The Film of the Book

Patricia HighsmithLast time our Wednesday Evening book group met we had one additional item on our agenda; we needed to decide on the book for our September meeting.  This meeting always differs from others.  We don’t get together in August because so many of our members work in education and are likely to be away, so inevitably come September we have a lot to catch up on.  Under those circumstances an evening meeting just isn’t going to work.  Discussion of the book would get taken over by everything else and that is something we decided right at the beginning was never going to happen. So, instead of gathering at 7.30, on this occasion we meet at 11.00 and spend the day discussing a book in the morning, seeing the film of the book in the afternoon and then discussing the adaptation over tea.  This leaves us with a long lazy lunch time when we can swap all the other news that has accumulated over the intervening weeks since we had our meeting in July.  Everyone brings a dish so that no one has to do too much preparation and occasionally a little wine might be drunk as well.  Some years selecting the book is easy.  There will have been a release during the past twelve months that grabs the attention of enough of us for it to be the obvious contender.  This year we have been scratching around looking for something to choose.

And then, as is so often the case, several of us had the same thought at the same time. As a result of the release of the cinematic version of The Two Faces of January there have been a number of articles in the media recently about Patricia Highsmith, articles that made me realise that not only had I not read The Two Faces of January, I’d not read anything by her.  (I am now bowing my head in shame and preparing to duck whilst you all toss deprecating insults in my direction.)  Fortunately for my self-esteem, I wasn’t the only one in that position and although we couldn’t hope to get hold of a DVD copy of the latest release for September there is the more readily available 1999 film version of her better known novel, The Talented Mr Ripley.  So, come September 14th, that is the book that will be the focus of our first Autumn meeting.

But isn’t it remarkable?  We are nine very well read women and yet not one of us has ever read anything by a writer as celebrated as Patricia Highsmith.  So, what are your blindspots – individual or group?  I am going to feel so very much better about myself if you can reassure me that there are writers that you have not necessarily avoided but simply managed to overlook.  And what is it about an author that means that their work can be praised to the heights and yet still slide around the public consciousness and apparently disappear between the cracks?  Is it to do with their style, their subject matter or a perhaps a mismatch between their work and the atmosphere of the moment?  What do you think?

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26 thoughts on “The Film of the Book

  1. In my case, it wasn’t the book I was unaware of, or had neglected, but the film. I didn’t even know there was a film! I’d written to another blogger about how great I thought Arturo Perez-Reverte’s book “The Club Dumas” was, only to hear that Roman Polanski had made a film of it (starring Johnny Depp) called “The Ninth Gate.” I guess now that’s my next assignment to myself a la cinema.

    • I have to say that I have deliberately avoided that film because I loved the book so much, but maybe I should think about that for September 2015. I would love to discuss the novel with that particular group whatever we thought about the film.

  2. This sounds like a lovely way to spend a day. I feel uncomfortable confessing this to you, Alex, but there many, many respected crime writers that I’ve never read including Patricia Highsmith, mainly because there are so many books already on my ever-expanding list that I’m wary of opening up another genre thereby adding a zillion more.

    • Oh, to be truthful, Susan, if I was to list the writers I’ve never read it would go on forever. What interested me about Highsmith was that she is an author you hear about a lot and one who should have been on our horizons and yet not one of us had read her.

  3. I haven’t read Patricia Highsmith either! Though I fully intend to and possess a couple of her books and her biography. Let’s not get started on how many other famous authors I haven’t read – if you put a line in the sand about 1920 and look backwards, I shudder to think how few authors of my acquaintance would be visible. And that doesn’t begin to account for science fiction, YA and romance genres, where I rarely go. I’m fairly sure that Italy and Russia are badly represented too. You see? We could be hours at this! :)

  4. I’m another one who hasn’t read any of Patricia Highsmith’s books – I see I’m in good company! One book or rather series of books I’m missing is by Anthony Powell his twelve-volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time – I’ve been meaning to try that for many years,

    • That’s another one on my list as well, Margaret. I’ve been thinking of getting hold of the BBC dramatisation as a compromise.

  5. I have read Patricia Highsmith, but just the one book. In that case I was recommended a book and went in search of it. Her books have never caught my eye in libraries and bookshops, and I’m inclined to think that maybe she has been lost in literary limbo between the contemporary and the golden age.

    • That’s a really interesting thought, Jane, that there are authors who in another time would have received far more attention than they do in their own. I am going to have tho think about that carefully and what the implications might be for someone like Highsmith.

      • Patricia Highsmith can be the most hypnotic of all crime novelists – she certainly is one of the best when she is at her best. The Andrew Wilson biography is fascinating although it reveals Highsmith as one of the most misanthropic, indeed pretty nasty, writers ever! For all that the best of her novels (and I don’t think they include the Ripley ones) have to be read by crime fiction fans.

          • What about Strangers On A Train (Hitchcock link of course) or Cry Of the Owl or The Blunderer? The Two Faces Of January itself has a claustrophobic power. Edith’s Diary another good one.

  6. I’ve only read the one Highsmith – always meant to read more for Ripley is an excellently amoral character. I’ve also got the Wilson biog of her. It’s just time to read … As for the gaps in my reading, it’s writers like Penelope Fitzgerald I keep failing to get started with, or I read one novel by an author – love it and buy more, then don’t read them – but that’s a different failing!

  7. Another one here who’s never read any Highsmith. You’re right – it’s odd how many of us haven’t, especially given the recent spate of films based on her books. Every time I see a film review, I think I must read one of the books… It’s just time in the end, and the fact that there are so many series, all churning out an essential read once a year. I probably read about 50 crime/thrillers per year, of which possibly ten or fifteen are pre-determined, so I suppose it’s not surprising that so many authors don’t ever get onto the list…

    • Yes the series question is one I am still trying to solve. I think what surprises me about Highsmith, though, is just how many people haven’t read her when she is consider such a fine writer.

  8. I’ve not read Highsmith either! She’s one I have been meaning to read and let me just say, that list is very long! But what a wonderful day to look forward to with your book group.

  9. I’m going to offer up Stanley Middleton as someone who just seems to have disappeared. He won the Booker Prize in 1974 with Holiday and had some 40 novels to his name. But I’d never heard of him before starting in my Booker project.

  10. There are tons of writers I haven’t read, and there are lots of reasons for that.

    I think there are quite a lot of writers who were popular in their lifetime whose popularity and profile tailed off after their death. It’s not to say they’re forgotten, but they don’t deserve the relative obscurity they’re in. Robert Graves is an example for me, as is John Fowles.

    On a practical level, I think also that in the UK at least there aren’t many of her books readily available. I mean most of them are in print, but go into the average bookshop and you’ll find Talented Mr Ripley if you’re lucky and not much else. Guess they need to be hunted down online.

    I got into her books after hearing some very faithful adaptations of the Ripley books on BBC radio. The Anthony Minghella film I don’t think did the book justice. I don’t dislike it (and I think Matt Damon is good in it) but I think the changes Anthony Minghella made turned it into quite a different story. It’s a bit of a bugbear of mine, and I intend to blog about it if I can get round to it!

    • Well, I can definitely bang the drum for both Graves and Fowles, although I do agree with general point you’re making when you mention them, GR. Interestingly, I was in a very large secondhand bookshop today and ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ (for which I was looking) was almost the only one of Highsmith’s books which wasn’t there. I wonder if people bought her other works after seeing the film and then jettisoned them when read?
      It is the differences between the film and the book which are always the source of the best of our discussions on these occasions. Sometimes, as with ‘Atonement’, we are forgiving because we can see the need in the cinematic context and we don’t feel the book is undermined in anyway. Sometime, as with ‘Oscar and Lucinda’ we are left spitting blood and ready to spill that of the director who is so insensitive as to mangle the entire point of the novel!

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