The Terminal List Dual Review Part One: I No Longer Hate Chris Pratt

So I've read the book, now I'm making my way through the show.

As I get through episodes in chunks I'll fire away another little compare/contrast exercise here. I finished the book three or four months ago, but the plot is still pretty fresh in my head.

Before we jump into talking about the finer points of what works best as movie or best in print, let's get to my general thoughts on the book.

The Novel

It's solid.

If I had a big gripe it would be the very obvious stand-in-ism of the main character James Reece, for the author, Jack Carr. James and Jack are both Navy SEALS, Land Cruiser aficionados, gun guys, coffee drinkers, and pretty concerned that you know what brand of shit they're wearing.

Considering how absolutely rife Instagram is with ex-SF dudes starting gun and coffee companies who own lifted over landers or trucks, it's not the most original persona ever; but hey, that's how it goes with military stuff. I was military, albeit Natty Guard, but I met the same person a few dozen times over with different last names. It attracts a certain kind of person, and the community promotes certain hobbies. That's to be expected.

I try really hard not to bring up Brad Thor's creation of Scot Harvath very often. I think Brad's the top dog in the action/thriller gun-guy novel game. Scot can bring up being a Navy SEAL in his past by simply going through his shower habits. I feel like James has to hit you over the head with the flagstaff at the recruiting office. I don't know Jack Carr at all beyond this book. I know he was a SEAL and his media personality is generally revolved around "was a SEAL," or so I gather from checking out his podcast and media pages. Meh, good for him. There are a lot less cool things to have been.

I know the above seems like a long diatribe because I feel like it's important. I'm going to contrast to Scot Harvath more here. James is described, at one point in the book, painstakingly zeroing an array of pretty cool guns. A couple of which he never uses in the book. The belt fed machine gun he brings out to the desert? Not used. Literally checkov's gun. I never worry about if Scot's weapons are zeroed. He's a grizzled professional. That's an easy assumption to make. I enjoy Scot sparring with Boston Cops about revolutionary trivia or trying to coordinate a team through the noise of an Italian night club. Talking endlessly about who built the rifle he owns would just not be what is important about Scot.

Thus we arrive at my major complaint. James is a vehicle of violence that we feel for. We have remorse for his situation, and we support his vindictive journey of justice and revenge. However, all the characters around him are truly the cool ones. The WARCOM commander and Secretary of Defense are fleshed out. I feel like I could narrow down their casting to just a few people if I were making a big budget film series.

The Texan pilot and investigative journalist are likewise interesting and have depth. Same with the antagonist handler and double-crossing spook friend. All in all, I think this isn't so much a story about James Reece. We shouldn't look at the book like we are following the turmoil of a capable, yet still very human man. Nah. Read the book like it's a Final Destination book, and the side characters are the fodder for the inevitable.

James Reece is written like a deadly reimagining of Nick Caraway. You're not reading about the dramas of Egg Island because you care what Nick really thinks about them. No, you want to see Gatsby throttle a man on the street with his car. This, I believe is the best lens through which to consider The Terminal List.

Which brings me to the show.

The Show

The inward viewpoint of the show changes from the book incredibly. Jack wrote from James' perspective, but it was very externally focused. The show's shot direction seems to have a very tight and clear goal: Show you what James is thinking.

I'm only on the first episode, but so far they're doing this VERY well.

I must also admit that Chris Pratt is doing a phenomenal job convincing me he's a in-the-trenches military leader in this. It's hard to believe Andy from Parks and Rec has made it here, but his acting in The Terminal List is melting away the preconceptions I brought to this show. I really haven't liked his previous characters, but perhaps that's more typecasting than anything. The "haha I'm just a well intentioned goofy guy and consequences never stick for me!" archetype grates me. Probably from seeing that guy try to exist in real life and just usually ending up as an ineffectual idiot who ruins things for those around him. Subconsciously, I wonder if I just disliked any encouragement for behaving like that.

But that's unfair to Chris, I'm sure he was specifically directed to act like that. The dude's got charm and it lends itself to that character. So far in the show, I've noticed that his laser glare is utilized a lot. As said before, I think there's some specific intention to put you in James's head or give the audience James' direct observation. Necessary to accomplish this would be a lot of James looking at things. This seems like a trivial thing to have to act, but done poorly and it could be comically bad. Chris is doing it very well. He looks and behaves the part, and is doing so well enough that it's changed my mind about it. Bravo.

The gunfight that starts the show was pretty fucking cool. The setting is different from the book, but I see that as a good choice. The open rise that was in the print would be less visually evocative than the cloistered sewers that remind me of the Alcatraz gunfight in The Rock. In the book the only foreshadowing to the big explosive event that kills most of the team is that James 'gets a feeling.' I think the show handles it better in allowing the team to see the booby traps and having them dodge bullets around them.

I also like the change that the Sec Def directly speaks with James and says that she'll be putting him in for a major award. They don't speak at all in the book until the climax. Throughout she's openly antagonistic and actively trying to pull strings to kill the guy. I like the extra intrigue of baiting him with the empathy as honey in the show's retelling.

The bit I don't like so far is the family. He never sees his family alive in the book. Before James can go home he's dragged away by a doctor's clearance and Boozer's staged suicide. He comes home to a house riddled with bullets and the wife and kid on the cooling boards.

It's not that I don't think this works narratively, but the acting among the family is super cold. The daughter is the main motivator in the book, and her inclusion in the opening episode is scant. The relationship with his wife seems like it serves to move the plot more than endear anyone to the audience to justify the later killing spree. I think sticking to the book would have made this all much more punchy. The show makes me feel more for the other SEALs than it does for his family, which is not the priority the book takes.

Other notes; the migraine and foreshadowing to the tumor is done very well. Especially the hospital fight scene that never happens in the book, but is used very well in the show to communicate the haze and the stakes. I really like the date mix-up on Boozer's death as an intrigue point. The scenes where James can't remember if he hallucinated Boozer's presence is cool. The MRI flashback is just great movie-making from both a story focus and a visual focus. The violence is brutal, just like the book, and I think that's vital to the story this is.

Parting Thoughts

I'm a guy that always like the book better than the movie, and likely always will be.

The Terminal List may be a contender to be an equal, however. I get the feel that this show took source material from a cool guy that had a cool story to tell. It's easy to work with the character because it's based on a real cool guy. But now under the reigns of a team of professional and experienced writers, the embellishments that make the story from the novel can be very well refined into a visual narrative that translates the original intent in a way that only competent screenwriting can.

I'm about to embark on a new fiction journey of my own in which I base the characters on myself and people I really know. Honestly, seeing the translation from book to show in this is going to be helpful. I'll be researching the show writers for the next installment, hopefully it leads me down a rabbit hole of other stuff I'd enjoy and can emulate.

Until next time.

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