With the recent announcement that Keanu Reeves would be playing the role of John Rain in an upcoming TV series, I thought it would be a great idea to reach out to the author of the series of novels that gave us the character. Barry Eisler has written eight different novels chronicling the adventures of John Rain, a half-Japanese, half-American assassin working for the world’s governments. Now that Keanu Reeves is attached to the project, the buzz has begun. Some exciting stuff could be in store, as we have seen success when other movie actors have transitioned to the small screen. Examples of this are Halle Berry (Extant), Laurence Fishburne (Hannibal), and Kevin Bacon (The Following).
Comic Booked: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me. I know that you are incredibly busy working on your next book. With the announcement by Slingshot Global Media that Keanu Reeves would be starring in a TV show based on John Rain, I wanted to get your feelings and thoughts on this type of adaptation of your work.
This is not the first time that John Rain has translated to live action. The 2009 action film Rain Fall had some star power behind it from two countries, with Kippei Shiina and Gary Oldman. Do you feel like that version of John Rain was as true to your books as you wanted it to be?
Barry Eisler: Well, that version was so different from the book that I tend to think of it as inspired by John Rain rather than based on him…
CB: Makes sense. With a series of eight books, it would seem that John Rain is a pretty well developed character. Will you be making any changes to the character for the TV show? What sort of plans do you have for developing John Rain through this show?
BE: In general, it’s important to remember that not only can you make certain changes when adapting a novel for the screen, but you should. The novel isn’t a story any more than TV is a story. Rather, each is a vehicle for telling a story, and the trick when you’re adapting is to distill out the essence of the story as configured for the novel and reconfigure it so it retains its emotional and dramatic impact in the new vehicle. If you’re interested, here are a few more thoughts on this topic I wrote in an essay a few years back.
More specifically, in the books, Rain was born in 1952, making him about twelve years older than Keanu. But the first book came out in 2002, when Rain was fifty—roughly the same age Keanu is today (coincidence? I think not!). So change the Vietnam backstory (a history of violence is essential to the character, but a particular conflict is not), and, presto, we have Rain at the right age.
In the books, Rain is half Japanese, half Caucasian-American, but looks mostly Japanese (in part because of a little long-ago plastic surgery around the eyes, intended to help him blend in Tokyo). Certainly there’s some Asian heritage in Keanu’s features, but he’s not going to pass for Japanese the way the Rain of the novels does. But that’s okay: what’s vital to the character, IMO, is his sense of dislocation, his alienation, his longing to belong coupled with his inability to do so. In the books, I can convey this through (among other things) Rain’s thoughts. For the screen, I think it’s actually an advantage to be able to convey it in part through Rain’s appearance.
I guess the overall question is, what is essential to the character, and what is a variable? With regard to any specific character, reasonable people will probably differ. I remember some people freaking out online when Daniel Craig was cast as James Bond because “Bond is not blond!” Whereas personally, I can’t think of something less essential to Bond than the color of his hair. And there was a lot of spirited debate over whether Tom Cruise could play a character as physically massive as Jack Reacher. Reacher’s creator, Lee Child, thought yes (“Reacher’s size in the books is a metaphor for an unstoppable force, which Cruise portrays in his own way”); not everyone agreed. Personally, I think Reacher’s size, though certainly central to the character in the books, is more of a variable than an essential quality (imagine by comparison trying to remove Reacher’s adeptness with violence or investigative excellence—if you did, you would destroy the character). Overall, I think the question to ask is, “If we change this quality, do we still have the character?” If the answer is yes, the quality isn’t, by definition, essential. If the answer is no, it is.
Anyway, with regard to Rain, I don’t think the character’s age, face, or specific military background is at all essential, but that’s just my opinion and isn’t really something that’s susceptible to proof. I guess we should just let Keanu settle the argument by being an awesome John Rain…
CB: I agree. I really enjoyed his character in 47 Ronin and I look forward to what he can bring to this project as well. Tell me about your thoughts on having more time to tell the story with a TV show and not having to cram it all into 2 hours or less.
BE: I’m thrilled Keanu wants to develop the series for television. Not that there’s not a lot you could do with Rain for the big screen, but there are so many complex aspects to the character—the way he straddles two cultures; his attraction/repulsion to violence; his urge to belong versus the imperatives of his own security; the whole ongoing conundrum of trying to kill his way out of the killing business—that I think if you want to do him and all the story possibilities justice, television is the right way to go.
CB: There not a lot of shows out there right now that have this sort of storyline. Do you feel this show will fill a niche that has not really been overdone on TV in recent years?
BE: I guess it depends on what aspects you focus on. Certainly there have been some hugely successful shows about bad-guy protagonists—The Sopranos, Dexter, House of Cards, Breaking Bad, to name just a few—so on that level, I don’t think we’re talking about a niche at all, but rather a large market. And there have been some shows about characters with special training and special skills—say, Alias or Burn Notice or Person of Interest. But as far as I know, no one has done serialized television about a contract killer, especially one as conflicted and formidable as Rain. So on the one hand, the show will have a lot of elements that have proven exceptionally popular, but on the other hand it’ll have a fresh and unique take on those elements, along with a few new ingredients of its own. Which in my mind is exactly the right combination.
CB: Very cool. I am very excited to check out this new show, based on what I know from the movie and the research I have done on the book series. Can you tell us anything about your involvement with the scripts? I understand that a scriptwriter has not yet been selected, but would you rather have someone else write the script and have control over how the story plays out? What is your perfect scenario in bringing John Rain to television?
BE: I don’t know what my involvement will be. Keanu and all the other good people backing the project know the main thing for me is that the show is a huge success. If my involvement can help make that happen, I’ll be happy to be involved. If they’ve got the whole thing without me, that’s great, too. Or anything in between. The main thing is the show. So I guess I wouldn’t say I have a perfect scenario for bringing Rain to television; more like, whatever route gets used, this is one instance where what matters most is the destination.
CB: You are working on a new book. Can you tell us anything about it? Is this another Rain novel?
BE: The one I’m working on now is a standalone thriller set in the post-Snowden national surveillance state. But I’m sure you’ll see more Rain and company in due course.
CB: Finally, since one of our main focuses is comic books, any thoughts of a John Rain comic book series or graphic novel translation of any of your books?
BE: Well, as a long-time comics fan, I’d be thrilled! Maybe as a spin-off to the TV show? One thing at a time…
CB: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions.
A big thanks to Barry Eisler, author of the John Rain novels, for taking time out of his busy schedule to discuss the future of his character on television. Stay tuned to Comic Booked for all your movie and TV news. You can learn more about Bary Eisler on his blog and check out John Rain in his novels for sale on Amazon or a book store near you.