A couple of points to start off with:
1. I never saw the 1999 film with Matt Damon and Jude Law
2. We’re going to ignore the “homosexual villain” trope used in this book. It was an unfortunate thing in the 1950s and 1960s but Tom Ripley is a fascinating character beyond that.
Tom Ripley is a small time con-artist and forger eking (and gay man, even though it’s not said explicitly) out a living in New York City when the father of Dickie Greenleaf hires him to go to a small town and Italy and convince his ne’er-do-well son Dickie to come home and take over the family business. Though Tom obtains this job based on a lie, he seems to intent on accomplishing this task in the beginning, two things become abundantly clear: 1. Dickie has no intention of coming home and 2. Tom has no intention of going back to his meager existence in the U.S. Naturally things take a dark turn from there. We see things through Tom’s eyes as he kills, impersonates, lies and forges his way across Southern Europe.
I won’t spoil the plot too much but despite clearly being a bad person, it’s hard not to root for Tom. When he was in a tight spot, my stomach was in knots. When he was at peace, enjoying an Italian cafe, I could almost smell the espresso. Clearly the character of Tom Ripley could not exist in modern literature. But he remains one of the great villains of mid-century fiction.