When Lee Child lost his job in British TV, he sat down with pencil and paper and wrote his way into the world of best-seling novels and blockbuster movies.
Lee Child: a wanted man in Hollywood
When a guy rings your mobile phone and tells you his name is George Clooney and he wants to be friends, you could be forgiven for hanging up. Or worse.
And yet that is precisely what happened to the British thriller writer Lee Child. Child - real name Jim Grant - was on a train from Manchester to Norwich in the UK when his phone rang and the American actor introduced himself. Child resisted the temptation to tell what he suspected was a hoax caller to clear off because he not only sounded very much like Clooney, but also made a very convincing pitch to turn one of his books into a major Hollywood film.
"This character Jack Reacher had been around for a while already. You have to remember he was dreamt up at my kitchen table, so when Clooney calls and says Brad Pitt wants to play him, it's hard to take in," says Child.
Child's 17 novels about Reacher, the reluctant vigilante ex-military policeman hobo, have now sold 60 million copies in 40 languages. The former US president Bill Clinton is a fan. Ditto Newt Gingrich. Even Cherie Blair, a human rights lawyer by day, keeps a stack of Reacher's brutal, extrajudicial score-settling adventures by her bedside.
There is James Bond and there is Jason Bourne, of course. But Reacher is not a gadget-toting agent in a suit with a salary and a secretary and a large organisation behind him. He is an ex-US army military policeman (his career prospects were somewhat compromised after he smashed a general's head into his Pentagon desk in The Affair, Child's 16th Reacher novel). Six-foot five-inches tall, 115 kilograms and with hands "like two frozen chickens", he has left the military and become a drifter who "doesn't want to set the world to rights but doesn't like guys who set it to wrongs".
Living off-grid (no phone, no home) with only a fold-up toothbrush and an ATM card for company and a fervent love of coffee, blues records, big breakfasts and casual relationships, Reacher has become an emblematic literary rebel against the trappings of modern manhood: career, mortgage, family. Even laundry. (Reacher doesn't wash his clothes. He wears T-shirts a few days and then bins them for new ones.)
"More than his obvious kick-ass talents, I really think it's Reacher's notion of freedom which has captured readers' imaginations," says Child. "No roots, no possessions, no ties. You don't like a place, a person or a situation? You just move on. You see a chance to put a bad guy in the morgue? You take it."
Child created Reacher in a fit of exasperated rage after being made redundant from Granada TV in the 1990s. He loved working there and seemed set for life when new management came in and he lost his job in a round of cost-cutting. He had a £30,000 (Dh180,000) redundancy cheque and a wife, mortgage and child to support. He had never written more than an office memo in his life. "But lots of them and they were good and to the point," he says. "If I had one skill I think it was writing clearly and succinctly and never straying too far from the point. Memos are a good discipline when it comes to thriller writing."
On September 1, 1994, he went to the Arndale Centre in Manchester and spent Dh25 on a pencil, sharpener, eraser and a stack of paper. Then he went home and began writing on Monday, September 4. By the Friday, he knew it would work.
"Jane was very supportive, but that first Friday seeing me at home she assumed I was available for a shopping errand. I had that feeling when you are pulled away from reading a good book, so I was hopeful."
Five months later, Killing Floor was the result. In the story, Reacher is smarting, having just been kicked out of the army. Wandering through rural Georgia, he takes on a corrupt local police chief called Morrison, the name shared with one of Child's ex employers at Granada. (He was still using ex-boss names for his baddies 10 novels later.)
Jim Grant needed a pen name for himself because he was concerned that if his first effort was rejected by publishers, he would have another go using another name. On a trip to the US, he and his American wife Jane had got chatting to a local who had told them proudly he'd just bought a European car, a Renault 5, quirkily badged "Le Car". Except the twangy American insisted on calling it "Lee Car". Back home, in post-holiday playfulness, the Grants renamed everything: Lee Washing Machine. Lee House. Their daughter Ruth became Lee Baby and then, finally, Lee Child.
Killing Floor wasn't an immediate success. Child had to wait until his 10th novel The Hard Way for his first chart-topper but he's repeated the feat ever since. The pencil with which he wrote Killing Floor now hangs on a notice board in his Manhattan apartment.
Meanwhile, Tinseltown's biggest hitters have been trying to adapt him for the big screen for years. However, such are Reacher's qualities - tough and thoughtful and amoral - he was, for a long time, deemed "unplayable" by any major actor. The original Clooney/Pitt bid fell away. But shortly afterwards, Keanu Reeves then stepped into the frame.
"A producer advised me the film could only work with an actor who could deliver three things. One: the physical presence. Two: the moral ambiguity. And third: a sense this guy is always the smartest person in the room. He said: 'Keanu cannot deliver number three'."
Another hiatus. Eventually, representatives from Tom Cruise's production company invited Child to two days of meetings at the Beverly Wilshire hotel in Los Angeles. Cruise, they said, wanted to produce. But when it was suggested that there was no actor alive who possessed all three Reacher qualities and that they ought to compromise on the character's physical attributes, Cruise put himself forward for the role, with Robert Duvall and Werner Herzog added for supporting-role ballast.
Child was barely out of the Beverly Hills hotel before Reacher fans hit Facebook. A page called "Tom Cruise is NOT Jack Reacher" channelled fan outrage. High on the agenda was the height disparity. Reacher is six-foot-five and weighs well over 100kg. Cruise, it was unkindly said, could be his glove puppet. Or that Liza Minelli would be a more plausible casting. And worse, that Child has sold out.
"I don't really get it," says Child. "The books and films are different worlds. I had a Polish thrash metal band ask me if they could write an album with each track dedicated to a Reacher novel. I agreed. The fact that there is a thrash metal interpretation of Reacher out there does not detract from the novels. What do these people think? That Tom Cruise will break into your house and steal your books?"
Cruise himself has taken the flak on the chin and is entirely at ease with the challenge he faces carrying the giant military policeman through three films convincingly.
"If Jack Reacher has a superpower, it is total freedom," he says. "If he has an Achilles heel, it is the inability to walk away from doing what's right. When I met with Lee to discuss my playing the character, it was these qualities we agreed were most important should I do the movie, if Lee gave me his blessing, and I'm so thrilled he did."
Child says when he finally met Cruise earlier this year at the Pittsburgh Fairmont Hotel where he was based for the film shoot, he was gratified to encounter "a perfectly normal-sized guy". Cruise's portrayal of Reacher, he says, is complex and convincing.
"Of course there is a lot of banter about whether Tom is suitable. It happens. Just like people get their knickers in a twist about who is right to play Bond or Batman. But what they forget is that Cruise is a very, very accomplished actor. Go back and watch Top Gun or Collateral or the Mission: Impossible movies. He is a master at bringing heroes and anti-heroes to life," says Child.
But he seems less sure of his own cameo as a cop who gives Reacher his famous fold-up toothbrush back after a night in the cells.
"I don't think uniformed law enforcement is my natural area," he admits.
That risk he took, spending his unemployment writing with a pencil, has paid off handsomely. The success of Reacher means he lives between New York, the south of France and has a farm in England, too. But you get the feeling that Child would actually like to live a little more like the hero he created: few possessions, the open road, few family ties.
"It might seem a strange thing to say because, obviously, I have done OK because of Reacher. But there is a point where possessions and money become a pain in the ass. Sure, that's not true if you are struggling. But it's an interesting question: how much is enough? As people, I think we can easily lose sight of our dreams and sense of exploration and wonder at the world. Jack Reacher never did and that's why I think so many people are drawn to him."
The 17th Jack Reacher novel, A Wanted Man, has just been published. Jack Reacher the film is released this month.
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