Dickie once he realizes it. Ripley’s obsession leads to his greatest impersonation of all: he assumes a new life as Dickie Greenleaf, reaping all the benefits of his wealth and social standing. In order to achieve and maintain his new lifestyle, however, Ripley turns to murder, not just once, but many times. The sinister story has been adapted into three different films; the first, the 1960 French film, Purple Noon, was a loose adaptation of Highsmith’s novel that was directed by Réné Clément and starred Alain Delon as Ripley. The most well-known adaptation of the novel is Anthony Minghella’s 1999 version, The Talented Mr. Ripley, which follows Highsmith’s text far more closely. Starring Matt Damon as Ripley, Jude Law as Dickie, and boasting an all-star cast that included Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, the film garnered five Oscar nominations. The third adaptation of the novel is 2012’s Naan, an Indian Tamil-language film written and directed by Jeeva Shankar that was loosely based on the novel and the 1999 film adaptation.
Deep Water (1957)
Highsmith returned to familiar themes of marital infidelity, jealousy, lust, and violence with her fifth novel, Deep Water. Suburban couple Vic and Melinda Van Allen have long established that their marriage is devoid of love, but in order to avoid the scandal of divorce, they’ve come to an agreement that seems to work: Melinda can have as many affairs as she wants, provided that she does not leave their family. However, once Melinda’s lovers begin mysteriously dying, she has a sinking suspicion that Vic is responsible for the murders, setting off a dangerous game of cat and mouse between the couple, which is only heightened once a local pulp fiction writer also suspects that Vic is behind the killings. This dramatic tale of marital strife lent itself well to the big screen; it was first adapted for film as Eaux profondes in 1981 by director Michel Deville, who rewrote the story to take place in France and changed Melinda’s name to Melanie, played by Isabelle Huppert. Another adaptation, set in contemporary times, starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas premiered on March 18. It marks director Adrian Lyne’s return to directing after a 20 year hiatus.
Where to watch: Deep Water, Hulu
The Cry of the Owl (1962)
A divorcée’s wandering eye sets off a murderous chain of events in Highsmith’s eighth novel, The Cry of the Owl. Following an acrimonious split with his ex-wife Nikki, Robert Forester moves to the suburbs of Pennsylvania, where he becomes secretly obsessed with Jenny, a neighbor whom he spies on from the kitchen window. What Robert doesn’t anticipate, however, is Jenny’s own obsessive advances towards him, including breaking her engagement to her jealous fiancé Greg, whose thirst for revenge, mirroring that of Nikki, who reappears in Robert’s life, has fatal consequences for more than one person. Robert’s trials and tribulations played out on the big screen in two film adaptations of the novel—first, in Claude Chabrol’s 1987 French film, Le Cri de Hibou and later, in 2009, with an adaptation that was written and directed by Jamie Thraves, starring Julia Stiles and Paddy Considine.
The Two Faces of January (1964)
Highsmith employs romantic and destructive passion to fuel a messy love triangle that turns murderous. American con man Chester MacFarland and his wife Colette are traveling in Greece, when they meet an American expat named Rydal Keener. After MacFarland accidentally kills a policeman, the trio hide from the law in a high-stakes evasion across the country that takes a fatal turn after a flirtation develops between Keener and Colette. Die zwei Gesichter des Januar, a German film adaptation of the film was made in 1986 by director Wolfgang Storch, while a 2014 adaptation sharing the same name as the novel, written and directed by Hossein Amini, played up the romance between Colette and Keener and the cons of MacFarland for dramatic effect; it starred Viggo Mortenson as Chester MacFarland, Kirsten Dunst as Colette, and Oscar Isaac as Rydal Keener.
The Glass Cell (1964)
Highsmith took inspiration from fan mail from a prison inmate who had read her novel Deep Water and John Bartlow Martin’s 1954 account of his time in the Michigan State Prison, Break Down the Walls to critique the prison industrial complex for her tenth novel, 1964’s The Glass Cell. In the book, Highsmith shows the far-reaching consequences of wrongful imprisonment through the character of Philip Carter, a gentle engineer who is innocent, but has been falsely convicted of fraud. Carter is traumatized after his only friend in jail is killed, falling into a deep depression and exhibiting violent behavior, like what he’s witnessed in jail, all while obsessing over whether or not his wife Hazel is having an affair with his lawyer, David. After Carter gains an early release and discovers that his suspicions about infidelity were rooted in reality, the effect of incarceration on his character has fatal consequences for everyone involved. The sobering themes of The Glass Cell provided inspiration for the 1978 Oscar-nominated German film, Die gläserne Zelle, which was directed by Hans W. Geibendorfer.
Where to watch: Not available for streaming or purchase
Ripley Under Ground (1970)
The sequel novel to Highsmith’s wildly popular The Talented Mr. Ripley and the second novel in her “Ripliad” series about Tom Ripley, focuses on the wily and sinister Ripley, who is now living a luxurious new life in France with his new wife Heloise, thanks to Dickie’s fortune, which Ripley bequeathed to himself by forging Dickie’s will. This forgery sets the tone for the rest of the novel, which finds Ripley maintaining his lifestyle with an art forgery scheme that soon billows out of control, compelling Ripley to return to his impersonating and murderous ways. The plot of the novel was the loose inspiration for the 1977 German neo-noir film, The American Friend, as well as a 2005 adaptation by Roger Spottiswoode that despite sharing the same title as the novel, took many liberties with the story.
Ripley’s Game (1974)
In the third installment of Highsmith’s series about Tom Ripley, the murderous grifter’s affluent lifestyle in France is interrupted by a request for a hit job from a former associate in America. As much as Ripley tries to stay out of the fray, he finds himself drawn back into subterfuge and fatal violence after a petty act of revenge results in a run-in with the mafia and an unexpected murder. It was adapted, taking many liberties from the book, for the big screen by director Liliana Cavani in 2002 and starred John Malkovich as Ripley.
Where to watch: Available to rent or buy on YouTube
Edith’s Diary (1977)
Highsmith returns to the darker side of suburban life with her 1977 novel Edith’s Diary, a dismal look at domesticity through the eyes of Edith Howland, a housewife in a small Pennsylvania town, whose tenuous grasp on reality after her husband leaves her and their troubled son for a younger woman becomes apparent in the stark difference between her bleak life and the one she writes about in her cheery and patently untrue diary entries. Highsmith drew on her own habits as a devoted diary keeper as part of the novel’s inspiration. The novel, which the New Yorker praised as Highsmith’s “strongest, her most imaginative, and by far her most substantial” work, was adapted for film by Hans W. Geibendorfer in 1983, his second adaptation of one of Highsmith’s novels.
Where to watch: Not available for streaming or purchase
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