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The Ultimate Guide to the Films of Novelist Patricia Highsmith

Now's the time to dig into this psychological master's body of work

Writer Patricia Highsmith

Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

Patricia Highsmith

En español | Known for her psychological thrillers and tales of obsession and betrayal, American novelist Patricia Highsmith would have turned 100 on Jan. 19 (she died in 1995 in Switzerland). The renowned author's centennial is a perfect time to revisit her robust cinematic legacy: Her 22 novels and countless short stories have been adapted into dozens of movies, TV shows, plays, short films and radio plays, including Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Carol. And, amazingly, her influence shows no signs of slowing down. Showtime is turning Highsmith's five-book Tom Ripley series into a drama starring Fleabag and Sherlock actor Andrew Scott, and this year will also see the release of Deep Water, a thriller starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas. Here, a streaming watch list of Highsmith adaptations that will have you darting to your library or bookstore to read more.

The adaptation: The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

Based on: The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)

What it's about: Four decades after French actor Alain Delon, 85, originated the role of the charismatic (but murderous) Tom Ripley in 1960's Plein Soleil, Matt Damon, now 50, took over in Anthony Minghella's five-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.

Where to watch: The Talented Mr. Ripley, on Amazon Prime Video


The adaptation: Carol (2015)

Based on: The Price of Salt (1952)

What it's about: Cate Blanchett, 51, and Rooney Mara earned Oscar nominations for this lush 1950s-set melodrama by Far From Heaven director Todd Haynes, 60. Blanchett stars as the title glamorous married woman who begins a forbidden affair with Rooney's Therese, 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.”

Where to watch: Carol, on Netflix


The adaptation: Strangers on a Train (1951)

Based on: Strangers on a Train (1950)

What it's about: In Alfred Hitchcock's film-noir classic, tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and charming psychopath Bruno Anthony (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 book, her first novel, Highsmith was paid a meager $7,500 for the film rights. For reference, Margaret Mitchell received $50,000 for best seller Gone With the Wind a decade earlier.

Where to watch: Strangers on a Train, on Amazon Prime Video

RELATED: Love film noir? Then you'll love our critic-tested list of 12 gritty, fabulous noirs that are available to stream now. Get the list, here.


Dennis Hopper wearing a cowboy hat and holding a pool cue stick in the film The American Friend

Courtesy Everett Collection

Dennis Hopper stars as Tom Ripley in "The American Friend."

The adaptation: The American Friend (1977)

Based on: Ripley's Game (1974)

What it's about: This neo-noir thriller by German director Wim Wenders is a loose adaptation of the third Tom Ripley novel, 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 hit man as payback for a personal slight. The book was re-adapted in 2002 as Ripley's Game, starring John Malkovich, now 67, 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.

Where to watch: The American Friend, on Amazon Prime Video


The adaptation: The Two Faces of January (2014)

Based on: The Two Faces of January (1964)

What it's about: While on a tour of the Acropolis, American con man Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen, 62) 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, 36 years after Highsmith presided as the jury president at the same festival.

Where to watch: The Two Faces of January, on Amazon Prime Video


The adaptation: A Kind of Murder (2016)

Based on: The Blunderer (1954)

What it's about: When architect and aspiring crime writer Walter Stackhouse (Patrick Wilson) becomes obsessed with a woman's murder, he sets out to meet her widower (Eddie Marsan, 52), a bookstore 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 is set off involving 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.

Where to watch: A Kind of Murder, on Hulu

RELATED: The 15 Best True Crime Shows to Binge Right Now


The adaptation: The Cry of the Owl (2009)

Based on: The Cry of the Owl (1962)

What it's about: Critics didn't love this 2009 thriller — the third adaptation after a German TV movie and a French film — so consider it one 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!

Where to watch: The Cry of the Owl, on Vudu


Dean Stockwell and Susan Oliver star in the television series The Alfred Hitchcock Hour

CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images (2)

Dean Stockwell (left) and Susan Oliver in "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour."

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

Based on: This Sweet Sickness (1960)

What it's about: Psycho writer Robert Bloch adapted Highsmith's novel into this tense hour of TV about a nerdy chemist named David Kelsey (Dean Stockwell, now 84) 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, now 72.

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.

Where to watch: Annabel, on Peacock


The adaptation: A Mighty Nice Man (2014)

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

What it's about: 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.

Where to watch: A Mighty Nice Man, on Vimeo


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