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The Ultimate Guide to the Films of Novelist Patricia Highsmith

With a new documentary, now’s the time to dig into this psychological master’s body of work


spinner image Writer Patricia Highsmith
Patricia Highsmith
Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

Known for her psychological thrillers and tales of obsession and betrayal, American novelist Patricia Highsmith left behind a surprisingly robust cinematic legacy: Her 22 novels and countless short stories have been adapted into dozens of movies and TV shows, including Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. RipleyCarol and this year’s Deep Water. Now Swiss director Eva Vitija is turning her lens on the author with the documentary Loving Highsmith, which draws on the novelist’s newly published diaries and notebooks and interviews with lovers and relatives. Game of Thrones star Gwendoline Christie is voicing the literary legend.

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“Her image is determined to a great extent by … her reputation as a grim, misanthropic crime writer,” Vitija said in a statement. “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.” The film opens on Sept. 2 at Film Forum in New York City and on Sept. 9 at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles before expanding to limited release nationwide. Before learning about the surprising woman behind the stories, here’s your ultimate watchlist of films based on the works of Patricia Highsmith.

The adaptation: Strangers on a Train (1951)

Based on: Strangers on a Train (1950)

The premise: In Alfred Hitchcock’s film noir classic, tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and charming psychopath Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) meet on a train. When their conversation reveals that they both have people in their lives they’d like to get rid of — Guy’s cheating wife, Bruno’s hated father — Bruno suggests that they “swap murders,” so neither gets caught. Highsmith’s novel also inspired a dark comedic version, 1987’s Throw Momma From the Train, starring Danny DeVito and Billy Crystal.

Highsmith trivia: Only 29 when she published this, her first novel, Highsmith was paid a meager $7,500 for the rights to the film. For reference, Margaret Mitchell received $50,000 for Gone With the Wind a decade earlier.

Watch it: Strangers on a Train, on Amazon PrimeApple TV

The adaptation: Deep Water (2022)

Based on: Deep Water (1957)

The premise: Known for erotic thrillers like Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal, director Adrian Lyne, 81, was the perfect fit for adapting the dark and sexy world of Highsmith, and this film is his first in two decades, since 2002’s Unfaithful. Ben Affleck, 50, and his then-girlfriend Ana de Armas (who stars as Marilyn Monroe in this year’s Blonde) star as the unhappily married small-town Louisiana couple Vic and Melinda Van Allen, who have an arrangement in which she’s allowed to have as many affairs as she wants as long as she doesn’t leave the family. When one of her lovers disappears, things start to get messy ...

Highsmith trivia: Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, 51, told The Wall Street Journal that Deep Water was one of her favorite novels: “About 10 or 13 years ago, I came across it in a used-book store. I remember thinking, ‘Why has no one told me about it?’ ”

Watch it: Deep Water, on Hulu

The adaptation: Carol (2015)

Based on: The Price of Salt (1952)

The premise: Cate Blanchett, 53, and Rooney Mara earned Oscar nominations for this lush 1950s-set melodrama by Far From Heaven director Todd Haynes, 61. Blanchett stars as Carol Aird, a glamorous married woman who begins a forbidden affair with Rooney’s Therese Belivet, an aspiring photographer and department store salesgirl. The book was revolutionary for its time, because it was one of the first lesbian romances with a happy ending.

Highsmith trivia: Highsmith first published The Price of Salt under the pseudonym “Claire Morgan,” because she didn’t want to be labeled, as she wrote in a 1990 reissue of the book, “a lesbian book writer.”

Watch it: Carol, on Amazon PrimeApple TV

The adaptation: The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

Based on: The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)

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The premise: Four decades after French actor Alain Delon, 86, originated the role of the charismatic (but murderous) Tom Ripley in 1960’s Plein Soleil, Matt Damon, 51, took over in Anthony Minghella’s five-time Oscar-nominated remake. The first installation in the five-book “Ripliad” series sees the calculating American expat becoming infatuated with la dolce vita in Italy and doing anything he can to ingratiate himself into that world of luxury and beauty — no matter the cost. Shot on location in Positano and the islands of Ischia and Procida, the sun-drenched film was a showcase for some of the finest young actors of their generation, including Jude Law, Cate Blanchett, Gwyneth Paltrow and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Highsmith trivia: The author based Ripley on a stranger she had watched walking down the beach from her hotel balcony in Positano in the summer of 1952.

Watch it: The Talented Mr. Ripley, on Amazon PrimeApple TVNetflixParamount+

spinner image Dennis Hopper wearing a cowboy hat and holding a pool cue stick in the film The American Friend
Dennis Hopper stars as Tom Ripley in "The American Friend."
Courtesy Everett Collection

The adaptation: The American Friend (1977)

Based on: Ripley’s Game (1974)

The premise: This neo-noir thriller by German director Wim Wenders, 77, a loose adaptation of the third Tom Ripley novel, is shot on location in Hamburg, Paris and New York City. Dennis Hopper stars as Ripley, who tricks a terminally ill German picture framer (Bruno Ganz) into becoming a hitman as payback for a personal slight. The book was readapted in 2002 with the film Ripley’s Game, starring John Malkovich, 68, in the title role.

Highsmith trivia: After unsuccessfully trying to secure the film rights to his two favorite Highsmith novels, The Cry of the Owl and The Tremor of Forgery, Wenders met with the author, and she offered him this then-unpublished manuscript.

Watch it: The American Friend, on Amazon PrimeApple TV

The adaptation: The Two Faces of January (2014)

Based on: The Two Faces of January (1964)

The premise: While on a tour of the Acropolis, American con man Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen, 63) and his wife, Colette (Kirsten Dunst), encounter a fellow American, expat tour guide Rydal Keener (Oscar Isaac). After the accidental killing of a private detective, the trio flees to Crete, and their friendship quickly transforms into a love triangle, filled with mystery and danger.

Highsmith trivia: The film premiered at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival, a festival at which Highsmith presided as the jury president in 1978.

Watch it: The Two Faces of January, on Amazon PrimeHulu

The adaptation: A Kind of Murder (2016)

Based on: The Blunderer (1954)

The premise: When architect and aspiring crime writer Walter Stackhouse (Patrick Wilson) becomes obsessed with the murder of a local woman, he sets out to meet her widower (Eddie Marsan, 54), a used-book store owner who he is convinced killed her. After — spoiler alert! — Walter’s wife (Jessica Biel) also turns up dead, a noirish cat-and-mouse game begins between the two men and detective Lawrence Corby (Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser).

Highsmith trivia: The Blunderer had previously been adapted into the 1963 French film Le Meurtrier by director and future member of the European Parliament Claude Autant-Lara.

Watch it: A Kind of Murder, on Amazon PrimeApple TVHBO MaxHulu

The adaptation: The Cry of the Owl (2009)

Based on: The Cry of the Owl (1962)

The premise: Critics didn’t love this 2009 thriller — the third adaptation after a German TV movie and a French film — so consider it only for Highsmith completists. After a bruising divorce, artist Robert Forrester (Paddy Considine) retreats to a small town in Pennsylvania, where he begins spying on his young neighbor Jenny (Julia Stiles). She soon catches him in action, but rather than get mad, Jenny becomes obsessed with her stalker. When her boyfriend goes missing, Robert becomes the prime suspect.

Highsmith trivia: British critic Susannah Clapp once called Highsmith “a balladeer of stalking” in The New Yorker, and indeed, the author said she based this book on her own experiences as a stalker!

Watch it: The Cry of the Owl, on Amazon PrimeApple TV

spinner image Dean Stockwell and Susan Oliver star in the television series The Alfred Hitchcock Hour
Dean Stockwell (left) and Susan Oliver in "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour."
CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images (2)

The adaptation: “Annabel,” an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962)

Based on: This Sweet Sickness (1960)

The premise: Psycho writer Robert Bloch adapted Highsmith’s novel into this tense hour of TV about a nerdy chemist named David Kelsey (Dean Stockwell) who’s obsessed with his titular ex-girlfriend (Susan Oliver). On the weekends, he escapes to a country cottage, which he decorates for a future life with Annabel. The only catch: She’s happily married to someone else and wants no part of him. If you’ve seen Psycho, you can probably guess that this won’t have a happy ending. This Sweet Sickness was also the inspiration for the 1977 French film Dites lui que je l’aime (Tell Her I Love Her), starring Gérard Depardieu, 73.

Highsmith trivia: Bloch’s screenplay changes the book’s ending quite dramatically, and Matt Damon, no stranger to Highsmith’s psychodramas, has expressed interest in creating a more faithful adaptation.

Annabel, on Peacock

The adaptation: A Mighty Nice Man (2014)

Based on: The short story “A Mighty Nice Man” (1940)

The premise: For something completely different, check out this 12-minute short, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Shot in crisp black and white, this eerie tale about a girl’s loss of innocence sees two friends competing for the attention of a charming older stranger (Billy Magnussen) who shows up in their tiny Southern town. When one of the girls is invited for a ride in his car, she immediately senses the danger of his predatory motivations.

Highsmith trivia: Highsmith wrote this powerful story while an undergrad at Barnard College in 1939 and published it in the school’s literary journal the next year.

Watch it: A Mighty Nice Man, on Vimeo

Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.

Editor's note: This article was originally published on Jan. 21, 2021. It has been updated with information about Loving Highsmith and current streaming links for each of the films on this list.

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