Friday, March 17, 2023

The Terminal List: review

I finished ex-Navy SEAL sniper Jack Carr's novel The Terminal List, about a soldier with brain cancer on a mission of revenge. Carr's book got picked up by Antoine Fuqua (director, producer, the power behind "The Equalizer") and Chris Pratt (star), and from there, it was turned into an Amazon streaming-video series. Season 1 adapts the entirety of The Terminal List. If Season 2 follows Carr's book titles, it will have to be called True Believer, the second of Carr's James Reece novels (I'm reading that novel now).

Lieutenant Commander James Reece leads Seal Team Seven on a mission in Khost, Afghanistan, that turns into a bloodbath-by-ambush during which he loses everyone under his command except for his faithful sidekick Boozer. Once back Stateside, Boozer seemingly commits suicide, and Reece's wife and daughter are brutally murdered in what looks to be a gangland hit by Mexicans. The doctor who tells Reece he has a mass in his brain also ends up dead, and Reece begins to understand that all of this was a setup, and he was never supposed to make it out of Afghanistan alive. As Reece digs deeper into the mystery with the help of reporter Katie Buranek, pilot Liz Riley, and shady old friend Marco del Toro, he discovers that the deaths of his SEAL team had been engineered to cover up the side effects of a new anti-PTSD drug that was inadvertently causing brain tumors in human patients following experiments the soldiers didn't even know they were participating in. The heavy investment of money into the drug research meant that some big players were involved, reaching all the way up to the top echelons of the US government. Set on revenge, Reece embarks on a campaign that sees him fight his way up the ladder from the small-fry members of the conspiracy against him through corrupt military brass and all the way up to the Secretary of Defense.

Having only recently finished The Gray Man, a book I didn't like very much for its choppy prose and implausibilities, I found it a relief to read Jack Carr's much smoother, clearer narrative. Carr has the advantage of being a former military man; he knows the lingo, and his experience brings a layer of authenticity that's hard for a non-military writer to match, especially when it comes to the psychology of combat. The plot of The Terminal List rolls forward with the inevitability of a freight train; chapters have been kept short in a way that reminds me of Michael Crichton's novel Jurassic Park.*

And unlike the jarring disconnect between the book and film versions of The Gray Man, I now see that the novel and Amazon versions of The Terminal List are much closer in their details, i.e., Amazon's "The Terminal List" is a much more faithful adaptation of the source material than Netflix's "The Gray Man" is of its source material. For "The Terminal List," some character names did undergo some slight changes, e.g., the novel's corrupt Admiral Pilsner has become Admiral Pillar in the Amazon series. Some of the action from the novel gets changed around as well: in the novel, a corrupt American judge advocate general is gutted; his guts are spiked to a tree, and he's forced to walk in circles around the tree until he can walk no farther. In the Amazon series, this gruesome fate befalls a Mexican cartel member, part of the hit team that killed Reece's wife and daughter.

Some of the changes that the Amazon series made were, in my opinion, improvements upon the novel. Jack Carr can write capable, competent female characters, but some of them still have a flatness to them that the Amazon series remedies through better characterization. Katie Buranek, the investigative journalist who chooses to help James Reece, is a young blonde of Czech extraction in the book, described as looking like a cute, athletic gym rat. In the Amazon series, she's played by Constance Wu, who doesn't look particularly blonde or Czech or svelte. Wu's version of Buranek is, however, given a lot more to do; she's also made out to be a bit mysterious in terms of her loyalties. In the novel, Buranek latches on to Reece because Reece's father, himself a former SEAL, rescued Buranek's family from Czechoslovakia during a period of turmoil, so Buranek feels a deep debt to Reece's family. With Buranek being of Chinese extraction in the Amazon series, there's no Czech connection, so Buranek's relationship with Reece is portrayed as much more prickly. Certain characters in the Amazon series who turn out to be bad only at the end are seen to be evil early on in the novel. For example, Secretary of Defense Lorraine Hartley. In the novel, Hartley is portrayed from the beginning as a troglodytic careerist who is part of the plot against Reece. In the show, Hartley is initially portrayed as the daughter of a military father who sympathizes with Reece, only for Reece to discover at the end that she's been one of the bad guys from the beginning. In the novel's climactic scene, Reece dispatches Hartley, business tycoon Steve Horn, and Reece's old SEAL buddy Ben Edwards. In the Amazon series, Hartley ends up shooting herself, Steve Horn dies like a bitch (in the series, Horn is portrayed practicing tactical maneuvers as if he were a soldier, but in the end, he desperately begs for his life before Reece shoots him). And Reece kills Ben in the final episode after he's killed everyone else on his list. I think the Amazon series handled these plot elements better than the novel did. In the novel, these deaths all felt a bit sudden. Perhaps the most important thing that the show does better than the novel is to demonstrate how Reece, despite being hunted by the military and the feds, does his best not to kill his fellow servicemen. There's a moment in the series where, during a mountain chase, some soldiers find a sniper bullet perched on a rock. The fed who's with the soldiers asks what the bullet means, and one of the SEALs replies that Reece could have taken the entire team down, but he chose not to.

There were a few other significant differences between the novel and the show. The show makes a big deal about Reece developing tremors in his hands, not knowing what's real, and having flashbacks to moments with his wife and daughter—in particular to a moment in which a bird smashes into a glass window at Reece's suburban home, and Reece's daughter Lucy asks whether the bird will be all right. In the novel, Reece suffers agonizing headaches, but there's never any question about what's real, nor does he suffer any tremors or flashbacks. In the show, Katie Buranek has many interactions with her boss, but in the novel, Katie seems to be more of a lone wolf. And then there's the tumor in Reece's head. In the Amazon show, we're never given specifics as to what tumor Reece has, and we never find out his prognosis. By the end of the novel, though, we learn that Reece's tumor, initially thought to be an oligodendroglioma (life expectancy of about a decade), is actually a cerebral convexity meningioma that can be resected with a 75% chance of survival. Even if not resected, it's a slow-growing tumor that can produce headaches. Now, the way the novel ends, this information is left by a doctor as a voicemail message on a cell phone that Reece abandoned, so he doesn't hear the news about the tumor. As far as Reece knows, he's got a fast-growing mass that is going to send him to see his wife and daughter in the afterworld soon enough.

Despite the flaws in Carr's story, which the Amazon show did a decent job of patching up, the novel was an excellent read, and I'm already a couple chapters into the next book in the series. (There are five books out; a sixth one is coming out later this year.) I think I can call myself a Jack Carr fan. My only complaint about his prose is that he constantly falls into the trap of dangling modifiers—a problem that his editors need to do a better job of detecting. The Amazon show did take some liberties with the plot and details of Carr's book, but all in all, the Amazon production team showed a lot more respect for Carr's work than Netflix did for Mark Greaney's work (not that Greaney's work was all that good to begin with). I look forward to making my way through the rest of Carr's series, and I also look forward to Season 2 of James Reece's adventures on streaming video.


*I've probably mentioned this somewhere else on the blog, but after I finished reading Jurassic Park, I recall thinking that the book's action and pacing had the feel of a Spielberg film—one of the few truly prescient thoughts I've ever had.


John Mac said...

Once again, this is a great review! It is nice when the book and the film are in alignment. Back in the day, when I saw a movie I liked that was based on a novel I hadn't read, I'd get the book to see what had been left out. That's how I discovered authors like Larry McMurtry and John Irving.

Kevin Kim said...

When I was a kid, I used to gobble up movie novelizations, which were a way to relive the movie I'd seen. The novelization of Star Wars was one of my favorites: I reread that one dozens of times, and like you, I paid attention to the points in the novel that didn't match the action in the movie.

Much later in life, I discovered one big reason for the differences in content: the novelization was usually based on an earlier draft of the shooting script! So in reading the novelization, I was reading the filmmakers' original thoughts as to how the movie should go.

(This explains the scene in The Empire Strikes Back in which Yoda tosses a metal bar at Luke, who ignites his lightsaber and quickly cuts the bar into three pieces as it's flying. Yoda chides Luke: "In seven pieces it would be if a Jedi you were." This scene never made it into the movie.)