Film Adaptation

Deep Water, directed by Adrian Lyne (Hulu); based on Deep Water (1957), by Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith’s novels have done quite well when adapted into films. Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1951 take on her first novel, the psychological thriller Strangers on a Train (1950), was selected last year for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry. Carol, director Todd Haynes’s 2015 adaptation of Highsmith’s second novel, The Price of Salt (1952), raked in nearly four times its budget and garnered Oscar nominations for actresses Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. And Highsmith’s fourth novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), became an acclaimed 1999 movie, which also received several Academy Award nominations.

Hulu has now released an American film adaptation of Highsmith’s fifth novel, Deep Water (1957), starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas and directed by Adrian Lyne. Lyne—best known for directing Flashdance (1983) and Fatal Attraction (1987)—is back behind the camera for the first time since 2002, when he directed the film Unfaithful.

Highsmith’s 1957 plot is fairly straightforward. Vic Van Allen is an old-money New England intellectual in his mid-thirties who meticulously runs an independent press in the Berkshires. He has a wife, Melinda, a daughter, Trixie, and a comfortable inheritance. The physical relationship has disappeared from the marriage; Vic sleeps in a bedroom built next to the garage, where he cultivates a hobbyist’s enthusiasm for raising about a thousand snails (a strange fascination shared by Patricia Highsmith herself, who carried snails in her purse wherever she went). While there is no formal arrangement, Melinda takes boyfriends, generally younger men passing through town. Vic doesn’t object to the affairs, but he resents their publicity. Melinda is not discreet, and neighbors and friends pressure Vic to rein in his wife’s unseemly behavior. Eventually, Vic snaps. At a party, when no one is watching, he drowns Melinda’s current lover in a swimming pool.

Vic gets away with it—but things start to unravel. Melinda and a new neighbor, Don, accuse him of murder, though they lack conclusive proof. When Melinda takes another lover, Vic kills again, but he struggles to hide his second crime. He loses his mastery of the details—like a typographical error that persistently evades his scrutiny no matter how many times he proofreads a book for his press, the murder will out.

“The handsome and wealthy Vic has no extramarital affairs of his own; why does he let his wife stay out all night with other men?”

In an essay published last year in the London Review of Books, Stanford English professor Terry Castle described Highsmith as “everyone’s favourite mess-with-your-head morbid misanthrope.” For Castle, Highsmith is “the poet laureate of Oops, I killed him. What do I do now?” Her great talent was in capturing “the lightning-quick slippage from normal to horrific to back again. Back, that is, to a now nightmarish perversion of normal life from which you, the killer, realise you’ll never escape, even should the outrage you’ve just committed go undiscovered.”

The nightmarish perversion of normal life is certainly translatable to twenty-first-century New Orleans, where the film adaptation of Deep Water is set. The basic plot remains the same. Vic still murders his wife’s lover in a swimming pool; he still gets away with it; he still overconfidently moves to murder again when his wife resumes her public infidelity. And he still keeps the snails in the garage.

In 1957, the idea of the “open marriage” was strange but starting to gain ground; just a few years later, a novel like John Updike’s Couples (1968) would expose the swinging and swapping of the apparently staid New England suburbs. Now, in 2022, this sort of openness is less novel but still quite strange to the average viewer. The handsome and wealthy Vic has no extramarital affairs of his own; why does he let his wife stay out all night with other men?

Of course, Vic only lets things go so far. But Affleck’s Vic is quite different from Highsmith’s. For one, he has retired young after making a fortune for designing a computer chip for military drones. This is an interesting new detail, but it moves the film far from Highsmith’s novel, which is really about class. Vic’s social status in the book is very secure; his neighbors can’t imagine a Van Allen as anything other than upright and dependable. When a New York private investigator comes to dig up dirt, the town comes together to support Vic against the snoopy outsider. Highsmith’s work relies on the interplay between the power of gossip (the respectability required by the cocktail-party circuit) and Vic’s patrician desire to remain aloof. As Lyne has said, the novel often feels “parochial.”

Affleck’s acting choices aren’t bad, but he plays an extremely reserved character. While Highsmith’s narration gives us a window into Vic’s thoughts—his doubts and desires, his schemes and solutions—on screen he becomes more stoic, showing little emotion beyond disappointment and contempt. Affleck does a lot of sighing and scoffing. The adaptation’s loss of class and interiority, however, significantly changes the oddity of the crime. Whereas Highsmith’s Vic initially seems an extremely unlikely candidate for a violent murderer (he’s more of a Niles Crane type), Affleck—scowling, looming, and coming off a stint as Batman—appears primed to kill in nearly every scene.

Yet the film’s Melinda, played here by Ana de Armas (Knives Out), is provocative. Highsmith’s vapid rich girl has been transformed into a beautiful and passionate Mediterranean immigrant. As Vic embarrassingly explains to the babysitter when they return home and a drunk Melinda immediately begins to disrobe, “My wife’s from a different culture.” Melinda, in short, is exciting. Her rule-breaking arouses Vic, especially in its contrast to pretty predictableness of all the other women in the neighborhood. Highsmith’s upper-class Melinda is horrified at the idea that her husband might be a murderer. How socially unacceptable! But Lyne’s film suggests that a modern Melinda might find something attractive in a man who would literally kill for her. In any case, those who have read Highsmith’s book will find an entirely different ending on Hulu.

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