Alex Rider is safe, inoffensive fun

Amazon Prime’s TV adaptation of Anthony Horowitz’s popular book series struggles to identify its audience, but provides an entertaining journey.

Ever wondered what it would be like to have a teenage James Bond? Well, thanks to Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider book series, wonder no more! The series of books, commencing with 2000’s “Stormbreaker”, with the thirteenth instalment, “Nightshade” released earlier this year, follows the adventures of extraordinary fourteen-year-old Alex Rider, who becomes coerced into working for MI6 after the untimely and suspicious death of his uncle and guardian Ian Rider. The success of the book series, and the promise it may have held as a film franchise and attempt to peddle delightful, plastic gadgets that would inevitably break after two or so uses to a young, impressionable audience saw a 2006 film adaptation of the first book, starring Alex Pettyfer and a surprising number of big names.

The film franchise never took off, and “Stormbreaker” was officially deemed a box office flop, but it seems that the TV adaptation learns a lot from the missteps that it made. Gone are the silly gadgets, the bright, fun sets and the childish glee (not to mention horrendously cliched lines) of our hero, replaced instead with a more gritty, stark and harsh reality that makes the series more adult but unencumbered by complex storytelling.

For the avid book fans, the first immediate change from the source material is that the TV show starts by adapting the plot of the second novel in the series “Point Blanc”. It interpolates the necessary plot points from the first book, “Stormbreaker”, however, in order to introduce Alex into the world of MI6 through the murder of his uncle Ian. For book purists, however, this is far from the only change made. In fact, apart from the basic essence of the mission, many concepts and characters have been shifted around to make earlier appearances or to introduce ideas from later books.

Many of these are necessary for the book to stand up as a serial. In terms of book structure, over the course of the entire novel, you would expect there to be a build, climax and resolution. Within the context of a TV show, however, this has to be achieved multiple times throughout the series, necessitating some alterations in pacing to achieve the all-too-important cliffhanger endings of each episode.

Alex’s best friend, Tom (Brenock O’Connor), originally introduced in the fifth book “Scorpia”, is hugely needed here, as an anchor for Alex within his teenage world. In the books, Alex doesn’t really have much in the way of friends at school, meaning that lots of the dramatic beats that the TV show riffs off, such as going to parties, and the danger posed to those closest to him, wouldn’t really resonate from what was originally written. Additionally, Kyra (Marli Siu) is a character entirely invented for the TV show, as a female student of Point Blanc. In the novel, Point Blanc is boys-only, but it goes some way to making this programme more accessible to girls, as the books definitely fell down on aspects of female representation, except for perennially oblivious guardian Jack.

Many new plot strands are also necessary to shift the focus of the programme away from purely upon Alex. The books are told pretty much exclusively from Alex’s viewpoint, which makes sense in the context of a book in which he is gradually uncovering the mystery. The reader discovers all the plot points as he does. In a TV programme, far more tension is elicited through the viewer sometimes holding more knowledge than the character, and as such we are treated to far more of a glimpse at interactions that Alex isn’t part of. Not only does this ramp up the tension, but it also provides valuable development for the characters, like Jack and Tom, who aren’t part of Alex’s spy world and are otherwise forgotten about in the novels while Alex is away on a mission.

The danger of producing a TV show about a teenage spy is that it can fall into the realm of a campy, sugar coated, bubblegum affair, in which an overly confident teenager miraculously saves the day against incompetent bad guys. Optional extras include implausible, exciting gadgets, like zipwire yo-yos and GameBoys that can be used as bugging devices. This is definitely the area that the film franchise fell down on. It became too silly, and its appeal, geared predominantly towards young boys, wasn’t enough to break even at the box office.

Fortunately, the TV show is tonally very distinct from the film adaptation. The aspects that may turn off the more discerning adults amongst the audience, such as any silly gadgets, are eliminated, and the danger and high stakes of the situation are played seriously and earnestly. The audience never gets the sense that Alex is relishing this opportunity, or that he is anything other than unwilling or coerced into this situation. There is definitely no glamourising of the life of a teenage spy here: his vulnerability and endangerment is palpable throughout.

This sense of austerity is felt visually throughout the show. There’s nothing garish, fantastical or wondrous about MI6’s base of operations, or Point Blanc itself. The brilliant sets and locations are absolutely stunning, and it is lit throughout to appear more muted, cold and uncaring. To watch, it appears mature and serious.

In spite of these brilliant and necessary alterations to the books, the show does fall into some pacing problems. Stretching an average-length, teenage novel into an eight-part series is no short order, and the story could easily have been told in fewer instalments. For example, the chief premise of the series, which is for Alex to become a teenage spy takes a number of episodes, and it’s only halfway through that Alex actually arrives at Point Blanc to commence his mission. It’s these aspects that may turn off the casual viewer, who might be expecting a little less talking and a little bit more action.

What’s more, despite its serious sheen, this series can hardly be described as anything above easy watching. There’s nothing especially clever at play here. Despite being stretched out over multiple episodes, the actual plot is incredibly simple, which is unsurprising considering it’s a plot lifted from a nearly 20-year-old book geared towards teenage boys. However, here are very few twists within the tale, even for those among the audience who may not have read the books and considering the streaming landscape possesses far more compelling mysteries and thrillers, such as Netflix’s The Stranger and Safe (good old Harlan Coben), Alex Rider could have done more to distinguish itself from these shows when, ultimately, its plot resolution is vaguely science fiction and not that elaborate.

The series also suffers from identity issues, and can be tonally dissonant at points. It seems stuck between whether or not it is aimed at teenagers, or the now-adult fans of the books, or to families. While there are many mature moments, there are also silly ones. A scene in which Alex decides to go on a deadly mission for the government is also one in which he is overly preoccupied with getting his friend’s phone back. Despite the advertisement and the overall tone as being “gritty”, there’s no real violence or scary moments that usually accompany such an assertion.

It is atmospheric, without question, and full of dramatic tension, but it certainly isn’t as realistic in that regard as more adult-geared thrillers, which perhaps it could be better aimed at. Despite the fact that they haven’t gone in this direction, they’ve still eliminated the more childish aspects like gadgets, so it does seem strange as to who exactly the show is trying to please, or whether it’s playing it safe to appeal to as many people as possible. The danger that this poses, however, is that by trying to please everybody it actually ends up fully satisfying very few. It’s a safe adaptation, and sometimes safe can make something feel forgettable. The tonal shifts between Alex’s teenage worries about school and then facing actual death feels jarring and out of place given the atmospheric and adult tone of the direction overall.

The most captivating part of Alex Rider has to be Otto Farrant. As Alex, he successfully carries the show and these awkward tonal shifts with seeming ease. There’s something incredibly believable about him as a teenager. While he commits himself wholly to the more physical aspects of the role, there’s also a sense of vulnerability to Alex that makes him seem much more real. He’s incredibly likeable and easy to root for, which is somewhat convenient, since he is, unsurprisingly, the propulsive force of the series and features in the vast majority of the scenes.

Ultimately, Alex Rider is wonderfully accomplished. It looks fantastic, and boasts marvellous acting talent. The tension is maintained throughout, and it will be safely enjoyed by most. There is very little, in fact, to ardently dislike: the worst that can be said of this series is that may play it a little too safe. By not gearing it far enough either towards a younger audience, or towards adults, it’s in great risk of not being incredible for anybody.

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