In an interview with the Financial Times in 2013, the writer Anthony Horowitz was asked about his greatest achievement and disappointment. He said his greatest achievement was Alex Rider, the series of young adult books about a teenage spy that has sold more than 20 million copies. His greatest disappointment was the 2006 Alex Rider film, Stormbreaker.
“I didn’t hate it,” Horowitz said, “but it should have been the first of 10 and it wasn’t.” The film, in which Alex Pettyfer played Rider as a schweffy blond King’s Road surfer-type, was criticised for rounding off the books’ sharper edges and did poorly at the box office.
Fourteen years later, entertainment is a different place. No intellectual property is wasted in 90 minutes when it could be spun out for 10 years. Alex Rider (Amazon Prime) has become an eight-hour series, following the precedent set by Watchmen and His Dark Materials for giving beloved franchises a second shot at the screen after indifferent Hollywood outings.
This time around, he is not leaving anything to chance. The screenplays are by Borgias writer Guy Burt, but Horowitz himself is executive producer. He knows something about TV, having also created Foyle’s War. Rider devotees who have been waiting years for a decent version can relax. From the first scenes this is more satisfying than the film, stylish but not sanitised, catching more of the books’ momentum and bringing them up to speed with the 21st century.
The plot is the second book, Point Blanc, with aspects of the debut, Stormbreaker, mixed in to help set the scene. Otto Farrant’s Rider is more plausible than Pettyfer’s from the start, a teenage schoolboy with a footballer haircut but less of a male-model energy. He is unusually astute and sporty but otherwise rather normal. At the beginning of the first episode, he and his best mate Tom (Brenock O’Connor, more likeable than his turn shanking Jon Snow in Game of Thrones) just want to get through the schoolday and go to parties in the evening. Like James Bond, Rider is an orphan, raised by his mysterious uncle Ian (Andrew Rider) and devoted housekeeper Jack Starbright (Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo). When Ian dies, Alex smells something fishy, and after following the clues meets Alan Blunt (Stephen Dillane) and Mrs Jones (Vicky McClure), bosses at a mysterious government agency who reveal that Ian had been working for them. Alex arrives just as they are looking for someone to infiltrate a sinister Swiss boarding school for the children of the super-rich. Finally all that snowboarding will come in handy.
A production on this scale can’t be aimed solely at young adults, or at the original fans of the books, many of whom will now be deep into their thirties. The series has been brought up to date, with smartphones and social media (and a suspicious amount of Apple product placement), as well as a more diverse cast. The tone is darker than on the page, set in an icy-looking London, although there is nothing too R-rated. There are fewer wacky gadgets, and Alex is a couple of years older than the 14 he is in Stormbreaker. It’s hardly Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but it succeeds in making the story of a schoolboy super-spy seem marginally more credible.
The new Alex Rider is pacy, polished and safe. It’s hard to imagine anyone hating it, but there is something slightly clinical about the exercise, too. They’ll be hoping they have pitched it competently enough to achieve TV escape velocity, which is to say enough momentum to get more commissioned. We’ll soon learn if they’ve done enough. There are 12 books, so we could be looking at 100 hours of Rider. Saddle up.
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