Tom Clancy, Jack Ryan and the Silver Screen

The DVD cover for the film The Hunt for Red October features a photo of Sean Connery.

Thriller readers the world over mourned the death of novelist Tom Clancy after he died of an undisclosed cause in his native Baltimore on October 1 of this past year. Despite a relatively late start as an author (he was an insurance agent who dabbled in writing before The Hunt for Red October was published), Clancy left a considerable legacy as the creator of the Jack Ryan/John Clark universe, a series of novels mostly following covert CIA missions. Later in his career, Clancy also wrote several non-fiction titles that dealt with various weaponry and military units. He became so well known, in fact, that his name became a brand, and he lent his moniker to numerous book series and video games. Doing so, of course, made the already wealthy author an additional fortune. By the time that Clancy died at the famed Johns Hopkins Hospital at age 66, he had put his mark on virtually every media field.

Just as the James Bond films keep the name of the character’s creator, Ian Fleming, alive long after his death, the same may hold for Clancy, if Paramount Pictures has any say in it. That’s because this weekend, Paramount will release Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, a film based on Clancy’s most famous creation. “Based on,” however, are the operative words here, as the screenplay is a fictional work that is not adapted from any Clancy novel. Instead, it just uses the Jack Ryan character – a CIA analyst who is more brains that brawn, but will employ physical action if thrust into a situation that requires it – as a departure point for high-tech derring-do. In that way, it’s much like the Bond film franchise, in which a number of the movies have had little in common with the same-named novel on which they are supposedly based, other than the character’s name and occupation.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit stars Chris “Captain Kirk” Pine as Ryan, with other roles going to Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner, and Kenneth Branagh, who also directed. Until I see it, I’ll reserve judgment. That is to say that I’ll give it the same chance to wow me as any other film. Hey, I want it to be good, just as I want any movie to be good, ‘cause nobody wants to waste their time seeing bad movies. The only thing is, with seventeen Clancy novels from which to choose, why go rogue? Only four of Clancy’s Jack Ryan books have been made into movies previously, so why not mine that gold? Sure, not every novel is as cinematic as the next, and some would be just downright difficult to adapt, but do they really need to abandon the original source material already, when it’s barely been tapped?

The Hunt for Red October was both Clancy’s first published book and the first to be turned into a movie. It was the first of four appearances of the Jack Ryan character on the big screen. Alec Baldwin essayed the role in that 1990 film. Interestingly, Kevin Costner (who co-stars in JR:SR) had previously been approached to play the character. He declined so that he could take on a personal project, something called Dances with Wolves. If memory serves he picked up three Oscars for it: Best Actor, Best Director and Best Picture. Although starring in The Hunt for Red October may have been a good long-term career move financially, as he probably would have played the role several more times, I’d have to say that Costner made the right decision. Starring an all-star cast, including Sean Connery, Scott Glenn, Sam Neill, James Earl Jones, and Tim Curry, many fans still view The Hunt for Red October as the high-water mark (pun intended!) of the series.

The DVD cover for Patriot Games.Due to internal politics at Paramount, Baldwin was unable to resume the role for 1992’s Patriot Games. The official story, which is in some part true, is that Baldwin chose to star in a revival of A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway and so wasn’t available. According to a column Baldwin wrote for The Huffington Post, the rest of the story is that Paramount had killed a major Harrison Ford project and still owed him several million dollars. Ford, of course, was a far bigger box office draw than Baldwin, so Paramount proved totally inflexible in accommodating Baldwin’s schedule in order to offer the part to Ford. Ford accepted (even though he was really too old for the role) and Patriot Games proved to be another hit.

Ford, Anne Archer (as Cathy Ryan), and director Philip Noyce reteamed from Patriot Games for 1994’s Clear and Present Danger. Also on hand was Willem Dafoe as Clancy’s other star character John Clark. Despite registering another triumph, the extremely right-leaning Clancy reportedly wasn’t a fan of the extremely left-leaning Ford, whom he felt was trying to introduce his own political leanings into the series. On the record, Clancy claimed that Ford was just too old (then in his early fifties) to play a character who was supposed to be in his early thirties. As a result, after A Clear and Present Danger, the very profitable series went on a fairly lengthy hiatus.

Some people confuse 1997’s Air Force One with the Clancy/Ryan series. That’s not surprising, as Harrison Ford stars in the lead as a resourceful president who is able to go mano y mano with terrorists when they hijack the titular jet. It’s not just Ford’s presence that causes the confusion. In Clancy’s novels, Jack Ryan eventually becomes president of the United States, too. Air Force One has more than its share of moments requiring a sizable suspension of disbelief, but for those looking for an over-the-top action flick featuring a great cast (Gary Oldman, Glenn Close, William H. Macy, Dean Stockwell) and excellent production values, it’s a decent substitute for a Clancy/Ryan title.

The DVD cover for The Sum of All Fears.When Jack Ryan next hit the silver screen, it was with Ben Affleck in the role for 2002’s The Sum of All Fears. That movie was more or less a reboot of the franchise with Affleck playing a much younger version of the character than the one played by Ford. As portrayed by Affleck, Ryan was still wet behind the ears as an analyst and unmarried. Affleck’s casting, incidentally, had the complete approval of Clancy. The Sum of All Fears was another big hit, but critics weren’t particularly kind and many felt that Affleck was a poor choice to fill the shoes of Ford. Despite its box office success, the role was a one and done for Affleck.

On average, fans of the Jack Ryan films rate them in descending order from The Hunt for Red October to The Sum of All Fears, so it’ll be interesting to find out if Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit can end that downward trajectory. Come to your favorite branch of the Des Moines Public Library and checkout the previous Jack Ryan movies so you can rate them yourself. DVDs rent for one week at the cost of $2.00.