Bob Lee Swagger reaches a new generation with 'Shooter' TV series

Media critic David Zurawik talks to novelist Stephen Hunter about the TV adaptation of his book, "Point of Impact." "Shooter" debuts on USA on Tuesday, Nov. 15. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun video)

Bob Lee Swagger just won't die.

Since his 1993 debut in Baltimore author Stephen Hunter's best-selling thriller "Point of Impact," the ex-Marine sniper has been featured in eight more novels and a 2007 feature film starring Mark Wahlberg.


And Tuesday night, he arrives on television in a 10-hour series, "Shooter," starring Ryan Phillippe on cable channel USA. Produced by Wahlberg and co-starring Omar Epps, this is not only quality drama — it's a series that speaks with the same kind of cultural resonance to Donald Trump's America in 2016 that Hunter's original creation did to Bill Clinton's.

Swagger is an enduring American creation, and USA's TV version will likely take him to a wider audience and a new generation of viewers.


"There is a built-in audience," Hunter said of Swagger in an interview last week at The Baltimore Sun, where he worked as a film critic until 1996. He won a Pulitzer for criticism at The Washington Post in 2003.

"[The audience] begins with serious gun people and extends through people who are strong on the Second Amendment or just strong on a purist interpretation of the Constitution," he explained. "Those people will be there."

They are also loyal to characters who embody their values, he added.

"He represents the old values, the John Wayne values," Hunter said. "And, I believe, that's a universal set of values. And no matter how cynical, degraded, depraved or ugly culture gets, I believe that urtext lurks in there somewhere, and that many people are going to respond to it."


Hunter uses words like "urtext" the way I use "dog" or "cat." It's totally unpretentious. It's the way his mind seems to work, seeking out the precise word for abstract concepts even in casual conversation — or at least in conversations I've had with him.

When I came to the Sun in 1989 as TV critic and first met Hunter, I walked away thinking he was the smartest, toughest and most fearless film critic I'd ever encountered. Nothing he or any other critic has written or said in the last 27 years has disabused me of that notion.

For those not familiar with the word, "urtext" means the original text to which all others are compared. So think of Swagger as a descendent of Wayne, the icon of masculinity in post-World-War-II America. Hunter points specifically to the alienated Civil War veteran played by Wayne in director John Ford's classic 1956 western "The Searchers," his favorite film.

"Sometimes, someone will say to me, 'You know, I hate guns. I want guns banned. I want guns destroyed. But I love your books,'" Hunter said. "That's because what I'm selling more than the guns is the code. And even if we acknowledge that we're incapable of living up to it — and I certainly am — we understand it as an ideal."

Swagger loves his many guns — there's no doubt about that.

"Guns change everything. And a bullet is forever," viewers are told in the pilot's opening.

But the attraction of this character is that he lives by a code of honor and ethical behavior tied to his history with the Marines no matter how much the government might mistreat or betray him.

"With all his flaws and warts and trips off the wagon and complaints about his hip, he embodies the ideal of that belief," Hunter said.

USA's "Shooter" is steeped in Swagger's connection to the military even though the former Marine sergeant is back in civilian life after taking a bullet in the hip from an enemy marksman.

He now lives a rural life with his wife and daughter, and in the pilot the little girl begs for a bedtime story by calling out the names of places her dad has served overseas.

"Kandahar," she says excitedly, referencing a combat tale he's told before about a mission in Afghanistan.

"Oh, honey, Kandahar takes too long," he says.

"Tikrit?" she asks, naming a battle in Iraq.

She reads the sideways look he gives her as no.

"OK, fine, Basra," she says pouting just a little as she names another Iraqi combat site.

"Semper Fi," she says proudly as he starts into the tale, sounding the Marine motto that translates as "always faithful."

"Semper Fi," he says lovingly to her.

The values of family and military honor should speak to a large audience of veterans and families of those who have served.

But the betrayal Swagger suffers as his patriotism is exploited by a former commanding officer (Epps) who is now with the Secret Service should resonate at an even deeper level with every veteran who feels the government is not honoring its side of the bargain in post-service benefits and medical treatment. In that sense, "Shooter" is very much of the moment for at least one large demographic.

Once the betrayal goes down at the end of the pilot and Swagger is on the run, "Shooter" has the kind of action-adventure energy seen in such long-running TV series as "24" or "The Fugitive."

Hunter is not involved in writing or producing the series. He said he tried screenwriting once and has no interest in trying again.

"I tried to write a screenplay for a book of mine called 'The Day Before Midnight,'" Hunter said. "You know what a treatment is. It's the the story broken into story beats, usually no more than three pages long. My treatment was longer than the book it was based on. They're still talking about it in Hollywood."

But he says he feels good about the way his work was adapted for the small screen by USA.

"I am very optimistic about it. Watching the two-hour movie version and having talked to the people who did it, I learned that it's very difficult to cram a 400-page novel into 120 minutes," he said.

"It's just too much signaling, too much truncating, too much shortcutting. You have to make so many compromises," he added. "So, a 10-hour adaptation is about right. I learned this as both a film critic and a novelist. I think the novel is best suited to the long-form television show. For a storyteller, that's so remarkable and electrifying to see that kind of time and care taken."

The 70-year-old author does have a financial interest in seeing "Shooter" succeed.

"They have bought another book," he said of the producers. "They bought the book assuming the possibility that the series will be a hit and they'll be all set to go. If it's not, I still get a nice little sum that I will spend on beer and ammunition and maybe a week at the beach."

Hunter, who is married to Sun reporter Jean Marbella, is sticking with his day job. He has another book to be published in May by Viking. "G-Man," which is set in 1934, tells the story of Swagger's grandfather, Charles F. Swagger, in the FBI wars with motorized bank robbers of that era.

Hunter, himself a gun aficionado, also has a small role in the TV series as the owner of a gun shop Swagger visits in the pilot.

I asked what Hunter, the critic, thought of his performance.


"I thought I was awful," he said without hesitation. "I thought, 'Who is the blue-nose baboon masturbating onscreen? Why are they paying someone to do this?' My face, far from a rural gun owner's face, was the face of a twisted urban intellectual thinking, 'Gee, I'm in a movie.'"


Actually, the scene is edited so that you don't see that much of Hunter's face. But like I said, one of toughest critics I ever met.