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‘Ripley’ Showrunner on Going Back to the Book for Netflix Series: ‘You Don’t Read a Novel in Two Hours’

When it came to telling his version of the story, “Ripley” showrunner Steve Zaillian had a clear North Star: look to the text.

Despite the ubiquity of Anthony Minghella’s 1999 film adaptation, Zaillian was primarily inspired and guided by Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel and adapting the original material into an eight-episode series.

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“You don’t read a novel in two hours,” Zaillian said at an early screening of the Netflix show in New York City. “It takes eight hours, ten hours, twelve hours — and I felt that the pace and the beauty of the storytelling in that book I would try to create in this form.”

The book also inspired the show’s black-and-white aesthetic, because as Zaillian pointed out — movies were “basically” all black-and-white in 1955. (This isn’t quite true — by the mid-’50s, more than half of new films were in color.)

“When Patricia wrote it, if she imagined a movie being made from it back then, it would be in black and white,” he said. “The cover of that book that I had was in black-and-white, so as I was reading it, it was in my mind to be that way.”

“I also felt that this story — the one that she told, the one that I wanted to tell — was quite sinister and quite dark,” he added. “I just couldn’t imagine that taking place in a beautiful Italian setting with bright blue skies and colorful outfits and things like that.”

Zaillian and cinematographer Robert Elswit also pay tribute to film noir, but Zaillian said that they wanted to stay away from trappings and clichés of the genre. The first few episodes are filled with daylight and bright scenery, with more literal noir in the back half. It also works in tandem with the show’s deliberately slow pacing, which star Andrew Scott pointed back to as well.

“I think the great achievement of this version of the story is how it teaches the audience to watch the show,” Scott said. “We live in an age of television — not just television but in social media — where you have to say everything really quickly, and you have to say it in 15 characters or less, and you have to get on with it, people have a great obsession with that. But when you’re reading a novel, you can take real pleasure in the description of something over five or six pages. What I love is that sometimes the pacing can actually be very quick, but sometimes we can be really immersed in something. I think that’s a real real pleasure for the audience. And so, knowing that the black and white nature of cinematography marries in some way with the pacing and the tone of the show, also means that it allows us as actors just to be.

“Ripley” premieres April 4 on Netflix.

Editor’s note: This post has been updated to clarify and correct Zaillian’s comments.

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