Sam Brooks pays tribute to Alex Rider, and the new TV series that (finally) captures the spirit of the books.
“What if James Bond was a teenager?”
The concept for Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider series is so simple but so brilliant. There’s a reason why the franchise has managed to sustain 12 novels (with the latest coming out just a few months ago), and kept a loyal crowd happily wagging their fan tails. It’s all the stakes and action of James Bond, but with the added threat of knowing that Alex, regardless of how talented he is, is still a teenager in the middle of international conspiracies involving a suspicious amount of people willing to harm a child.
While the brilliance of the Alex Rider series lies in the concept, it’s actually Horowitz’s execution that makes the books worth their salt. As a writer, Horowitz splits the difference between the more straight-up thriller-porn of say, Tom Clancy, and the more witty, wry stylings of Ian Fleming. Horowitz knows how to end a chapter full of page-turning action on a punchline better than almost anybody I’ve read – teen or adult.
I didn’t get that as a teenager, though. The appeal of these books as a teenager was Alex Rider: the boy, the spy, the strangely resilient teenager. Alex Rider starts the series as a normal 14 year old, but over the course of many books (and many more international conspiracies), his resilience dampens and he becomes a dark and damaged teen. You might even say that he becomes a dark and damaged adult! Don’t we all.
I read a lot of adult fiction as a teenager – more than your average – so the Alex Rider series was escapism. Gadgets! Kicking! Witty banter in life-threatening situations! But with that teenage anchor. Despite having to save the world on what felt like an annual basis, Alex was still dealing with girls, grief over losing his parents, and the kind of isolation that comes from having to hide something from your friends. That was something that I, a gay teen who may or may not have had a crush on an entirely fictional character, related to.
I grew up with Alex Rider and aged out of the books right as he sort of stopped ageing. Alex Rider would always be a teen, but I grew up from finding escapism in his problems to finding escapism in… well, adult things. It’s like that Matthew McConaughey quote in Dazed and Confused: “I get older, they stay the same age”. I got older and went to uni, Alex Rider kept on saving the world before he could even legally drink.
My fondness for the series is why I was weirdly overjoyed when I saw that it was getting a prestige adaptation for television. Like, a proper one with high production values, great actors, and the appropriate amount of grittiness, something that I – who is closer to middle age than teenage – could enjoy unashamedly.
(Look, before we talk about the show, we have to talk about the elephant in the room: Stormbreaker. This new series isn’t Stormbreaker – either the book or the film. I say this as a huge fan of the novels, so much of a fan that I genuinely loved the film, but the show is nothing like that film, and you should put it out of your brain before going into it.)
The recent adaptation, coming to TVNZ OnDemand courtesy of the BBC, takes what works about the Alex Rider series and brings it brilliantly into the modern day, by which I mean there’s liberal and accurate use of smartphones. We didn’t have those back in 2004 you guys! Phones were used to call people and maybe, in James Bond films, shoot people with tranquilliser darts or whatever. The show also decides to skip over Stormbreaker and go straight into my favourite Alex Rider book: Point Blanc. It cribs a bit of Stormbreaker to set up the premise (teenager’s uncle dies mysteriously, teenager finds out he’s actually a spy, teenager becomes a spy etc.) but after that it’s full-on secret spy business, ya’ll!
The TV show strikes the difficult balance between appealing to teenagers and adults, equally. If you grew up reading Alex Rider, you’re probably old enough to be raising your very own Alex Rider now. It’s a full-on prestige drama: the action scenes feel like they could be out of a Bourne film, the acting is top-notch, and the writing is up there with the best political drama. Even better than all that, it’s a lot of fun to watch. The Alex Rider books were fun as all hell to read and even though the poor boy was always going through some kind of peril, you kept flipping the pages to see how he’d get out of it.
But the best thing the show nails? Alex Rider himself. He’s played by newcomer Otto Farrant. He looks the part – a normal teenager with piercing eyes, fair hair – but even better than that is he nails the soul of Alex. He nails the fact that while he’s competent as hell at whatever he ends up doing almost preternaturally so, he’s also a teenage boy. He sulks, he rolls his eyes, and he gets legitimately scared. Nailing a beloved character is a hard task; an actor has to take a mixture of the author’s words and the audience’s imagination and turn it into a living, breathing human being. An even harder task is delivering a layered, detailed performance while doing that. Farrant does both, in spades, and he becomes the main selling point of a show with a lot in its favour anyway.
For a decade and a half, we’ve been able to read Alex. But to finally see Alex? Worth its weight in gold.
You can watch Alex Rider on TVNZ OnDemand now.
This content was created in paid partnership with TVNZ. Learn more about our partnerships here.
Go to TVNZ OnDemand, where you’ll find a ton of other great shows (…way beyond just what’s played on TV)