It wasn’t unreasonable to approach Alex Rider with a degree of scepticism; one only has to look at the recent Artemis Fowl film, by coincidence released alongside Alex Rider, to see how easily things might’ve gone wrong. Such scepticism was also, however, unnecessary – because Amazon’s new Alex Rider television series is in fact a surprisingly deft adaption of Anthony Horowitz’s books. It’s a slick, stylish piece of television, Horowitz’s source material buoyed by a series of smart choices on part of screenwriter Guy Burt – choices that will, no doubt, see Alex Rider remembered as one of the more successful adaptations of its kind.
Immediately remarkable is that the series begins with an adaptation of Point Blanc, the second of Horowitz’s novels. No doubt motivated by a desire to distance this adaptation from the 2006 film Stormbreaker, the last attempt to turn Alex Rider into a franchise, it’s a canny choice even beyond the marketing concerns. Point Blanc, for a start, is simply a better book, with a better sense of how to make the teenage spy premise work than its predecessor. It also offers a far more visually arresting story with its French Alps setting – and with it a chance for the Alex Rider television series to demonstrate quite how much money has gone into it, almost every penny visible on screen. More than just that, though, what represented an escalation in the books is established as the baseline here: it’s not, of course, that either book was especially grounded, but Point Blanc is grander in scale, and commits more wholeheartedly to its most outlandish aspects. Indeed, it’s arguably something of an outlier amongst Horowitz’s original books – meaning that even as Alex Rider offers a patina of realism, it’s already positioned quite firmly in a more heightened genre than it might have been otherwise.
The series is similarly well-served by its format: Alex Rider is made up of eight forty-five minute episodes, presumably a legacy of ITV’s early involvement in the project. A television adaptation offers wider scope for an adaptation than a movie might, yes, but there’s an accompanying risk that it might find itself bloated and poorly paced – however Alex Rider smartly keeps each episode to strict runtime, avoiding the meandering, overlong instalments that define many television shows made for streaming services. As a result, the series is taut and well-paced, never feeling as though it’s overstayed its welcome; the recently-commissioned second series would do well to mimic this same structure again, embracing the limitations imposed by its original home rather than indulging in the flexibility Amazon Prime offers.
Alex Rider also benefits from strong casting, too – a series of smart choices on part of casting director Gary Devy, if you like. Otto Farrant impresses, obviously, as he must; it’s true of any show that it lives and dies and on the strength of its lead, but that’s perhaps especially true of adaptations like this, where an actor has to bear a far greater weight of expectation than they might otherwise. In any case, Farrant is a strong anchor for the show, performing an impressive balancing act throughout; Alex Rider’s premise could well be a difficult needle for an actor to thread, especially as it demands depth be brought to a ridiculous concept, but Farrant acquits himself with aplomb. He’s not alone in that either, as Alex Rider’s world is fleshed out by other, more familiar names: Andrew Buchan and Stephen Dillane each make strong impressions, as does Vicky McClure – she’s plainly miscast as Mrs Jones if the intent was to maintain a strict fealty to the original books, but McClure is a talented enough performer that the opportunity to cast her is case enough against such loyalty.
Knowing when close fidelity to the text is worthwhile and when it should be abandoned is, of course, why Alex Rider is such a deft adaptation of its source material. That’s why Andrew Buchan gets the chance to make an impression, for example, Guy Burt smartly opting to introduce Ian Rider as a character before his murder rather than, as Stormbreaker does, starting with his funeral. It’s why Point Blanc’s early drug bust – which, put politely, was very clearly written by a Conservative twenty years ago – is quietly shelved, and disparate elements of books on either side of it are drawn together into something new. It’s also where Burt’s own creation, Kyra, comes from: a new female lead for the historically very boy-centric series. Described as “a young version of Lisbeth Salander”, Burt is… perhaps flattering himself a little when he says Kyra is “not just a love interest, not just a sort of side character, but somebody central” – Kyra is a genuinely charming addition to the story, but much of that charm comes from Marli Siu’s irreverent performance (and her chemistry with Farrant) rather than anything on the page particularly. Reading what Burt has to say about the character, one wishes he’d found a bit more space for her in the series as is – her near-certain return will be a welcome one.
There’s more Alex Rider could have done, certainly; it gestures towards ideas of fascism, but never quite manages to make those ideas cohere into something resembling a theme. It’s not entirely unlike the book in that regard, where the villain’s affection for authoritarian dictators is just another Bond-esque idiosyncrasy, but it’s hard not to wish the series had pushed those ideas a little further. One of the benefits, surely, of adapting a work nearly twenty years later is the opportunity to re-examine its contents in a new light; a fascist literally replacing children with likeminded clones could have proven quite a potent metaphor, if handled well. As it is, Alex Rider largely elides grappling with these ideas in any real depth – it’s understandable enough, but hopefully future instalments will make a bit more effort. (You might ask if that’s a reasonable expectation to have of what is essentially one step up from a children’s show; given Horowitz seemed to think the books were a commentary on New Labour and the Iraq war, yes, it is a reasonable expectation.)
Though that raises an interesting question in and of itself, actually. Where will Alex Rider go next? The television series, obviously, cannot adapt the eleven-and-counting novels it was inspired by, not least because Otto Farrant would age out of the role sooner rather than later (and any effort to recast him would be a deeply unwelcome one). Similarly limiting is the fact that, like most streaming shows, Alex Rider is unlikely to run for more than three or four seasons; the show will presumably adapt only three or four of the books at most. (Eagle Strike, the fourth book, and Scorpia, the fifth, would make a neat trilogy alongside Point Blanc.) More curious, though, is the tone the adaptation will take. One of the more striking aspects of Horowitz’s books is how grim and dour they eventually became, as though the author no longer quite believed in his own premise: they were always firmly YA fiction, yes, but Horowitz fast abandoned the idea that being a teenage spy was a fun adventure, seemingly delighting in destroying his protagonists life bit by bit with each passing novel. It was a curious quirk, eventually ironed out of the books – despite drawing Alex Rider to particularly bleak close in 2011, Horowitz subsequently revised that ending with a new novel six years later – and it’ll be interesting to see whether that particular compulsion reappears on television.
Ultimately, then, Alex Rider is clearly a success. It’s a well-made piece of television – confident in its choices, and stylish in their execution, the latest in a long line of television adaptations of YA novels to dispel the memory of a disappointing movie. Anthony Horowitz will likely finally have his wishes for a successful Alex Rider franchise realised; perhaps a decade down the line, Eoin Colfer might be similarly lucky with Artemis Fowl.