In today’s television renaissance, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood’s class of movie elite making the leap to the small screen would come to include novel-to-big screen icon Jack Ryan.
Everyone’s favorite brainy CIA analyst-turned-action hero from the mind of novelist Tom Clancy has been the centerpiece of a five-film franchise over three decades that has generated more than $378 million at the box office. The flashy roster of stars that have played Ryan include Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck and Chris Pine.
The binge-watch generation will get a new version of the hero long revered by their parents (and grandparents) when the eight-episode first season of “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” premieres Friday on Amazon. Bringing some more grounded relatablity to Ryan’s early status as a humdrum government staffer with a desk job is “The Office” alum John Krasinski, who struck gold on the big screen this year with “A Quiet Place,” which he wrote, directed and starred in.
Krasinski’s Hollywood profile has been on the rise in the years since the NBC comedy wrapped in 2013. The baffled facial expressions that drove Krasinski’s humorous portrayal of paper-pusher Jim Halpert have been replaced by exasperation in this setting, with the more ominous theme of national security hanging in the balance.
Created by Carlton Cuse (“Lost,” “Bates Motel”) and Graham Roland (“Almost Human”), the series is not directly adapted from one of Clancy’s espionage novels. It trades in the author’s Cold War backdrop for the war on terror in the Middle East.
“The reason we did an original story is because Clancy wrote these geopolitical thrillers of the moment, and those were written 30 years ago,” Cuse said. ”We started trying to re-adapt ‘Clear and Present Danger’ and it just felt really dated and old-fashioned. That was when we had the revelation to come up with our own original story.”
Viewers are introduced to this younger version of Ryan as he uncovers suspicious financial transactions in Yemen that has him concerned the U.S. is on the precipice of another 9/11. The boy-next-door analyst soon finds himself thrust onto the front lines in pursuit of a terrorist leader, to his befuddlement — “I’m an analyst,” he tells his boss, played by Wendell Pierce. “I don’t interrogate people, I write reports.”
Not anymore, Jack.
Before he was trying to keep the world safe on the big and small screen, the former Marine character made his public debut in Clancy’s 1984 novel “The Hunt for Red October.” Ryan would go on to be featured in more than a dozen of Clancy’s subsequent books. His status as one of Hollywood’s most rebooted characters kicked into gear in 1990 with Baldwin’s portrayal in “The Hunt for Red October.” Ford had a longer run with “Patriot Games” (1992) and “Clear and Present Danger” (1994); Affleck took over in “The Sum of All Fears” (2002), with Pine taking his turn in “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” (2014).
Executives at Paramount Television, a division of the studio behind the film franchise, started to reimagine Ryan for TV following the release of “Shadow Recruit,” the lowest-grossing film in the Jack Ryan slate. Barack Obama was in his second term as president when Cuse and Roland began work on the series nearly four years ago.
“We had really no idea how things were going to evolve,” said Cuse. To have it premiere now against the backdrop of the Trump administration, whose antagonistic relationship with government entities continues to fuel the news cycle, feels “timely.”
“To be doing a show,” Cuse added,”that celebrates the intelligence community and the military community as places full of competent, professional people is needed. I think it’s a good moment in time to acknowledge that people who do this work, they’re not in it for the paycheck. They’re not getting rich doing it. They’re doing it because, in some larger sense, they feel a sense of duty and purpose.”
To ground the premise of the series and to ensure they captured the culture of today’s CIA, the producers relied on a couple of consultants who worked for the government agency, including David Chasteen, who served as a model for the younger version of Ryan.
“The CIA had changed so drastically in the last 10 to 15 years,” Roland said. “The structure of how people interacted with each other, and also the age of the CIA has gone down and gotten a lot younger in recent years. So we wanted to represent that.”
It helped that the intelligence community admired Clancy’s work. The producers noted that a CIA liaison who was working for the public relations department at the time when the producers visited Langley, the agency’s headquarters in Virginia where the show did some filming, had two Jack Ryan movie posters in her office.
Authenticity aside, this is a show with Jack Ryan in the title. The principal task would be in finding their Jack Ryan.
“Jack Ryan is sort of America’s James Bond,” Roland said. “There’s something uniquely American about Jack that I think has caused him to persist. His moralism and his Boy Scout quality that Clancy references in his books, and we refer to in the show, I think weirdly, now, more than ever, that’s relevant. We’ve been in this time of the antiheroes and now we’re returning to classic heroes.”
The producers said Ford’s version of the bookish and reluctant hero initially influenced their take of the character. But when Krasinski came on board, the producers said, his innate charm and earnest personality were already tailor-fit for the role.
“He’s really accessible,” Cuse said. “The classic film stars that have played [Ryan] before, they kind of loom large both literally on 40-foot movies screens and also figuratively. I think in television, you have this point of accessibility with characters. We tried to play to the fact that John feels like somebody that you’ve had in your living room before.”
Mace Neufeld, the 90-year-old producer of the film franchise and an executive producer on this TV series, is certainly impressed.
“John brings a very friendly, likability to the character naturally,” Neufeld said. “He's different than the others that have come before him. Jack Ryan is a kind of person who you would like to have watching your back. He's a kind of best friend that will keep you out of trouble. And he's incorruptible, which is a rarely-used word today, particularly in American politics.”
Despite the author’s name in the title of the series, Clancy’s estate was not involved in the project (The author died in October 2013). Asked whether he thought Clancy would approve of the series, Neufeld let out a hearty chuckle.
“You want an answer to that question?” he began. “I think the answer would be absolutely not. He didn’t approve of our adapting four out of five of his books, but we seemed to do very well without his approvals.”
The series makes its debut on Amazon at a moment of transition for its video streaming service. The big-budget drama was originally ordered by former Amazon Studios head Roy Price, who was ousted last October after an allegation that he had sexually harassed a television producer working on one of his shows. The series was inherited by the new regime headed by Jennifer Salke, who was previously president of entertainment at NBC and is steering Amazon’s programming away from niche fare toward broad, mainstream hits.
“I would say that we’re really fortunate that all along the way, people liked and appreciated what we were doing,” Cuse said. “One of the best moments in the whole process was when Jen came in and took over and before she’d even officially started, she texted me one weekend. She had been watching episodes of the show and wanted to tell me how much she liked it. It was really reassuring.”
If that didn’t do it, a second season was greenlighted ahead of the show’s premiere, with production now well underway in Bogota, Colombia.
That Jack Ryan — he’s never too far away.
‘Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan’
When: Any time, starting Friday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)