Saturday, November 14, 2020

Green Phoenix - Let's Talk... Adapting The Jack Ryanverse

 Welcome back to another edition of Let's Talk...

I have spent the last few weeks intermittently reviewing the 1990s Tom Clancy film adaptations, with plans to conclude the series by reviewing Clear and Present Danger next week. However whilst reviewing this series, I was struck upon a particular thought. The possibilities of adapting the entire Jack Ryanverse into a film or television series, ala the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

This has been a thought that has long dominated my mind, with the current reviews only being a further impetus for my thought experiment. Could such an adaptation occur in today's cinematic climate? What alterations might have to be made in order to forward such an adaptation? What restrictions might exist that could hinder such an adaptation?

The Ryanverse is the collection of works by author Tom Clancy which follows the life of Jack Ryan, the CIA analyst who finds himself drawn into the world of global espionage and American politics. The series was started in 1984 with the release of The Hunt for Red October and continues even beyond the passing of its author with the latest book, Shadow of the Dragon, releasing this month.

The series is not entirely chronological and has books that range from the 1960s until the modern-day, with the earliest book in the franchise being Without Remorse, which details the early life of John Clark, a special operations soldier whose life often connects with Ryan's, up until the most recent books set in the early 2010s. This results in a series that runs over about a nearly 60-year time span and nearly three generations of characters. The series also has a deeply fascinating political (if overtly Conservative) and military internal mythology about it that I feel would be fascinating to see in adaptation.

Which makes me wonder as to the reason why we have never seen or even heard of a complete adaptation of the Ryanverse, covering from the earliest books chronologically to the most recent?

When thinking about this, I have come to the following conclusion. Much like alternate history, which I have spoken about several times in many different articles over the past two years, I believe that the Tom Clancy books may suffer from their heavy connections to the Cold War and their high-bar for historical knowledge of Cold War and post-Cold War politics and military history. This seems to be confirmed by what we currently see with most modern adaptations of the Clancy universe, especially the recent Jack Ryan series on streaming services. The heart of the Tom Clancy series, at least with regards to Jack Ryan, lies in the politics and intelligence services of the Cold War and post-Cold War era.

While it is true that more recent books in the series have explored politics similar to the post-9/11 American politics, that has never been the entire focus until other authors focused upon it. If anything, I would actually classify the Tom Clancy book series as a rather unique form of alternate history. The early series is deeply rooted in the real politics of the late Cold War, including events such as the Drug War and the Troubles in Ireland. And it was these events which shaped a great deal of the politics that would develop the later Tom Clancy internal mythology, which saw the rise of a unified Islamic caliphate that was a merger of Iraq and Iran in Debt of Honor and the appointment of Jack Ryan as President following a massive terror attack.

It is this strange correlation to real American politics and internal world-building that convinces me that the Tom Clancy Ryanverse is, in a strange way, a form of alternate history, and therefore subject to many of the rules and, by consequence, limitations of the genre. That number one limitation being the heavy reliance on historical literacy in the viewership.

In almost any form of alternate history, the reason that mass appeal is almost always elusive is that unless you are talking about a point or subject in history that is widely understood by most Americans, they will not appreciate your alternate history stories unique nuances and alterations to the timeline and world. Most Americans have a limited capacity for historical literacy; comprised of essentially two events - the American Civil War and World War II.

Is it any wonder then that the two most written about PODs (points of divergence, a term in the alternate history genre that refers to the event that is changed to bring about a particular timeline) of American alternate history are a Southern victory in the Civil War and a Nazi victory in World War II. These two subjects make up the lion share of alternate history fiction, almost to the point of parody, and stories that go outside these two subjects, while popular within the alternate history community, enjoy almost no mass-market appeal.

It is a category that is strangely similar to many of the oldest works of Tom Clancy. Tom Clancy's earliest works are heavily connected to the time periods in which they are set and designed for a Cold War mindset, a mindset that became outdated around 1991 when the Soviet Union fell. That's probably the reason why The Hunt for Red October is the only film adapted from the Cold War-era series to actually involve the Soviet Union, since the nation dissolved in 1991, around the time that The Sum of All Fears was published. The Jack Ryan 1990s film series then shifted its gears to Patriot Games, which dealt with the Troubles (an event that continued well into the 90s and therefore culturally relevant) and then Clear and Present Danger (which dealt with the Drug War, an event we are still dealing with today). We have never gotten an adaptation of The Cardinal and the Kremlin, a book which followed Patriot Games and is heavily tied to the politics of the Soviet Union, and why the 2002 adaptation of The Sum of All Fears completely altered and modernized the story to fit into a post-9/11 political film mindset.

And if you can't adapt the earliest works of the Tom Clancy franchise, it does a great deal to limit the immersive world-building and interconnectivity that Clancy employs in so much of the franchise. Today, Tom Clancy is mostly known through the Rainbow Six video games, which are tentatively tied to the Ryanverse book series, but those books are part of the later-Clancy era. The counter-terrorism era of books.

And it is largely these stories and mindset which are being adapted into films and TV shows. As much as I would love to see a complete adaptation of the Tom Clancy Ryanverse, I believe the series is far too rooted in the politics of its era for most modern Americans to fully understand and appreciate the alterations and correlations to the timeline that Clancy employs in his stories. Almost by accident, Clancy managed to write political and military fiction that, by the nature of just waiting, ended up becoming a strange form of alternate history for the United States.

I find this fascinating as a fan of alternate history and a tragedy because, in my mind, it, unfortunately, explains the terrible record of adaptation and the lack of respect that Clancy's books have received in terms of adaptation.

And I don't believe that the sudden interest in alternate history through shows like The Man in the High Castle or The Plot Against America is going to change the wider issues that the alternate history genre and Tom Clancy are currently suffering from.

Until we improve the overall historical literacy in American audiences and expand the mass market appeal of alternate history by consequence, I imagine that Tom Clancy will remain the name at the top of a line of knock-off Call of Duty games.

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