It’s normal for me to wake up to a lot of emails. Usually, the topics for which readers reach out to me are far-ranging and totally different. It’s not, like, super uncommon for me to wake up to one email trashing Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher, another asking when the next Terry Hayes book is coming out, and someone else wondering what makes a thriller a thriller.
Every once in a while, though, my inbox is filled with emails from readers asking the same question. That happened repeatedly last week.
Last Friday, the new Amazon original TV show Jack Ryan, starring John Krasinski (The Office, Quiet Places, etc), was finally released online. Most, it seems, tuned in right away to binge watch the show, anxious to see Krasinski’s portrayal as John Patrick Ryan. A big fan of the late Tom Clancy, I was one of them.
To my surprise, though, the bulk of my emails weren’t about the show itself, but rather in regards to a review published on Vanity Fair, written by Sonia Saraiya, a well-known television critic who previously wrote for Variety, Salon, and the A.V. Club.
In her review, which Saraiya titled ‘Jack Ryan Is a Patriotic Nightmare’ with the tagline “Watching this show feels like falling down a Fox News rabbit hole,” she claims that “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is hysterical.”
“Hysterical as in histrionic; hysterical as in somehow funny; hysterical as in you wish its team had worked harder to take the temperature of the world around us before sending this highly charged and obscenely blinkered James Bond manqué into the world,” Saraiya continues.
Later, Saraiya breaks down one of the storylines, before shifting towards a secondary theme in the show, writing, “Its other primary story objective is proving that Jack Ryan deserves his white male entitlement—which indicates just how closely American myths of masculinity are intertwined with international dominance. From frame to frame, Jack Ryan is an astonishing case study in toxic narratives. I watched it twice, slack-jawed in amazement; I do not know if this is an endorsement or not.”
Now, it’s important to note that Saraiya does write some fairly nice things about the show, saying that, “Amazon spent quite a bit of money making Jack Ryan look good, and in the sense that this is intended to be a 10-hour action flick, it succeeds.” She also makes a smart observation that I thought was right on point, noting that “the production values still skew a little bit network TV—SEAL Team, on CBS, comes to mind,” and that “Jack Ryan lacks the richness of a big-budget movie like this summer’s Mission: Impossible — Fallout.”
For what it’s worth, I completely agree that Jack Ryan is not Mission: Impossible Fallout which, for my money, is one of the best action movies ever made. That said, I don’t think that’s what the show’s producers were going for with the Amazon series. Furthermore, though I firmly believe everyone is entitled to their own opinions — after all, the entertainment industry is the most subjective industry in the world — I didn’t walk away from Jack Ryan with the same take as Sonia Saraiya. In fact, I feel just the opposite.
As a book critic, I don’t wade into the film and TV waters too often. However, when a show or movie is based on a book franchise I cover, I can’t help but watch and compare the Hollywood version against the author’s original source material. (Another example would be Bosch, which just happens to also be an Amazon Prime original show, based on the works of #1 New York Times bestselling author Michael Connelly.) So, let me be clear that that’s where I’m coming from — a fan of the books, who, as a critic, still covers the Jack Ryan print franchise.
With that disclaimer out of the way, here’s what I thought when the credits rolled after the final episode of the first season of Jack Ryan . . .
Unlike Sonia Saraiya, who seems to have a major issue with the overall patriotic theme of the show, I personally found that to be the strength of the first season, which consists of just eight episodes. Without getting too into the plot (in order to keep this spoiler-free), it’s pretty clear who the bad guys are: Islamic extremists. Not Muslims in general. Extremists. Moreover, James Greer, who in the books is a mentor to Jack Ryan earlier in the series, has been written as a Muslim in the just-released television series.
Minor spoiler alert: Greer is not a bad guy. He’s a good guy, traveling the globe with Jack as the two work together to stop an attack planned by an evil terrorist named Suleiman.
I personally had zero issues with Greer (portrayed by The Wire’s Wendell Pierce) being a Muslim and thought the showrunners and writers even used that to plainly show their stance on hot-button issues. At one point, he’s even seen holding a rosary, which he says helps keep him calm when another character makes some pretty racist remarks. To be honest, my main issues with the way Greer was written is that he doesn’t come across like the Admiral Greer I know from the books at all.
For starters, in the Ryanverse, Greer is a retired Admiral and DDI of the CIA. In the show, he has a completely different backstory. In the books, he’s a true mentor to Jack. In the show, he’s . . . well . . . he’s basically a jerk ninety percent of the time.
That is my biggest issue with his character. Changes are inevitable whenever a book is adapted for film or television. Whether it’s Lee Child’s 6’5″ Jack Reacher being played by 5’6″ Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher, or Dylan O’Brien’s Mitch Rapp seeing his girlfriend killed on the beach in American Assassin (2017) instead of leaving his backstory (where his high school sweetheart is killed on board Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland) the way Vince Flynn wrote it. If you love the books, you know changes are coming before that same story hits the big or small screen.
In this case, I thought two things were interesting. One, there’s already been five major action films made from Tom Clancy’s work. So fans, by now, are pretty used to seeing those changes (we’re looking at you, The Sum of All Fears). Secondly, the show isn’t based on any one book. Heck, it’s not really based on any of Clancy’s books. And yet, fans have seen that already, too, with Chris Pine’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.
My point is this. . . If there’s any fan base conditioned to take on a TV series based on a famous literary character that doesn’t follow any of the novels and has major changes from the actual book series, it’s the millions of diehard Tom Clancy fans.
With that in mind, the changes in the new show didn’t faze me too much. Would I have liked Greer to be more like the James Greer in the books? Yes. Honestly, I’d have settled with seeing him more like James Earl Jones’ version of the character (seen in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger), which I found much more authentic to the Ryanverse.
Would I have liked to see John Clark pop up at some point? Absolutely.
Would I have liked to see more action? Yup.
More suspense? Sure.
Does the show, at times, feel like a bad version of 24 where the only difference is that they’re allowed to show nudity and drop F-bombs? It really does, to tell you the truth. (Which is only fair, since Kieffer Sutherland went on to star in the Clancy-ripoff show Designated Survivor.)
Do I wish they would have cut the ridiculous helicopter scene in the pilot episode? You betcha!
Do I think the show is brought down by its pro-America, patriotic themes and subliminal white-privilege message? Heck no! In fact, I didn’t walk away thinking any of that, not one bit. Total swing and miss.
I do think some of the actors’ performances are stiff and forgettable, but overall, Jack Ryan is a very solid, above-average series that got better and better with each episode. Additionally, even though the story is separate from the Ryanverse, I actually think that John Krasinski is the best Jack Ryan yet, edging out Alec Baldwin (Hunt for Red October) and Harrison Ford (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger), with a monumental gap between them and Chris Pine and Ben Affleck (The Sum of All Fears).
Though none of Clancy’s storylines were used here, those behind the Jack Ryan show did a terrific job embodying the spirit of Clancy’s books . . . and Krasinski is Ryan, who was always written as a reluctant hero and an average American who had real fears and flaws but found a way to step up when his country needed him. Krasinski brings a certain honesty about each character he portrays, something he did for years as Jim Halpert in The Office, and in my opinion, he’s what makes the whole show work as well as it does. I also think those qualities are what’s made the character so relatable to readers over the last couple of decades.
Like it or not, Jack Ryan (in the books, the movies, and the show) loves his country and stands up to make a difference when few others are willing. Maybe not every critic will appreciate that, but those aspects are true to the novels, and with more than 100 million books in print today, plenty of Tom Clancy’s fans will appreciate the show’s authentic and patriotic themes.
Praised as “one of today’s finest book reviewers” by New York Times bestselling author Gayle Lynds, Ryan Steck (“The Godfather of the thriller genre” — Ben Coes) has “quickly established himself as the authority on mysteries and thrillers” (Author A.J. Tata). He currently lives in Southwest Michigan with his wife and their six children.