Harrison Ford wielding gun

In the modern era of American pop literature, Jack Ryan is one of the great heroes. Author Tom Clancy created the CIA analyst character within his 1984 espionage novel "The Hunt For Red October," and in the over three decades since, John Patrick Ryan has appeared in many subsequent novels and short stories that have been adapted for the screen multiple times. While Clancy himself passed away in 2013, other authors had since contributed to the Ryan universe to offer their own interpretation of the character. Ryan novels continue to provoke massive readership today.

Within the world of espionage, Ryan is distinct from other popular heroes. He’s not a womanizer like James Bond, as Ryan is generally bound to a simple but loving home life with his wife Kathy. While he has combat experience, he’s no ruthless assassin like Jason Bourne. What distinguishes Ryan is his fierce intelligence and analytical mind: He’d rather find a creative solution to a problem that would avoid collateral damage. It makes for a more human and relatable character, regardless of what career stage he’s in. Some interpretations have shown a newcomer within the field, while later novels followed Ryan all the way to the presidency.

Ryan is a patriot, but he’s not afraid to question his own country’s motivations. Clancy instills Ryan with a deep skepticism of authority, as he’d rather ascertain the facts for himself than trust an institution. Here is every Jack Ryan adaptation, ranked worst to best.

7. Without Remorse (2021)

Michael B. Jordan chokes Jamie Bell

"Without Remorse" is the first live-action spinoff of the Jack Ryan franchise, following the origin story of Tom Clancy’s other main literary hero John Clark. An integral figure within the "Ryanverse," Clark first appeared as Jack’s accomplice and friend in earlier adventures and was meant to be played by Laurence Fishburne in a 1995 movie that was ultimately shut down. Despite their comradery, Clark is a very different character from Ryan. A former Navy SEAL and combat veteran, Clark is employed by the CIA for his military expertise and ruthless bravery.

An adaptation of the 1993 novel of the same name, "Without Remorse" hails from filmmaker Stefano Sollima ("Sicario: Day of the Soldado"). It details how a tragedy within the life of John Kelly (Michael B. Jordan) leads him to become a black-ops mercenary and take on the codename "Clark." He aids the CIA in a mission to save Americans captured by a pro-Assad paramilitary group while uncovering a conspiracy tied to his wife’s death at the hands of Russian hitmen. The straightforward revenge storyline is a distinct deviation from the more finely crafted mysteries of the Ryan stories, which results in a painfully generic action movie. There’s even an obvious bait-and-switch regarding the film’s true villain that any viewer could see coming from the beginning. Jordan certainly gets into incredible shape and feels dynamic within the action sequences, but this interpretation of Clark doesn’t give him any defining characteristics other than his vengeance quest.

6. The Sum of All Fears (2002)

Morgan Freeman and Ben Affleck

"The Sum of All Fears" is a mostly watchable attempt at interpreting Clancy’s themes for the 21st century, but it’s handicapped by a central flaw: the characterization of Ryan himself. Ben Affleck is generally a great actor when given the right material and he’s not a bad choice for the part, but nearly everything about this interpretation of the character seems counterintuitive to what makes him such a compelling protagonist. In the movie, Ryan is a slacker and womanizer who is scolded for his irresponsibility, and often shows up for work unprepared. It’s not that he’s skeptical of authority but just plain disrespectful. Affleck captures Ryan’s intelligence, but what should be geeky charisma often comes across as an arrogant twit who weaponizes his advanced knowledge.

It’s tough to watch such a great literary character appear so unlikeable on screen, and it’s particularly disappointing considering that "The Sum of All Fears" generally moves the Ryanverse in an interesting direction. Morgan Freeman is terrific as CIA Director William Cabot, a figure of authority who serves as Ryan’s mentor. Liev Schreiber shows up for a brief appearance as John Clark to aid Ryan during an overseas mission, and within just a few brief moments of screen time, it’s clear that Schreiber would have been a far more interesting lead. There’s an intense sequence centered around a potential bomb detonation at a football game, and the analysis of modern U.S.-Russian politics is strong.

5. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

Chris Pine in Russia

Following the box office disappointment of "The Sum of All Fears," Jack Ryan remained absent from the big screen for over a decade until director Kenneth Branagh rebooted the character with the prequel "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit." Unlike previous adaptations, "Shadow Recruit" is not directly based on one of Clancy’s novels. Instead, it gives us background on Ryan’s origins made up out of whole cloth. This is an interesting story that the film smartly chooses to ground within modern political developments (it’s the first Ryan project to deal with the ramifications of 9/11), but the lack of source material is evident. The mystery within "Shadow Recruit" feels closer to a standard action movie where each clue is just a means to transport Ryan between action sequences.

What makes "Shadow Recruit" a compelling adaptation of the character is Chris Pine. Pine is absolutely phenomenal in the role, capturing the defiant yet humanized spirit of the character. This version of Ryan wants to serve his country and is handicapped by an injury, so he chooses to join the CIA. Pine is charismatic but not quippy, and he shows Jack’s intelligence and deep empathy for others. The film reveals a side to his love life that was previously unseen, as he’s forced to hide his identity from girlfriend Cathy Muller (Kiera Knightley). Instead of dragging the film’s pacing, Pine and Knightleys’ chemistry is a highlight. Branagh is also terrific as the villain Viktor Cherevin.

4. Patriot Games (1992)

Harrison Ford crouching in London

Following Alec Baldwin’s departure, Harrison Ford adopted the Jack Ryan role for the 1992 sequel "Patriot Games," an adaptation of Clancy’s 1987 novel from director Phillip Noyce. Ford’s version of the character was older and more experienced than Baldwin’s, presenting a version of Ryan who had already worked extensively in the field and been on more than a few dangerous missions. By this point, Ryan is actually retired from fieldwork and is a professor at the United States Naval Academy. He is enjoying a relaxing family vacation in London with his wife Cathy (Anne Archer, who took over the role from Gates McFadden) and their children when an IRA terrorist attack on the city forces him to take up his old line of work.

During the attack, Ryan tries to save innocent lives and ends up killing a terrorist, whose brother Sean Miller (Sean Bean) is imprisoned immediately. Miller escapes and plots to get revenge on Ryan by targeting his family so that he feels the same pain. It’s a great setup for an adventure that remains true to Ryan’s desire to intervene and help innocent lives, but also protect his family at all costs. It’s interesting to see a version of Ryan who expected to close this chapter of his life. Ford is terrific as the man who played Indiana Jones and Han Solo obviously knows a thing or two about action sequences, with Ryan now more weathered and beaten down.

3. Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan (2018-present)

John Krasinski Jack Ryan

"Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" didn’t perform well enough to begin a new recurring film franchise, so Amazon Studios subsequently adopted the character and began a new television series set outside any previously seen continuity. The show, which has already released two seasons consisting of eight episodes each, retells Ryan’s origin story with John Krasinski in the role. While already employed in the CIA, the first season centers on his introduction to covert operations as Ryan begins investigating a terrorist sect in Yemen and subsequently joins the overseas operation. While Ryan has already proven to be a valued asset to his government, he’s unprepared to face actual fieldwork when he sees the violence that he’s used to watching from behind a screen.

Krasinski shows a different side to Ryan. He has the same defining analytical mind, and while the show is certainly the most action-packed Ryan adaptation yet, Krasinski captures a vulnerability within the frantic action sequences. The show can get quite brutal, and the violence is grounded within realistic parallels to current events that can get uncomfortable to watch. Krasinski offers a window of empathy, but he also has more of a quippy sense of humor. This revision is an understandable change to the source material made to set Ryan up as an engaging hero within a longer adventure. Ryan’s relationship with Terror Finance and Arms Division (T-FAD) Director James Greer (Wendell Pierce) is also compelling.

2. Clear and Present Danger (1994)

Harrison Ford angrily pointing

Harrison Ford was the only screen Jack Ryan to star in multiple installments, as after the success of "Patriot Games" he reunited with director Phillip Noyce for the 1994 sequel "Clear and Present Danger." While "Patriot Games" was an enjoyable film that solidified Ford in the role and introduced action elements authentically, the plot itself left something to be desired. The film’s pacing dragged towards the third act and descended into more generic action movie territory.

Thankfully, "Clear and Present Danger" is a much more focused follow-up that explores a real moral dilemma for Ryan to contemplate. After his longtime friend and mentor James Greer (James Earl Jones) is hospitalized with cancer, Ryan is appointed the acting CIA Director and discovers that he’s been shielded from a secret war being fought by American black ops troops in Colombia. Among them is John Clark, played by Willem Dafoe. Ryan is bewildered that the public has been kept in the dark about the conflict and decides to investigate the embezzlement conspiracy with Colombian drug lords even further, eventually contacting Clark. He travels to Colombia and once again gets thrust into the action.

Forcing Ryan to question his country and, in turn, reflect on his years of service is a great progression to the character. A furious confrontation with the U.S. President over his role in covering up the conspiracy is one of Ford’s all-time greatest screen moments and captures Ryan’s righteous anger.

1. The Hunt For Red October (1990)

Alec Baldwin watches Sean Connery

The works of Tom Clancy have inspired some interesting adaptations throughout the years, but only one true classic. "The Hunt for Red October" is simply a great thriller on every level, and — even for those unfamiliar with Clancy’s work — it’s a compelling story of moral intrigue, careful plotting, and emotional storytelling. Jack Ryan is integral to the story, but it’s very much an ensemble film that focuses on dueling forces who learn of each other’s missions. Director John McTiernan, hot off of the success of "Predator" and "Die Hard," once again shows his aptitude for creating suspenseful action sequences where the characters must rely on their wits. It’s one of the greatest submarine thrillers ever made.

Soviet Captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery) wants to defect to the United States and heads towards the coast with the crew of the title ballistic nuclear submarine. Fearing that Ramius is preparing to launch a nuclear strike, the U.S. intelligence community brings in Ryan, played in his first screen appearance by a young Alec Baldwin, to investigate Ramius’s movements. Ryan suggests a theory to CIA Director James Greer (James Earl Jones) that Ramius is defecting, and must prove it before conflict breaks out. Commander Bart Mancuso (Scott Glenn) leads a U.S. submarine crew to investigate, while the Soviets send their own submarine helmed by Captain Viktor Tupolev (Stellan Skarsgård). It’s a brilliant cat and mouse game where Ryan must find a peaceful solution.