It's always a surprise when the movie is better than the book. Then again, I suppose that's not surprising. You can pack so much more into a book that you can into an hour and a half, maybe two hours on-screen. The relationship between books and longform TV series bears this out. With a lot more time and space across twelve episodes, or even many years, shows like Game of Thrones or even True Blood (at least in its early seasons) don't feel cramped or rushed in the way that cinema adaptations sometimes can.
Most of the movies that came out of Tom Clancy's books work well, however. Perhaps the books were cinematic. Perhaps Clancy was more of a paint by numbers storyteller than most novelists. Whatever. It still feels weird that I've been so impressed with the 'adaptation' of Jack Ryan on Amazon Prime. I put the snarky quotes out there because the series isn't really an adaptation. It's not based on any of Clancy's books. It's more like James Bond of the Daniel Craig era, taking a well-known character and story world and simply applying the template to a new series of adventures.
I'll cut to the chase. It's really fucking good. Brilliant actually. Whether judged on its own merits or as an interpretation of Tom Clancy's original work, this TV series can stand up as one of the real grace notes of the current golden age of television.
It's better than Clancy. There, I said it.
I was a big fan of TCs novels when I was younger. I really admired, and I can still admire, the way he built his story engine. It was a powerful, stripped down piece of narrative engineering, and Clancy let it rip across a couple of books in particular which can be regarded not just as classics of the genre but as seminal works that actually created a genre.
Still, they had their problems. Tom was much better when writing about technology than he was when writing about people. In his later novels he simply couldn't stop himself preaching about politics. And the further he moved from his techno thriller roots into the realm of espionage writing, the worse it got for the reader.
But damn it, I did love those books. So I was more than happy to give this series a look.
Did I mention it was better than Clancy?
Partly I think this is due to the natural development and evolution of the storytelling art, especially on the small screen. As a culture we're just much better at this than we used to be. If this series had been made in the 1980s it would have been truly terrible. I doubt it would've got much better ten years later. But twenty years into the golden age and there are a lot of talented people with a lot of experience telling great stories on small screens working for the Beast of Bezos on this.
So, what's the premise?
Unsurprisingly the bad guys are beardy nutters. Pleasingly they are not just cardboard cutout Jihadi whack jobs. In fact the writers spend more time filling out the back story and explaining the very human motivations of the bin Laden-like character, Mousa Bin Suleiman, than they do on John Krasinski's young Jack Ryan.
Krasinski is great, by the way; arguably the most interesting and fully realised incarnation of this character so far. And he had some big shoes to fill given the names who've tried on the role before. But Ali Suliman as Mousa Bin Suleiman is uterly compelling. The writers and producers give his character real depth and breadth. He's not just some villain of the week.
Another casting win – Wendell Pierce as James Greer.
Pierce is one of my all-time favourite actors. If you know him it is probably as Bunk in The Wire, but he's done some amazing work in both movies and TV. Again, like Krasinski he had a hard act to follow, picking up the James Greer role from James Earl Jones who played the later career spy boss opposite Harrison Ford in the movies. This Greer is aggressive, foulmouthed and very much on the outer at the agency after screwing up badly on assignment in Pakistan. There is a further tweak to his story that I won't give away because it's unexpected enough to count as a pretty big spoiler, but it does testify to the producers having a real pair of cast iron story balls on 'em. You can read this series is something of an extended buddy movie starring Krasinski and Pierce. The actors work so well together that watching the evolution of their characters' relationship is as much fun as following the fast moving plot.
And it does move fast. The producers have really tuned up Tom's story engine, strapped on a couple of nitrous tanks, and lit that fucker up. The plot, which so far seems to be driven entirely by terrorists rather than Clancy's traditional enemies of Russia and China, flies along. The hour-long episodes are dense, but in a good way. There's is a lot happening here. A lot of action, a lot of character development, a lot of SPLOSIONS.
The splodey is excellent. There seems to be at least one kinetic set piece per episode, and lots of lesser opportunities for the writers to break things and hurt people.
I'm about six episodes in so far, about halfway through the season, and I don't see myself rationing the rest of the series to eke it out. I'm enjoying it too much. If you have access to Amazon Prime, you should check it out.