At this point, it’s a tale of two Jack Reachers.
When Jack Reacher was released in late 2012, I found myself abnormally stressed out given the cause. It is, as was noted with some amused confusion in the movie-related neighborhoods of social media, a movie in which Tom Cruise drives around in muscle cars and beats up bad guys. What, we asked ourselves for two distinctly different reasons, was the big deal? Being as I am unable to speak for anyone but myself, in any manner other than speculation, I’ll account for my own end: it was that pang familiar to many fans of things that, once adapted, are fundamentally different from their origin. In other words, and more briefly, Movie Jack Reacher is not Book Jack Reacher. Getting over this hump was a mandatory prerequisite for enjoying the first – and, it would appear, second – movie.
The Reacher novels, after a brief period relatively early in the series where they faltered in a bit before finding their way, have evolved into the most unfailingly reliable institution in pop literature. Each year, a new Reacher comes out, and falls somewhere within the range of good to very good, every single time. Author Lee Child (the pen name of a British New Yorker who used to work in television named Jim Grant) started with a solidly and fluently hard-boiled prose style which he’s honed over the years into a laconic razor, detailing the exploits of former military policeman Jack Reacher, who upon his discharge from the Army decided to explore the United States he’d barely seen in a life spent mainly on various bases around the world. With both author and protagonist being relatively new to the country, Reacher wandering the country as a drifter meant both could explore simultaneously. And, a massively-built six-foot-five veteran wandering the country could – and has, many times over – found himself in situations requiring the prudent application of violence against various stripes of miscreants, which is to say, ownage.
Now, the fact that Book Reacher is a full foot taller than Movie Reacher seems like the kind of superficial detail that drives fans crazy but doesn’t actually matter. I will concede that it isn’t a fundamental deal-breaker (the first movie was fun, and the wacko casting decision to bring in Werner Herzog was a stroke of genius) but it does create a permanent wall between book canon and movie canon, for one particular reason. Book Reacher, over the course of the series, frequently finds himself in situations created entirely by his physical presence; the simple state of being as large as he is forces his entire environment to react to him. In the first book, Killing Floor, the sinister forces who killed Reacher’s Treasury agent brother are baffled by the nearly-identical (and same-sized) sibling walking around poking his nose into things. In the book the first Reacher film was drawn from, One Shot, the bad guys frame Reacher for a murder by taking advantage of having in their employ one of the only people his size. (It makes sense in the book.) Every attempt Reacher makes to blend in, barring extraordinary, and thus rare, circumstances meets with total failure. He’s “that big guy.”
Tom Cruise, for all his glorious assets as a movie star, is not. And thus, upon first hearing the news that he was going to be playing Reacher in the movies, ensued a period of which I am not terribly proud but nonetheless confess in the interests of full disclosure where I walked around griping things like “not the real Reacher” and “fucking bullshit” (though, the latter could honestly have been about anything, I have such a foul mouth it’s practically a Superfund site). This hardened resistance crumbled considerably after actually seeing the movie, because a Tom Cruise movie can only be so bad, even factoring in the Scientology thing (the Scientology thing is, as the poet said, problematic). Indeed, that level of “so bad” is “not very,” because Tom Cruise knows what the hell he’s doing. His iteration of the character preserves every single important aspect of Book Reacher – the acute outside-the-box intelligence, the ability to beat up bad guys, even (most impressively) Reacher’s ineffable, charismatic butchness – except the imposing physical size. Cruise’s Reacher is the diametric opposite: because he’s so small, people think they can take him. Exhibit A: the scene in Jack Reacher where a woman in a bar is sent by the bad guys to provoke a confrontation with Reacher. When the bad guys find themselves squaring off with Cruise, they think, piece of cake, we got this. In One Shot, they deliberately bring more guys than one would normally need to kick one guy’s ass, only to discover no, all of our limbs are now in fact broken and we are unconscious. It’s an inevitability in the book, which is precisely the book’s charm, and it’s a surprise in the movie, which is precisely the movie’s charm.
The Reacher novels owe a considerable degree of their appeal, beyond the sui generis protagonist, to Child’s quirky creative process. Rather than building a plot and working out all its mechanisms in an outline, Child instead writes the Reacher novels in an ongoing present tense, beginning by asking “What would Reacher do?” Each subsequent even in the story is determined by spontaneous decision, in the moment, as he writes. While this yields, in the reading, a vivid parallel experience of wondering what happens next (without a pre-determined structure, there is no foreshadowing, and thus theorizing about the outcome is impossible, a refreshing alternative to the way people watch two episodes of Westworld and decide it must be on an alien planet), it also means that, upon reflection, some of the Reacher novels’ plots are a little thin. The film adaptations then lean on the same strength as the books: the main character.
It remains to be seen what Cruise will do with his Reacher series as time goes on, but he’s off to a promising start. At this point, with an admittedly small sample size, he’s already pulled off the impressive feat of turning a cranky fan’s head around (yes, that would be me). The creation of a parallel entity, in another medium, with as little overlap with the original, is a genuinely impressive feat of adaptation.