Thursday, February 14, 2013

Jack Ryan Five, Jack Ryan One

The vast success of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan novels in print during the 1980s and after inevitably led to big-screen versions. Three films were made in quick succession in the early 1990s, between 1990 and 1994 - The Hunt for Red October (1990), Patriot Games (1992), and Clear and Present Danger (1994), all of them major feature films, with the last two released as tentpole vehicles in their respective summers after the success of October. While Clear and Present Danger was a success like its predecessors, and military technothrillers continued to appear on the big screen in the 1990s (like the Harrison Ford starrer Air Force One, which one can be forgiven for mistaking for a Ryanverse-based film), it ended up being eight years before the next one, The Sum of All Fears, hit theaters in 2002.

That film's earnings were respectable, but not much more, the movie taking in a little under $200 million globally - the same money as the three earlier films, give or take, which was decent enough in the early '90s, less satisfactory in 2002, after considerable inflation of film budgets and ticket prices. And the idea of cranking out another big budget movie starring Ben Affleck must not have seemed very appealing in the years afterward, when, as always happens, the press's love affair with the actor gave way to the especially nasty post-Gigli backlash, from which he has only recently recovered fully (in large part because of his work behind the camera, with the process ironically completed by yet another spy drama, Argo).

At the same time the Jack Ryan franchise seemed increasingly moribund as a result of the novels' dating and the authors' declining cachet - the years passing without new Clancy novels (from 2003 to 2010, no Ryanverse books appeared), while thriller fashions changed (the technothriller becoming more Dan Brown than Dale Brown). Consequently it was something of a surprise when I learned that a new Ryan movie, inventively titled Jack Ryan, is now in production - helmed by Kenneth Branagh (who also plays Ryan's antagonist), while the titular character is portrayed by Chris Pine, as if the thinking went, "People accepted him in one reboot; why not another?" At last report the film is expected out by Christmas this year.

I wonder at the logic of the move. That the films have been made into blockbusters in the past can make one easily forget that the books do not readily lend themselves easily to this kind of treatment. The sprawl of the plots is lost as the scripts drop many bits and concentrate others to produce a coherent two-hour film, as they must. Also lost are the particular literary pleasures of immersion in technical detail - the plane or submarine that can seem like the star of the book reduced to a prop or a set on screen.

It is also worth remembering that the plots which the novels furnish the series, like all plots reliant on technology and geopolitics, dated quite quickly. The storyline of the Sum of All Fears, a novel situated in that brief moment between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Soviet Union, proved sufficiently the stuff of yesteryear for the cinematic adaptation to appear fairly creaky, despite quite a reasonable effort on the part of the writers.

With all this would seem to go the strongest elements of the books while it is worth remembering too that this is not the first time that Hollywood rebooted the series, this also having happened in The Sum of All Fears (which chucked Ryan's biography in favor of having the character as a young analyst starting out at the Agency rather than its Deputy Director, another stumbling block for the plot).1 Still, Hollywood abhors an unutilized IP, and we will all see how this decision turns out soon enough.

1. Ryan's prior career as Marine officer, stock broker and Annapolis professor, and the events of Patriot Games that made intelligence a career for Ryan in the first place, are simply dropped from the film.

Reading the Jack Ryan Novels
My Posts on Spy Fiction

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