The mass-market bestseller list is no place for wimps. It's the domain, after all, of such rough-and-tumble heroes as Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder, Andy McNab's Nick Stone, David Baldacci's John Puller and Stephen Leather's Dan (Spider) Shepherd – all ultradetermined men of action who are always doing the right thing, despite being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But of all these vaunted tough guys, only one towers over the competition (figuratively and literally): Jack Reacher, the six-foot-five creation of novelist Jim Grant (better known by his pen name, Lee Child). This week, Reacher returns to the big screen in the sequel to 2012's Tom Cruise-starring adaptation, which was something of a surprise success, given how Child fans initially dismissed the five-foot-five Cruise as far too short to fill Reacher's imposing shoes. Before the theatrical release of Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, the Globe and Mail spoke with British-born Child, 61, about casting and (perhaps) killing Jack Reacher.
How close had Reacher come to being adapted before the first film?
The first movie deal was done the very day the first book was published, back in 1997. And then we ran through all the traditional pitfalls of Hollywood. One executive died, and other production companies went out of business along the way. … And when it finally got to Skydance and Paramount, the gestation took about six years. It's a long road, but I was anxious at the beginning to not settle for something less than the best. By waiting and hanging on, we got the best.
When Cruise was first announced as Reacher, there was a reaction that he wasn't a good fit, that he didn't match the description on the page.
Well, it's not as if we walked past mass ranks of physical facsimiles of Reacher to find a guy who didn't look like him. All actors are what they are, and it was far more important for me to nail the internals – to have an actor skillful enough to get the internal processes of Reacher on the screen. The thing about Cruise is he's a massive superstar and a tabloid sensation, but you don't get to be that unless you are first a fabulous actor. … To me, he understands the thing about Reacher: that he knows things five seconds before everyone else, and then sits there and waits for everyone to catch up. And he nails that in this movie.
There's a distinct lack of CGI in the new film. It feels very old-school – just fist-to-fist combat. How deliberate a decision was it to tamp down on the special effects?
Very deliberate, as much as Reacher himself is an old-fashioned throwback character, before modern ambiguity crept into things. We tried to keep the production honest in that sense. So there's not a lot of CGI, or physically impossible things to do. What you see is true action.
You've now spent two decades with Reacher across 21 books – but you've never strayed from his stories. Are you ever tempted to work outside that world?
Writers always have 99 theoretical ideas they'd like to write, but there's no need for me to do it because with Reacher, the books are tremendously flexible. He doesn't have a job or fixed location, so there's no limit on where he can go or what he can do. I sit down each year to write the new one with total excitement, and with no idea where it's going to go. The other 99 ideas, I'm perfectly happy to keep them as theoretical daydreams.
So you don't work with any outline at all?
True. I start with what I think is an interesting first paragraph, and see what happens.
That's working without a safety net.
There is no safety net, but I've done it 21 times now, and I'm trusting the fact that I won't fall off. It's the only way I can work. If I have an outline, that story would be told and resolved and I'd be bored with it. … I want to be in the same position as the reader, picking it up and wondering what's going to happen next.
Whenever discussing such a long-running character, it's hard not to think of their inevitable demise. How often do you think of killing Jack Reacher?
I used to think that when the series comes to an end, it should have a noble and definitive ending to it, like Reacher sacrificing himself. But over the years, I've learned that would be gratuitously upsetting for the reader. They love this guy. … I don't think there are artistic reasons for doing that. So, if the series comes to an end, it's how do you it that's more symbolic, or metaphorical? Maybe instead of leaving town like he always does, he stays. Or he gets a dog. Or he rents a room. Something that's not totally, well, explicit.
This interview has been condensed and edited