Saturday, March 3, 2012

Books on TV: Gossip Girl and The Talented Ivy Dickens

So I've gone off the show Gossip Girl...kind of. I made this bold declaration that I was done watching but I'm not really, just done spending a lot of time thinking about it. Except for this post which I've had in mind for awhile and was going to bug me until I wrote it. And then writing it suddenly turned into this big huge ordeal and sigh.

The thing is that the writers of Gossip Girl are pretty outspoken about using literary influences in the past couple of years. I already wrote about how they used The Beautiful and Damned (by the way that is the only time I feel like they got it right. They used the book as a reference for characterization for the audience but they didn't LIFT THE PLOT) and if you watch the show you probably know they stole the plot from The End of the Affair. They also borrowed some characterization from the book/film as well--and while it kind of fit, it kind of didn't and I think that had a lot of damaging impact on the characters going forward. But anyway! This is not about that, this is about The Talented Mr. Ripley

When they said that The Talented Mr. Ripley was an influence for the season, I assumed they meant in the loosest possible way. After all, the character "stealing someone else's life" hadn't actually murdered anyone and was in many ways just kind of pathetic. I read the book and didn't see a lot of similarities, but it continued to bug me. Part of it is my desire to make things fit, which is ridiculous, but also I think part of it is because the Ripley influence wasn't finished. I think it reached its conclusion in 5x17, when Ivy Dickens inherits a fortune out from underneath the family she'd conned/tried to be a part of. It might be helpful to read my earlier review of The Talented Mr. Ripley before reading this.

I made some pictures to go with this but they are crap because I am not an artist and I have no image editing software. Basically I just wanted to match some pictures with quotes from the book, inspired by my favorite tumblr Slaughterhouse 90210 which matches book quotes with TV shows that are totally unrelated. Also, due to the template restrictions on my blog, you'll have to click on the images for the full size (or in other words to be able to read them).

While I think the Ripley influence starts in Season 5, there is one major Ripley-esque scene in Season 4 when Ivy (known to the audience only as Serena's cousin Charlie at this point) steals her dress and does her hair like the high school version of Serena. In retrospect, this is all very smart on the writers part (weeping that I wrote that), because Ivy is actually acting like someone else and stealing someone's identity, it's just not Serena's.

In the book, Tom Ripley is both enamored of Dickie and very jealous. When Dickie turns his attention to his girlfriend, Tom is overcome with jealousy and goes into Dickie's room and starts dressing up in his clothes and imagining that he is Dickie. Dickie comes into this scene and is enraged, not understanding why Tom would do this and of course battling in his mind the accusations Marge (his girlfriend) has made that Tom is queer. (Whether or not Tom is is up for debate, I think his sexuality is very fluid, but Dickie certainly seemed to be repressing his own orientation) Anyway, in the show, Ivy simply makes a decision to model herself after Serena, which also makes Serena angry. This point does actually fit into Serena's characterization, since Dan doesn't recognize this dress from this special night in their life and Serena dreads being irrelevant over all else.

But the real influence kicks off in Season 5. At this point, the audience knows that Ivy was hired by Carol Rhodes to play her daughter and gain access to her trust fund. She runs into Serena in a very unexpected and unlikely way in a restaurant. This prompts Serena to invite her out for lunch and make a proposition that is a turning point for Ivy. Serena wants to know her cousin and suggests they live together. When changes are made to her job, she invites Ivy back to New York. Since Ivy had just cut ties with her life in Los Angeles, she agrees. This is the beginning of feeling, as an audience member, that Ivy is out of control and a bit desperate in the face of the big lie she's told. The show failed to establish any concrete motivation or reasoning for why Ivy doesn't just get out of dodge, but I do think that in episodes 2 and 3 they hint at her two conflicting motivations. She is both drawn to the security of the family the van der Woodsens represent (they hint that Max and Ivy left something terrible behind and Ivy is touched by the lengths Serena is willing to go for her), but also drawn to the wealth and freedom that the wealth represents. The first time she threatens to leave, Serena lures her back with a pretty dress and a starring role in a fashion show.

What does this have to do with Ripley? Well the one true thing about Tom Ripley that the reader knows is his family background is terrible. His parents died when he was young and he was raised by his abusive Aunt Dottie. He tried multiple times to run away from her before succeeding. This helps explain in the book why Tom easily imagines himself as other people and creates other lives for himself, he doesn't really want to be Tom Ripley. And he's brought into the story line with Dickie Greenleaf through Dickie's father who hires him to go to Italy and convince his son to return home. When Tom arrives in Italy, he's amazed at the ease of life for Dickie and jealous. He both adores Dickie and envies him. But overall, the reason he eventually kills Dickie and assumes his identity is because he doesn't want to give that life up and since Dickie is starting to reject him, he feels like it's his only choice.

I tried to watch the movie version again, in case the show stole more from the movie than the book as they did with The End of the Affair but it was so vastly different and I was really tired so I gave up. But one line that was interesting to me was as Ripley (portrayed by Matt Damon) is getting ready to travel to Italy, he's told, "The Greenleaf name opens a lot of doors." I think that idea is the heart of what truly drives both Tom and Ivy...they have had miserable lives and feel trapped by circumstance and class. The upper class represents to them a kind of freedom they haven't known in their lives before. In 5x09, perhaps one of the most important episodes for the character of Ivy, CeCe tells Ivy that "New York looks good on her." And Max informs the audience that Ivy is nothing but "white trash" having grown up in trailer parks and watching her father die in front of her at a young age. This sets up a stark contrast to the life she is now living. And after all, once Carol helps Ivy get rid of her ex-boyfriend and secure a position in the family, Ivy says, "No one can touch me anymore, I'm a Rhodes now."

After Tom Ripley kills Dickie Greenleaf, things don't go easily for him. He does in fact manage to pull it off, but he's haunted by his own lie and deeds. Additionally, he has to keep people at arm's length because if they know him as Dickie and then someone comes along who knows he is really Tom, he'll be in trouble. So his lies escalate even as he continues to steal Dickie's money. Eventually, someone does figure it out and Tom kills again. Similarly, Ivy's lies and attempts to conceal her true identity escalate until she is partially responsible for a car accident that leaves Chuck and Blair injured, and Blair loses her pregnancy. Both Tom and Ivy feel regret for what they've done, Tom almost doesn't believe he actually has done the terrible things he's done. Ivy diverges from Ripley here in that the shame of what she's done prompts her to leave New York*, while Ripley continues his con.

The other thing that kind of reminds me of the book during this run of episodes is the way the truth is RIGHT IN FRONT of their faces, yet they don't see it. Max, Ivy's ex-boyfriend, comes and tells the van der Woodsens who Ivy really is and that she's not Charlotte, and because of the assumptions they are operating under they don't believe him. This happens in the book as well, in fact in both stories, it's their old identity that comes to haunt them, the fact that Tom Ripley is missing becomes almost as important as the investigation into Freddie's murder in The Talented Mr. Ripley. The evidence is right there that Ripley has stolen Dickie's identity, but the thought never even crosses their mind. Tom himself reflects on how his freedom depends on this series of assumptions they've made.

I think the Ripley influence ends in episode 5x17. At the end of the book, Tom has successfully convinced everyone that Dickie committed suicide and left his trust fund to Tom. In episode 5x17, the two battling motivations for Ivy Dickens clarify and Ivy gives in to the money and the freedom it represents. If you believe she sincerely loved CeCe, than to watch CeCe's family concern themselves with money probably made the choice for her. The van der Woodsen's reject her, and then CeCe bestows her wealth onto Ivy. For me, the scene at the end of the episode when Ivy kicks Rufus and Lily out of their apartment was better pay-off than I expected for her arc. After watching her flounder all season long under the weight of her lies and her own desire, it was strangely gratifying to watch her seize the power and freedom the money provided her.

Looking at Ivy's arc through the lens of The Talented Mr. Ripley actually depresses me, because I feel like the show tried for something great and failed miserably. If they had fleshed out Ivy's conflicting motivations more clearly rather than sticking her in boring nonsensical plot after plot, this could have been one of the better stories they told about class on the show. I understand why the book was appealing to them...writing this made me appreciate the depths of the book so much more. But they are in such a rush to run onto the next plot that they fail to let the characters live and breathe on their own. As such, it was impossible to connect with Ivy, because no one understood her. And now their attentions seem to have moved on to Lola who feels like a retread of every other not-from-the-Upper-East-Side character they've had, rather than one with complex and interesting motivations.

Also, the use of the name Dickens makes me think they always planned for her to inherit money even before they chose Ripley as an influence. But it's too bad that Ivy was never as well defined as an actual Dickens character.

Useless stuff!
I rewatched episode 5x09 before writing this and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Ivy's story line. I think unfortunately I was so distracted by how bad the Chuck/Blair was the first time around I missed that most of the rest of the episode is interesting in an "ideas" way (not so much actual writing and plot). Ivy lies and lies and lies and does it easily in this episode. And in a weird way you can kind of see how she is connected to Carol--Carol feels like the odd one out in her family but doesn't want to actually forfeit the money she's accustomed to. Ivy says she doesn't want the money, only the family, but she's still living in their world and boldly claims their name. And when Carol is with Lily and Lily says she loves Charlie like one of her own, you can see that Carol is kind of taken aback...I don't it's kind of arrogant on Lily's part? It's almost as if Carol and Ivy seem at opposite odds--Carol wants the money not the family and Ivy wants the family not the money, but by 5x17, they will both only care about the money.

*I'm still trying to decide if CeCe did actually know the truth about Ivy or not. For anyone who watches, what do you think? Since so many people thought she did after this episode I think it's possible she might have, the show isn't the best at hiding their twists, (see: Dan and the video plot.)


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