The late Tom Clancy didn’t mince his words about having his novels adapted for the screen, memorably opining that “giving your book to Hollywood is like turning your daughter over to a pimp.” Nor did he refrain from publicly slating attempts to meddle with his prose, declaring Patriot Games (1992) would be “a disaster”, and that the script for Clear And Present Danger (1994) must have been “crafted by a panel of maniacs”.
(“Clear And Present Danger was the number one best-selling novel of the 1980s,” he wrote in one typically prickly memo. “One might conclude that the novel’s basic storyline had some quality to it. Why, then, has nearly every aspect of the book been tossed away?”)
Harrison Ford – whom Clancy felt was too old to convince as Jack Ryan, the dogged CIA analyst turned President around whom much of his fiction revolves – admits he had a “complicated” relationship with the novelist. “He was never terribly happy with [us] for making the necessary adjustments to turn the books into films so they would be a popular success,” the actor said recently.
According to producer Mace Neufeld, only The Hunt For Red October (1990) met the author’s exacting standards, the result leaving him both “thrilled” and “pleased as punch”. But had you asked Clancy himself, you would have got a more reserved response, conceding grudgingly that “they didn’t screw it up too much”.
The irony, of course, is that when Thomas Leo Clancy passed away in October at the age of 66, his obituaries unanimously defined him as the man behind the very films that had so disappointed him.
Did the author have an inkling this might be the case? If so, it might explain his resistance to how his novels were retooled – novels, it must be said, that have long ceased to command the same hold on the public imagination they could claim in their creator’s Reagan-era heyday.
That this three-film Jack Ryan boxset – with 2002’s The Sum Of All Fears available separately – should be released so soon after Clancy’s death initially looks like opportunism; it’s more likely, though, that the discs are to tie in with the upcoming arrival of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, a big-budget reboot that will see Star Trek captain Chris Pine go where Ford, Alec Baldwin and Ben Affleck have gone before.
Outside the worlds of Bond and Batman, few franchises have turned their lead role into such a revolving door. Small wonder the character has more often than not been defined by the qualities of the actor playing him.
Their individual characteristics and quirks help offset the rather anonymous and amorphous persona that may be one of the reasons Clancy’s works have been so hard to translate intact. Baldwin was ideally cast in October as a foil to Sean Connery’s Marko Ramius, a Russian sub captain whose gruffly implacable exterior needed his co-star’s easy-going charm to defrost it.
Come Patriot Games, a different Ryan was called for: a loving family guy turned reluctant man of action capable of holding his own against a rogue IRA terrorist (Sean Bean). Ford fits the bill in both that flick and Danger, a film whose exploration of suspicious goings-on in Washington’s upper echelons give the actor free rein to essay his trademark brand of jaw-clenched moral righteousness.
The Sum Of All Fears, in contrast, needed Affleck’s younger, brasher JR: a hotheaded newbie prepared to go off the reservation in defiance of his stuffy Langley superiors when a nuclear strike seems imminent.
Put all that together and you have one of the more unwieldy action series in recent years, not to mention one whose underlying certainties – a faith in surveillance and technology, America as the world’s policeman – seem markedly less certain than they might have done when Clancy and his ghost writers first put digit to keyboard.
Still, as a character, Ryan’s inherent malleability and all-purpose resourcefulness leaves him perfectly placed to face whatever threat to Uncle Sam’s security (Colombian drug lords in Danger, clandestine neo-Nazis in Fears) comes along.
There’s surely a gap too for the kind of adult, sophisticated thrillers that make up the franchise, a genre that – the Bourne movies notwithstanding – hasn’t been too prevalent of late.
“Jack Ryan is an interesting and fascinating character,” says Ford. “He isn’t age dependent and his experiences are chockablock full of recipes for good, engaging movies.” Should Shadow Recruit prove successful at reviving that character, expect to be engaged for some years to come.
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