warning: contains mild book spoilers
The Alex Rider TV series arrives on Amazon Prime Video this week, providing a grittier, more grown-up vision of Alex’s adventures than in the books. A teenaged super spy that spawned a series of novels in Anthony Horowitz’s young-readers franchise, Alex has already had one attempt at the live-action arena: a movie version failed to take the world by storm back in the noughties.
There’s something about these books, though, and it wasn’t just fans that wanted to see Alex get another bite of the adaptation cherry. Clearly, executives in the entertainment world had been thinking along similar lines. Harry Potter may have succeeded in spawning a Hollywood franchise on its first attempt, but Alex Rider didn’t, and we’re grateful to see the character getting another shot at breaking into the real-world with this live-action series.
But what exactly is it that makes us remember the Alex Rider books so fondly? Why are they worth a second set of executives chucking money at them to try and make a successful live-action adaptation? We’ve revisited the series to bring you some answers…
If you try to cast your mind back to a time in your childhood when you first read the Alex Rider books, the teen spy’s array of somewhat-geeky gadgets may well be the first thing that comes to mind.
The first book in the series, ‘Stormbreaker’, really hit the ground running in this regard. The book introduced Smithers, a member of the British secret service who relished the opportunity to design spy tools for a 14-year-old for a change. He’s basically Q from the James Bond franchise, but Smithers’ inventions are nonetheless very enjoyable and playful.
In ‘Stormbreaker’, for instance, Smithers kits out Alex with some real corkers: a tube of acne cream that can burn through metal, a yo-yo that functions as a grappling hook, and a Nintendo Gameboy that could detect bugs, help with surveillance and provide a smokescreen. (Fun fact: after the Nintendo DS was used in the film version of ‘Stormbreaker’, later editions of the book replaced the Gameboy with a DS.)
Kid-friendly gadgets like this helped create the sense that Alex could offer wish-fulfilment to children. In a similar way that adults can pretend their watch is as cool as James Bond’s, younger people could run around with their Gameboy and pretend it was a high-end piece of spy tech.
Later books made the playful gadgets a tradition of the series: particular favourites in the ‘unlikely items to be gadgets’ category include some gel pens, a copy of ‘Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets’, and a flash grenade concealed in a Michael Owen keyring.
Ludicrous Action & Stunts
These gadgets prove that the Alex Rider book series didn’t take itself too seriously, and that sense of playfulness filters through into the plots of books and the type of action scenes that they serve up.
Although there are scenes of actual peril in the books (Alex is nearly crushed to death in a car-scrapping yard in the first 20 pages or so of ‘Stormbreaker’), there are also some sillier segments that almost verge on ridiculous. For example, towards the end of the second book in the series ‘Point Blanc’, Alex snowboards down a treacherous mountainside on an ironing board that he nabbed from a cupboard.
When you’re reading scenes like this play out, the slight sense of ludicrousness helps to make Alex’s spy career seem like actual fun. After all, does any kid actually daydream about carefully surveilling a target from a safe distance before calling in their mundane findings to head office? Perhaps not.
But who wouldn’t want to shoot down a mountain on an ironing board? Or defeat a deadly jellyfish using a tube of not-actually-acne-cream? Or capture some drug dealers in a canal boat by commandeering a nearby crane? Or jump out of a helicopter and crash through the roof of the Science Museum in London, before shooting the Prime Minister to stop him activating a new computer that will kill thousands of school kids if it comes online?
It’s moments like this, which often play out as the climax of a pacey plot, which give the Alex Rider book series its unique style of over-the-top action. It’s like nothing was off-limits to Anthony Horowitz while writing these stories, and it feels like he was really letting loose with every barmy idea.
With gadgets and action getting so silly, the Alex Rider book series could’ve veered into parody territory if it wasn’t held together by some engaging plot-lines that make the whole endeavour feel somewhat grounded. Certainly, Horowitz is always keen to establish a clear villain and make the stakes feel real before he really lets loose.
In ‘Stormbreaker’, you get Herod Sayle, a Lebanese computer genius who seeks to get revenge on the Prime Minister by putting a deadly PC into schools. Although Sayle is something of a generic villain, and sadly Horowitz makes Alex mock Sayle’s accent at one point, the plot to disguise the Stormbreaker computer as a generous gift to the nation is a stroke of genius.
Any kid that grappled with Windows 98 on a naff old computer at school could surely believe that the real-world government would probably fall for Sayle’s ruse, gratefully accepting the free computers with no questions asked, which makes the whole book seem that little bit more plausible. In turn, this makes the stakes seem genuinely high, and you’re egging Alex on when he parachutes towards the Science Museum to try and stop the launch.
Likewise, in ‘Point Blanc’, even though you might giggle when you notice that Alex is actually going to attempt the black run ski slope on an ironing board, you understand his reasons for doing so and the whole venture feels grounded in something like reality. This time, he’s trying to alert the world that the fancy academy atop the mountain – where posh parents send their troublesome teens – is actually up to no good.
We won’t spoil the Point Blanc plot any more than that, because the Alex Rider TV show is adapting that book specifically. (Here’s hoping that the gritty series ends with Alex on an ironing board!) Again, though, the action beat itself might be ridiculous, but Horowitz does a great job of building tension within the academy first – making it seem plausible that a school like this could exist, and creating a sense that Point Blanc could cause some real damage on a global scale. Because of this pacey and gripping plot, it’s easy to get invested in the dramatic conclusion and genuinely care for Alex, his mission, and his ironing board.
An Incredible Villain
Although the Alex Rider book series gets compared to Harry Potter all the time, there’s one similarity between the two youngster-friendly novel collections that doesn’t get discussed enough.
Just as the Potter books have a fascinating and multifaceted not-really-a-villain in the shape of Severus Snape, the Rider books offer a similarly conflicted figure in the shape of Yasha ‘Yassen’ Gregorovich.
Although he only shows up in a handful of the books, Yassen truly makes a memorable addition to the wider story. Introduced as the assassin who killed Alex’s uncle at the start of ‘Stormbreaker’, Yassen grows into a deep and engaging character in his own right.
Far more than just a sneering contract killer, Yassen is shown to have something of a soft spot for Alex, linked to Yassen’s own backstory. In fact, Yassen became such an interesting character that he was bumped up to protagonist status for the 10th book in the series, ‘Russian Roulette’, which is told from Yassen’s perspective and expands upon his backstory (another thing we won’t spoil here!).
Amongst all the silly stunts and geeky gadgets, then, the Alex Rider books are capable of telling gripping stories with real-seeming stakes, with an overarching arc and returning characters that keep you interested throughout. And it even manages to make a somewhat-likeable character out of the man that murders Alex’s uncle! Truly, this book series has a lot going for it, and we hope the new TV show does it justice.
Alex Rider launches on Amazon Prime Video on Thursday June 4th.