I’ve found over the years that approaching a book having already seen the film adaptation causes some problems. One of the obvious and most enjoyable aspects of reading is conjuring up the characters in your mind’s eye, and having them as yours only. My image of Holden Caulfield, for example, is probably vastly different to yours, and for that matter, Salinger’s. This is all to the good, for the author really only supplies the hook, it is the reader’s imagination that provides the rest.
So when reading The Talented Mr Ripley, our first choice this month, I already had Matt Damon’s portrayal of Tom Ripley firmly in my mind, and this lessened the enjoyment somewhat. I saw the film many years ago, and remembered little of the plot, but when reading the book, certain scenes gave me a flashback to the movie and blurred the lines of what I was reading a little bit. The other problem with reading after watching the film is the inevitable conflict over omissions, stuff that was taken out of the film or amended. I struggle not to think of these things when in this situation and it does cause frustration,.
This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the book – I found it an enjoyable read and scarily plausible. Patricia Highsmith’s great strength is her ability to ratchet up the tension throughout. The pacing is exemplary, and the prose is seeped with paranoia as Tom has to keep looking over his shoulder to stay one step ahead of the police after his murder of Dickie Greenleaf.
One negative point – I inadvertently caught a glimpse of the last pages, which contained reviews of other Highsmith novels featuring Tom Ripley. I suspected that the novel would conclude with Tom escaping justice, but it would have been nice to find out for myself rather than have it given away. I suppose it taught me a lesson, not to go sneaking into the book and take it one page at a time.
A complete change of pace saw us look at Evelyn Waugh’s satire Scoop, written in the 1930s and poking fun at the journalism industry, I’ve always felt that satire must be one of the hardest genres to write well. It strikes me that comedy is easier to relay vocally than in the written word, which is why I admire those writers who can do it successfully.
And Waugh is certainly one of those; the novel tells of a man who essentially becomes a war correspondent by accident. A recipe for farce, sure, but Waugh keeps it hilarious without descending into the realms of ridiculousness. The novel feels relevant even 80 years after publication, particularly the idea that journalists can create news when there isn’t any through their sheer presence and influence. In a world now heavily commanded by social media, where seemingly innocuous tweets can suddenly become the news after being picked up and reported by journalists, this still resonates. The novel’s great strength is its timelessness, its sharp realism, which pins the dark art of journalism like no other before or since.