During my teens, I was obsessed with an English super spy.
Not that one — although the aesthetics of Amazon Studios and IMDbTV’s Alex Rider do invoke a certain Double O from time to time. No, I was thoroughly engrossed by the adventures of Alex Rider, the hero of 13 young adult books (and counting) by Anthony Horowitz. Nearly 20 years after the debut novel, Horowitz’s series has been revived for the screen and a whole new generation.
Alex Rider functions almost as a superhero origin story. After a suspicious accident kills his uncle Ian (Andrew Buchan), Alex (Otto Farrant) investigates and learns that Ian Rider was a spy working for MI6. His last lead was Point Blanc, a remote institution for troubled teens, and MI6’s Alan Blunt (Stephen Dillane, formerly the lobster known as Stannis Baratheon) and Mrs. Jones (Vicky McClure) rope Alex into going undercover to learn more. Horowitz is one of five executive producers, with Andreas Porchaska and Christopher Smith directing all eight episodes.
The season neatly stitches together the inciting events of Stormbreaker (book one) and Point Blanc (book two). The former was actually adapted into a 2006 film which Horowitz famously hated (I own the DVD); though it mostly followed the novel’s narrative, the tone often slid into goofy humor instead of the sinister and life-threatening situations Alex finds himself in.
And that’s what Alex Rider gets right by a long shot.
Each mission leaves Alex physically and emotionally scarred, and the series (which has been picked up for a second season) shows no sign of shying away from that. MI6 are not good people, and the way they manipulate Alex is meant to cause discomfort.
That gravity is clearly what got Farrant the role and he nails it. He manages to nail Alex’s courage, cheek, and curiosity, and to create a lasting impression of this orphaned child’s grief when he tragically loses his father figure. In addition to Alex Rider, Farrant creates Alex Friend, an invented billionaire bad boy under whose persona Alex infiltrates Point Blanc. For most of the series’ second half, he’s darting between those roles and never misses a beat.
Alex (Otto Farrante) accepts a mission from Mrs.
Image: Des Willie / Eleventh Hour Films / Sony Pictures Television
If the series feels slow — and it will at multiple points — I urge you to stick with it. By now we’ve seen countless cases for and against the eight-episode book-to-screen adaptation, but Alex Rider fills the gaps with more about Ian’s past, his mysterious assassin, and a meatier role for Alex’s best friend Tom (Brenock O’Connor — if you find yourself inexplicably hating him at first, it’s because that’s Olly from Game of Thrones). It feels less like a novel adaptation than an original spy series with a new adventure each episode.
From the outset Alex ends up in near-constant peril, in truly adrenaline-pumping situations with dark twists at every turn. These twists might be less shocking to someone not reading them in eighth grade, but they’re tried and true spy movie moments that satisfy even when they don’t surprise. It helps that they’re set to a rip-roaring rock soundtrack and filmed alternately as action drama and horror movie. What previous adaptations did not understand was that Alex Rider contains multitudes — here, he lives his double life to the fullest.
Alex Rider is now streaming on IMDbTV, available through Amazon Prime with ads.