What defines the tone of a literary text, and how can this be translated into film?

The tone of a literary text is often particularly one-dimensional. Unless other characters’ viewpoints are presented, the narrator and his or her point of view that is consistently revealed throughout the book, define the tone. The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith is no exception. Although the main protagonist, Tom Ripley, does not narrate, the narration is only ever filtered through Tom according to how he interprets events and how he perceives other characters. In film, there is the opportunity for plenty of other cinematic devices to come into play that can also define tone. I argue that the translation of tone is not restricted to a single omniscient narrator. Instead, several other cinematic devices are used to define the tone from The Talented Mr Ripley into the 1999 film adaptation.

There are limitations to the The Talented Mr Ripley’s ability to define tone. The text’s narration is always filtered through Tom Ripley. Consequently, events are only seen through one person’s perspective. Despite this, the narration avoids admitting Tom’s deviant and untoward demeanour. Instead, Tom’s deceptive inclinations are portrayed in an understated tone. Tom’s thoughts, for example, suggest his deception when Dickie Greenleaf’s father asks him a simple question. Tom notes that, ‘There was Buddy Lankenau, Tom thought, but he didn’t want to wish a chore like this on Buddy. “‘I’m afraid I don’t,’ Tom said, shaking his head.’” This incident may seem insignificant in relation to the murder that occurs in this text but it suggests Tom’s unnecessary reluctance to tell the truth. Similarly, when Tom meets Marge Sherwood and Dickie for the first time, the disapproval he feels is also portrayed in an understated tone as the narration states that, ‘Dickie was looking him over, not entirely with approval, Tom felt. Dickie’s arms were folded…’ (p. 41). Despite the suggestion of negative body language by recognising that ‘Dickie’s arms were folded,’ this view is based on Tom’s subjective interpretation of the manner in which Dickie stares at him. Yet the reader cannot make their own judgement since they cannot see how Dickie stares at Tom. Indeed, the tone in this text appears to be predominantly understated because of the limited way in which the tone is defined, and therefore, evoked.

In contrast, in the film adaptation of the The Talented Mr Ripley, the visual and musical cinematic capabilities add a further dimension to defining tone that enables the tone to be interpreted much more easily. The opening credits immediately evoke a deceitful tone surrounding Tom’s persona. When the title of the film initially appears on the screen, various adjectives momentarily flash up on the screen instead of ‘talented,’ which includes ‘haunted,’ and ‘troubled.’ This sequence is also accompanied by unnerving, eerie music. It is this combination of the visual and musical effects that powerfully suggest to the audience that there is something untoward about this character before he has even made an appearance. Although when the audience witnesses Tom’s meeting with Marge and Dickie for the first time, his thoughts are not directly voiced like they are in the text. The narration is also no longer filtered through Tom’s point of view. Instead, Tom is a character that should be observed just as much as Dickie and Marge; close-up camera shots on his facial expressions are used to suggest his thoughts. Yet the ambivalent tone in which Marge and Dickie react to Tom is portrayed much more effectively on the screen. Indeed, the audience are able to see Dickie adopt negative body language by closing his eyes and how both characters frequently avoid direct eye with Tom, which strongly suggests their disinterest in him. These musical and visual cinematic capabilities, which are missing from the text, enables the film to establish and evoke tone in a much more vivid, and therefore, convincing manner.

In contrast, further evidence suggests that homosexuality, which is a theme running through the text and film, is also portrayed in an understated tone in the text. Tom’s destructive thought processes indicate his feelings of irritation and jealousy towards Dickie’s relationship with Marge. The narration states how, ‘He suddenly felt that Dickie was embracing her, or at least touching her, at this minute, and partly he wanted to see it, and partly he loathed the idea of seeing it’ (p. 67). Tom’s hesitation, indicated by the frequent use of commas, suggests his agitation. Tom’s hate pervades this extract as ‘he loathed’ is the note he ends on, which highlights his jealous feelings. However, despite the narration being filtered through Tom, he never admits his homosexual feelings towards Dickie. Tom also never tells Dickie that he finds Marge a threat to his relationship with him. These facts confirm the understated tone in which homosexuality is portrayed in this text since feelings are suggested and thought but never directly voiced to other characters.

Yet homosexuality is portrayed in an erotic tone in the film. Despite this erotic tone, the sexual aspect of homosexuality is never explored. Instead, the examination of Tom and Dickie’s relationship focuses on their companionship. Nevertheless, the erotic connotations are explicit when Tom is talking to Dickie who is in the bath. In this scene, sensual, saxophone music accompanies several close-up shots of Dickie’s fingers, which appears to have a phallic undertone. The camera also focuses on the uneasy, tense glances passed between the pair when Tom asks if he can also get into the bath. These glances and Dickie’s consequent departure from the bath suggests that their relationship is more than merely platonic. The camera then focuses on Tom’s gaze at Dickie’s naked body and when Dickie notices this, he consequently hits Tom with his towel in a flirtatious manner. Indeed, unlike the text, Tom admits, and in fact confronts Dickie, about the homosexual element to their relationship. This revelation occurs just before Tom kills Dickie out of passion for rebuffing his affections, which directly illustrates the intense and erotic tone in which homosexuality is evoked in the film.

In a similar way that the tone in which homosexuality is portrayed is different in the text and film, there are significant variations in the nature of tone between the text and film since they have dissimilar implicit audiences. In the text, there is a far less sympathetic tone towards Marge than there is in the film. For example, the narration states how, ‘Tom turned suddenly and made a grab in the air as if he were seizing Marge’s throat. He shook her, twisted her, while she sank lower and lower, until at last he left her, limp, on the floor (p. 69). The manner in which Tom pretends to act out a murderous act on Marge evokes an amoral tone. Yet it also creates an unsympathetic tone towards Marge since it suggests that she is a dislikeable person. Although the main reason that this unsympathetic tone is evoked in the first place revolves around the narration being filtered through Tom, who appears jealous of Marge’s relationship with Dickie. Still, the tone in which surroundings are described also differ. A sordid tone is evoked from the description of Tom’s surroundings in New York that is not present in the film. Tom’s accommodation is described as having a ‘[…] smelly john down the hall that didn’t lock’ with ‘[…] cigarette butts and decaying fruit’ (p. 12). The focus on these filthy, enclosed living conditions in the text are replaced by a focus on the beautiful, decadent and spacious Mongibello apartment in the film. Indeed, the manner in which tone differs in the text suggests that the implicit audience that the book has been written for has had a significant influence.

Similarly, when the tone evoked in the film differs from the tone evoked in the text, it is predominantly because of its dissimilar implicit audience. Yet different tones are also induced in the film from significant changes to the plot. Different tones and changes to the plot overlap. The film is very set on making sure it has a strong American film identity and it is through this portrayal that a change to the plot occurs, which highlights the explicit tone in which cultural image is portrayed. Indeed, Dickie’s emotional reaction confirms his suspicions that Salvanna, a pregnant, unmarried Italian woman who has previously asked him for money, has committed suicide out of desperation. He breaks the record player out of frustration and dubs Italy ‘fucking primitive,’ which implicitly suggests that America is a civilised society that does not share the same strict Roman Catholic beliefs as Italy regarding illegitimate pregnancies. Similarly, an explicit tone is used to portray cultural identity by the film’s focus on jazz music as opposed to the text’s focus on classical music. In the film, Dickie is an accomplished jazz musician and has named his boat ‘Bird’ after a renowned jazz artist. This genre of music evokes an explicit tone of cultural identity since it originated from America. The elaborate focus on jazz simultaneously evokes a tone of stylised, American ‘cool’ that seems to exist because of the film’s different implicit audience.

It is evident that the definition of tone in the text is heavily dependent upon an omniscient narrator that is filtered through Tom. The text’s omniscient narrator is used whether it is to evoke the mood that arises when characters are meeting for the first time or to explore the homosexual undertones that underpin Tom and Dickie’s relationship. This omniscient narrator is understated and limited because it is filtered from only one person’s perspective and it does not use any other literary device to help evoke tone. Yet tone is defined by an array of cinematic devices, including camera close-ups, visual and musical effects, in the film. The use of tone in the film is consequently much more explicit and is evoked in an unbiased way, which offers a well-rounded and convincing view of the action. Thus, the use of tone in the film adaptation is not held back by the same limits that are inflicted upon the use of tone in the text.


Primary Texts

Highsmith, Patricia, The Talented Mr Ripley (London: Vintage, 1999)

The Talented Mr Ripley, dir. Anthony Minghella (Miramax Films and Paramount

Pictures, 1999)

Secondary Texts

An Introduction to Film Studies, ed. Jill Neimes (New York: Routledge, 2003)

Giddings, Robert, Keith Selby and Chris Wensley, Screening The Novel (London: The

Macmillan Press Ltd, 1990)

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