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Reacher: How Lee Child's crimefighting drifter found a new home on Prime Video
Jack Reacher, the hero of Lee Child’s popular novels, has arrived on Prime Video. The author and stars Alan Ritchson and Willa Fitzgerald told us how Reacher went from book to small screen.
Adapting a much-loved series of books for television or film is fraught with risk – how do you cast your hero when millions of readers will already have an image of him or her in their minds? Does the story translate to the big or small screen? And can you do justice to the nuances of the written word through dialogue and direction?
These were all considerations for the makers of Reacher, Prime Video’s eight-part adaptation of Killing Floor, the first of 26 novels in Lee Child’s highly successful series.
The Reacher books follow the exploits of Jack Reacher, a career soldier who leaves the military police to roam around the United States, taking odd jobs and investigating suspicious situations which often put him in grave danger.
The books have sold more than 100 million copies worldwide and have already been made into two feature films starring Tom Cruise. Prime’s Reacher sees the lead recast, with Alan Ritchson (Blood Drive, Smallville) taking the title role, and rebooted, as we return to the very start of Jack Reacher’s journey.
In this first season, a newly demobbed Reacher arrives in the town of Margrave, Georgia, only to be arrested for murder as soon as he sits down in a local diner. Fortunately, two local police officers aren't convinced of his guilt and help him prove his innocence, as long as he uses his skills of deduction - and considerable brawn - to help solve what becomes a gruesome spate of murders in the town.
Child, Ritchson and Willa Fitzgerald (Scream: The TV Series), who plays cop Roscoe Conklin, explained about how they helped bring the books to the small screen.
To begin at the beginning…
While the two Jack Reacher films were based on the ninth and 18th novels in Child’s series, Prime’s Reacher takes us back to the character’s debut in 1997’s Killing Floor. For Child, executive producer on the show and frequent visitor to the set, it was the obvious choice.
“I felt Killing Floor was the the logical choice because that book is set not long after Reacher is mustered out,” explains the Coventry-born author.
“He’s just left the army, he’s learning to be himself, tackling his new life and figuring it out. So it was a natural introduction, a natural beginning.
“For a new show, for the viewers, it made total sense – let’s watch it happen in real time. That’s one of the things I loved about what Alan was doing, he understood that. From the first scene, he is puzzling it out, and by the third episode he knows who he is and then it’s just a bulldozer through to the end.”
A full season gave the story time to grow
Just as a book’s plot develops from chapter to chapter, so the eight episodes of Reacher allowed screenwriter and showrunner Nick Santora to build Child’s characters – and their relationship – over the course of several hours. Child says this extra time allowed Santora to add a new – possibly even romantic – dimension to Reacher and Roscoe, above.
“The time and the space [of a limited series] is such a luxury and with these two you can really see that,” Child says.
“One of the things that animates Reacher in my opinion as the guy who invented him is that he loves his solitude but he also worries about being lonely. There’s always this conflict in his mind – does he crave company or does he not? And with the season-long time that we’ve got we can see that play out.
“And between Reacher and Roscoe, it’s not an instant thing. In a 90-minute screenplay for a movie it would have to be bang! – they’re together. But for this we could let it develop organically and realistically and actually the way they’ve done it turns it into this unbearable romantic suspense. I’m watching it like ‘Come on guys, get it together!’”
Reacher said… more than you’d expect
The brooding Reacher isn’t known for wasting words where a hard stare and a pithy riposte would suffice, to the extent that the phrase ‘Reacher said nothing’ doesn’t just feature in every book, but is even the title of a study of Child's creative process, written by Andy Martin.
Viewers, however, might be forgiven for thinking that screenwriter Santora had taken the phrase too literally when establishing Reacher’s character at the beginning of the opening episode: through his arrival in Margrave, an encounter with an unsavoury local and arrest in a diner and police interrogation, Ritchson's character doesn't say a word.
“When you get a script in which the first six and a half minutes have no lines, it helps establish a protagonist that is looking out at the world through a slightly different lens to most,” Ritchson explains.
“But that is the challenge with having such a well-liked and famous turn of phrase like ‘Reacher said nothing’, yet also needing to deliver some exposition so we understand what’s going on.”
Added to the challenge is that fact that Killing Floor is written in the first person, with Reacher the narrator. So how does that convert to a screenplay?
“When I came on board I asked Nick Santora if Reacher was going to be narrating the show for us,” Ritchson recalls.
“And he said ‘No, we’re going to see the puzzle unfold, we’re going to hear it’ and it feels very natural and it’s fun [for viewers] to see if they can put the pieces of the puzzle together before Reacher does, so I think it helps not hearing his every thought.”
Child praises Santora for the way he took Reacher’s narrative thoughts and shared them among the three principals Ritchson, Fitzgerald and Malcolm Goodwin, who plays another cop, Detective Oscar Finlay.
“A lot of it is in Reacher’s head, and how do you get that out? The way you get it out is great writing from Santora but also this great trio – Alan, Will and Malcolm playing the three people working together,” Child explains.
“The characters are sounding boards for each other, they’re finishing each other’s sentences, and that’s the way for Reacher’s internal processes to be out there on the screen.
“Interesting as it might have been we couldn’t just have had eight-minute shots of Alan thinking, that doesn’t work visually. The way they did it is terrific, and you never feel it’s artificial.”
Getting the measure of the man
When it came to playing such a well-known character, Ritchson had an easy point of reference – the books themselves.
“Lee painted the picture with vibrant colours over the course of 25 years of his life – he did the heavy lifting for me,” the actor admits.
“My job was to get out of my own way and really dig into who Reacher was on the page.
A widespread criticism of the two films was the physicality of the lead role, or perhaps the lack of it. Child created Reacher as a 6-foot 5-inch blonde, and with Tom Cruise standing at 5-foot-7 and dark haired, fans of the novels were not convinced.
“With Tom, you'll get 100% of Reacher with 90% of the height,” Child had said when the first film reached cinemas, before conceding in 2018 that the casting could have been more in line with his creation.
“Ultimately the readers are right,” he admitted. “The size of Reacher is really, really important and it's a big component of who he is.”
Ritchson, at 6-foot-2, is closer to the Reacher of the books, and acknowledges that his stature has a big influence on his character.
“The physicality is a huge thing, the confidence he gains from his size is evident and it’s a big part of the story,” he says.
“I put on a little weight to honour it as best I could and hopefully fans will think we’re being honest about that.”
Fleshing out the force
As filming progressed, it was witnessing the fleshed-out characters of police officers Roscoe and Finlay that convinced the author that he had made the right choice in giving Santora and his cast creative control over the project.
“Malcolm Goodwin as Finlay [pictured above] brought more to the show than I brought to the book – he took it further,” Child explains.
“And Willa is the icing on the cake and the cherry on the top. That is a better version of Roscoe than I thought of. In a way that sucks – why didn’t I think of it in the first place? – but it’s a delight as a fan of the book. Is it going to come out as good as I’d hoped? Actually it came out better than I’d hoped.”
The experience took the author back 25 years to the writing of his debut novel.
“I remember writing that book and I was so sad I would never see Finlay or Roscoe again. I was almost in tears at that prospect and I felt the same at the end of this season: two stupendous portrayals that live just for that season.
“I wish I’d called it ‘Roscoe’ now and we could have had more – Reacher could have been a bit part!”
Child, the ‘guardian angel’
As executive producer, Child could have retained control over every aspect of Reacher, but the show’s stars are keen to point out that while he was frequently on set, he was there to support cast and crew, rather than to micromanage.
“Whenever you’re working with a literary adaptation it’s such a sigh of relief when you realise that the author is going to be involved in a project because you know that the whole thing has a guardian angel watching over it and making sure you’re on the right path,” Fitzgerald explains.
“Especially bringing to life Roscoe was particularly lovely that we had Lee watching our interpretation and nodding along. Nick [Santora] and I take a little bit of a different path for that character than the book and so it was an honour to have the room to make that interpretation.”
Ritchson said the expected pressure of having the author on set simply never materialised.
“Lee trusts the people that he’s brought on implicitly and is able, somehow magically, to seemingly sit back and enjoy the process, just being there.
“Lee’s a hero of mine, I want to make it right for him, but once you’re in his presence that preconceived notion of there being some expectation evaporates immediately. He just enjoys allowing his colleagues to bring it to life as they see fit. I think that’s a real gift as it allows the filmmakers to flourish and collaborate in a healthy way.”
If the first season of Reacher on Prime Video is a success with viewers, could this be the beginning of a long-running TV franchise to accompany the books?
“By October there’ll by 27 books so that’s 26 more seasons to go by which time I’ll be about 100 and that would work for me,” Child jokes.
“But like anything in showbiz it’s not up to me, it’s up to the viewers – are they going to like it? I think yes they are! Nothing is ever certain but if you’ve got a series that people love, why not to do a second, a third, a 27th season? It could go on forever – literally to the heat-death of the universe!”
As for a possible next adaptation, Child has a couple of ideas but is open to suggestions from people who know the books almost as well as he does.
“I haven’t read the books – I’ve written them, I never re-read them,” he reveals.
“I know them by reputation, what other people tell me about them.
“What’s so great about this first season is Reacher’s loneliness being assuaged by his relationships with other people and I’d like to see more of that. Two or three books stand out in that sense so maybe one of them.”
Watch all eight episodes of Reacher on Prime Video now.