This Jack Reacher is going to be big
By Elisabeth Vincentelli
Jack Reacher is one popular action hero. Hatched by British writer Lee Child, Reacher has so far righted wrongs in 26 novels and a slew of short stories; the books have collectively sold more than 100 million copies worldwide.
Their readers form a surprisingly wide-reaching bunch, and include novelist Margaret Drabble and “His Dark Materials” author Philip Pullman. But ask any of them the first thing that comes to mind about Reacher, and the answer is likely to be that he’s big. Real big. Reacher is a 6-foot-5-inch bruiser who clocks in at around 250 pounds, most of that muscle.
The creators of the new Amazon series “Reacher,” based on the first book, “Killing Floor,” from 1997, were aware that they had to get that sheer mass right or risk displeasing fans, who were largely skeptical, to put it mildly, of Tom Cruise’s casting in two earlier Reacher adaptations.
“I know a lot of people had their thoughts on the movies,” said Nick Santora, the series’ showrunner. “When I sat down with the studio, we just started talking about Reacher’s epic and mythical size. It was always a conversation that he would be big — we needed to find an actor that fits the books.
“But that doesn’t mean that Tom Cruise didn’t do a fantastic job,” Santora quickly added.
Enter Alan Ritchson, a 6-foot-3-inch actor with biceps the size of Serrano hams, fresh from three seasons of playing the crime-fighting Hawk on the “Titans” series. Child was impressed.
“Before I was a writer, I worked nearly 20 years in television, so I know what goes on,” Child said in a recent video call. As the production advanced, he could see that “it was turning out better than I could dream.”
“How often does that happen?” he added. “Almost never. And that was down to Alan principally — not to make him too bigheaded.”
As for Ritchson, 39, he was downright starry-eyed. And intimidated — not usual for a man his size.
“Meeting Lee was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life,” he said in a joint call with Child. “He’s lived with this character for 25 years. Am I going to be enough?”
Finding an actor who would be credible as an imposing, hyperanalytical, seemingly indestructible ex-military police officer — a man who doesn’t technically have superpowers but might as well — was an important box to check, but not the only one. A major appeal of the Reacher books is their familiarity: Over the years, they have amassed a canon of beloved recurring details, and it was important for the TV team to get them right.
“We had a list of dos and don’ts,” Santora said. “Don’t ever ask for cream and sugar in Reacher’s coffee; he drinks black coffee. Don’t ever have Reacher treat a woman as a second-class citizen because she might be smaller than he is — the truth is, everyone’s smaller than he is. There’s this very nice simplicity to the man, even though he’s a complex character.”
Ritchson, who had done his homework, came to the role of a similar mind. “I want to be as authentic as possible,” he said, “and I don’t want to be ridiculed by the many die-hard fans who are going to remember that detail from the book and think that we got it wrong.”
And when there was any uncertainty, Santora had access to the ultimate authority: Child himself, who was an executive producer and involved in the entire process.
Having the creator on tap was handy, especially when it became clear that filling an eight-episode arc would require beefing up the plot of “Killing Floor.” The novel has Reacher — who is essentially homeless and rambles around the country, mostly by bus, with just the clothes on his back and a toothbrush — stumbling into some very bad people in a fictional Georgia town. For the TV series, Santora and his writers imported a key character from other novels.
They also added a small subplot involving a dog.
“We wanted to show a little bit of Reacher that’s not in the book but true to him,” Santora said. “And it also shows Reacher’s morality.”
Child did not mind (and approved the changes). After all, word-for-word adherence to the source material may not, in itself, translate automatically to good television, especially since there is a huge potential audience out there that has not read a single line about Reacher.
“It was a very faithful adaptation, in my opinion, compared to a lot of other stuff that you see,” Child said, “but it’s absolutely inevitable that you need to bring in other things to explain the character.”
“This is not necessarily about the book readers — we already got them,” he added. “We’ve got to keep them happy, which I think we totally have done, and at the same time make a show that anybody can just drop in and love.”
One thing about Reacher that does not need explaining to the book’s fans — or to newcomers, after about half the pilot — is that he is a fighting machine who always ends up in a brawl or three. The outcome is as predictable as Reacher’s coffee order, but still, it had to be clear that he does not relish violence for violence’s sake.
“He wouldn’t go out and seek a fight,” supervising stunt coordinator Buster Reeves said in a video chat. “He’s always the biggest guy in the room and he knows it, so when he got into an altercation, he wouldn’t go overboard to take out an opponent. He would just do what was necessary.”
Even if you are new to the Reacherverse, you might have figured out by now that he is on the side of good. Child usually compares Reacher to the knights-errant who wandered Europe in the Middle Ages, or the samurais of ancient Japan. (The writer has long said that he set his books in the United States to give Reacher more room to roam.)
Creating him was partly a reaction against the troubled anti-heroes that had become so fashionable that a kind of one-upmanship was setting in.
“The detective was an alcoholic, which was great the first time out, a real issue, real characterization,” Child said of some contemporary noir stories. “But then the next guy is a divorced alcoholic. Then a divorced alcoholic whose teenage daughter hates him. Then a divorced alcoholic whose teenage daughter hates him, and he’s accidentally shot a kid in the dark so he has to go and live in a cabin in the woods for the rest of his life.
“So I deliberately made Reacher much more of an old-fashioned guy. I wanted to get rid of misery because, ultimately, nobody likes miserable people.”
In hindsight, Child also seemed to anticipate a renewed desire for shedding some of modern life’s unnecessary baggage, which may also help explain why many women are drawn to the books.
“The character is a perfect female fantasy,” Jenny M. Davidson, an English and comparative literature professor at Columbia University and a Reacher superfan, wrote in an email. “The man we want to be with, of course, but also the man we want to be — someone with no domestic ties, none of the burdens of emotional labor, none of the vulnerability that we all really do have in our ordinary day-to-day lives.”
And now the TV series brings him to life as a wish-fulfillment action hunk.
“He just travels; he sees things he wants to see; he eats food he wants to eat,” Santora said. “He talks to people he wants to talk to and ignores the people he has no interest in talking to. He’s kind of living everyone’s dream life!”