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Page to Screen: The Sum of All Fears

Updated on July 21, 2015

Film Poster


The Film

Directed by Phil Alden Robinson, the cinematic adaptation of The Sum of All Fears was released in 2002, a little over a decade after its source material was released. It's one of the five movies that create the Jack Ryan Film Series, all which share the same character, Jack Ryan, from Tom Clancy works. Nearly every iteration of Jack Ryan is played by a different actor (and most of the films are directed by different individuals) although the producers and licenses stay the same. This adaptation is noticeably different as it reboots the franchise with a younger Jack Ryan while pushing the time setting ten years (from 1992 to 2002). This reboot would be done again in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.

Due to the obsessively detailed and intricate plot of the source material, there are quite a few changes during the adaptation process, featuring different villains, characters, and relations but keeping the overarching plot largely in tact. The film features Ben Affleck as Jack Ryan, as well as Morgan Freeman, Bridget Moynahan, James Cromwell, Live Schreiber, and many others.

The Novel

One of Tom Clancy's better known thrillers, The Sum of All Fears was published mere days before the Moscow uprising which would later lead to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, all in 1991. This event may have contributed to the overall success of the novel due to its plot.

Jack Ryan, a recurring and favorite character of Tom Clancy's, proposed a plan to restructure Israel into a sort of tribunal ruling system between the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim groups in order to stop the constant conflict. This seems to work, only to the ire of Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. This group has procured a lost nuclear bomb and manipulate it to create a bigger, far more destructive thermonuclear weapon. The terrorist group sets off the bomb during the Super Bowl while also triggering attacks on the Soviet Union, hoping to incite another World War to punish them for their opposition to World Socialism. Jack Ryan manages to help defuse the situation when both countries are ready to destoroy the other and the terrorists are held responsible.

Book Cover


The Adaptation

The Terrorists
The terrorist groups in both works are vastly different and would likely fight each other if ever put into an appropriate situation. Within the novel, you have Arab Nationalists but the group gets considerably watered down by switching them into Neo-Nazis, possibly the only thing more pathetic than Nazis used as bad guys. The choice to do this is obviously one to avoid real controversy by using the very real and active Arab group as opposed to the one-dimensional Neo-Nazi (which is notable considering both of these works came before the major attack on September 11th). This transition makes the film considerably less relevant to the times.

Jack Ryan
One of the most immediate noticeable changes is Jack Ryan's actual position. In the film, he's only a CIA analyst and is regularly told what to do despite his desires. Not so in the book. He's second-in-command in the CIA, making big calls as well as co-creating a very feasible idea to bring peace to the Middle East. Later on in the story, he doesn't work out a way to communicate with the President, he flies directly to Camp David and confronts him. It's a change of power that doesn't drastically affect the story, but it's there.

Furthermore there's no need for a smear campaign involving extramarital affairs since he's much smaller fish in the film. Due to his successes, a lover of the President attempts to push Ryan into a harsh, negative light to rob him of his achievement. This, of course, is only feasible in the book because Ryan is married to Cathy Ryan with 2 kids. There are some similarities between the book and movie's portrayal of the Cathy Ryan character though.

Marcus Cabot
Played by Morgan Freeman, this character did very little in the original work and is largely absent. He's a little bit of a self-appreciative character who's a little more than mentioned. In the film however, he serves not only as Jack Ryan's boss but also his mentor on good terms. He listens to Ryan and vice versa, working together in an attempt to solve a mystery of three missing scientists. Granted, if one casts Morgan Freeman for a role that role isn't going to remain as inconsequential as the source material's Marcus Cabot.

When the bomb blows up during the Super Bowl, Cabot is coming back from Japan in the novel. It's during the film that the CIA Director is caught within the blast and dies from the bomb.

Trailer for The Film

Closing Thoughts

The Sum of All Fears is one of the few Tom Clancy novels I've ever read (although I got halfway through Rainbow Six) and it really is obscenely detailed, kinda similar to the amount of material in the Game of Thrones series. They should not be considered light reading, but there's a lot of good material in this novel at least. That being said, while not being a book I was deeply interested in reading, it was a different experience that I decided that I actually enjoyed (although apparently not enough to complete a second book).

That being said, I find the movie to be a bit of a downer while at the same time adapting to the big screen very well. Most of the details are scrapped and the story is homed in on key figures, making it far easier for those unfamiliar to the book to stay connected to the story. The film is more succinct and tells the story in more manageable bites.

However, there are some downers. Jack Ryan's character in the book is a well-respected individual, one of a high enough profile to warrant a smear campaign, which in a way is kind of a twisted compliment to your threatening status. Jack Ryan has strength of position (although this shifts a bit) and gets things done. While Ben Affleck's portrayal isn't particularly bad, his script for Jack Ryan was delegated more to an errand boy of the CIA than being the second-in-command. It doesn't help since Affleck is cast to play Batman and his career in films is under a kind of scrutiny, one that highlights his bad performances over those a bit more respectable (such as his role as Nick Dunne in Gone Girl). Also, Ben Affleck is no Harrison Ford, the actor who played Jack Ryan in earlier films.

I also have mixed feelings about the change in villains, more negative than positive. Reportedly, a big reason this change occurred was to help the Arab community in America to avoid increased prejudice, which was bad before 9/11 actually occurred several years after this film's release. I'm not against this reason at all although some cast members also claimed that casting Arab terrorists as villains is a bit cliché in action/thriller films (yet Neo-Nazis were their next choice). I personally feel a better kind of terrorist group would work as Neo-Nazies are far from being renowned for high-profile terrorist acts.

But all in all, the film was not a bad one for those unfamiliar with its source material. Especially in the early 2000s, when this film was released, there were relatively few occasions where such damage was caused on American soil (where now it seems to happen quite a lot). As an adaptation, it's fair but doesn't really add anything to the original story and waters down several elements.

Book vs. Movie

For those of you who read the book and watched the movie, what did you prefer?

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Further Reading

You can read more Page to Screen adaptations if you click here.


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