The Two Faces of January actor claims the film is “much better than the book”

The Two Faces of January, getting its world premiere in Berlin, Hossein Amini’s first feature film and the latest adaptation of one of Patricia Highsmith’s popular thriller novels.

In the film, an American con artist, his wife and a stranger try to flee Greece as one of them is caught up in the murder of a private detective.

According to the writer turned director, this particular adaptation took him 25 years to write the script, making it a free adaptation but also very much inspired by the source material as well as his love for Highsmith as a reader and an author. “It was a hard job,” he said.

His leading man, Viggo Mortensen, went even further, affirming that not only is it a good script, but that “with no disrespects… it’s much better than the book”.

Amini also tends to love to adapt novels that feature intense characters, so well written and so well drawn by the novelist “that it becomes very easy to invent scenes or change scenes because they have that really strong center”. 

Indeed, for the director and the actor alike, the characters in Patricia Highsmith’s novels are very important. These characters all seem perfect but they are gradually falling apart in an interesting way, “you’re with these characters you care about them in spite of your dislike for them, in spite of being almost embarrased for them at times and that’s good storytelling,” Mortensen said.

For Amini, the characters belong very much to the postwar generation as “they’re golden at the beginning, almost like a Fitzgerald couple and by the end of it they are reduced to something very very different, as the characters are stripped away, the white jacket gets dirtier and dirtier and these people are kind of reduced to their bare essence by the end”, something he found very moving.

For Mortensen, these characters are the prototypical film noir characters with a secret, thus offering his own definition of film noir: “the characters need to lie and lose and it needs to end badly for everyone and as long as it does that, it’s acceptable to me as film noir no matter where it takes place”.

No matter how badly they behave, we are on their side and we “sort of live vicariously through these criminal people, these very bad people”, something that, in his opinion, worked more in the script than in the book.

In fact, Highsmith was very interested in psychology rather than in the plot. From his point of view, she is compassionate towards criminals, finding them fascinating “in a way that Martin Scorsese, for example, finds gangsters. Her love for psychology makes the characters fascinating.”

Mortensen appears to be a fine connoisseur of the novelist and her work. He admitted he liked her short stories “even the ones that are a page and a quarter and you go ‘oh come on’ like the collection ‘Little Tales of Misogyny’”.

The American Friend, Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley also made the cut but he prefers the approach in The Two Faces of January, a “more graceful” one.

He noted, furthermore, a lack of interest in Patricia Highsmith in her home country as opposed to Europe: she did not have a readership in North America and she was not very popular. He does not think that Americans like to see themselves that way “that people are ugly in her stories and that is how I think people felt, it wasn’t attractive, not just to the public but first and foremost to editors”.

He compared the situation with Spain, where he lives, and where he knows that she is known and appreciated and where her translations into Spanish sell “pretty well”.

“‘Salt’ is an interesting book also, one that she didn’t dare publish under her own name, one of her first books I liked,” he added.