Over the past 10 years or so the Harry Potter series has rightfully dominated children’s literature and been a force in UK bookshops. However it’s unofficial competitor (no, not Charlie Bone) has gone shamefully overlooked, likely because his first outing on the silver screen fucking sucked.
He might be a schoolboy and he might perform miracles, but he’s no wizard and you won’t find him going off to some magical fantasy world; just cold harsh reality.
Can we please give some love to Alex Rider, the most badass teenaged spy this side of the Atlantic!
Alex’s series lasted from 2001-2011 with a spin-off/prequel novel being published in 2013, adding up to a total of 10 books.
The series was basically the result of mixing Ian Flemings James Bond novels with the MGM 007 films, but taking a somewhat more realistic, less racist, less sexist approach to the subject matter and writing it for young adults; oh and making the protagonist 14 years old.
Alex Rider wasn’t a bratty kid or a Mary sue and he was certainly not just a junior James Bond. The books present a relatively grounded and realistic look into how this kid could acquire and apply the skills of being a spy and what the real life impact upon him would be in that line of work. The realism goes right down to the fact that really he has no desire to do the jobs he’s given and how the Government royally screws over this kid. Like Harry Potter though it does (to a lesser extent) use the obviously unusual circumstances to reflect the usual growing pains of a teenager; although since Alex only ages one year across the series it can’t be explored as much as in Harry Potter. Alex has his moments where he experiences romance for the first time and also goes through teenaged rebellion. Except in his case teenaged rebellion equals joining terrorists, but that’s beside the point.
The characters from the novels are very much ripped from Fleming and you’d recognise them even if you’re only familiar with the Bond movies. He has his version of Q, he has his versions of M, he has his own ‘Bond girl’ and he has his own Bond villains, who’d be as home in an actual old school Bond movie (read: pre-Casino Royale) as they are in Alex Rider. Whilst the archetypes might be recognisable they are far from rip-offs and do have their own unique spin. Instead of just having M (who before Golden Eye was a guy and from then until now was a woman) Alex has both a man and a woman handing out his missions. Instead of Q Alex has Smithers who is even more gadget heavy than Q and a lot more jovial and friendly; really he’s more of a mate than Q was to Bond. Instead of multiple Bond girls Alex has just one love interest who (whilst she doesn’t get a ton of development) does have the edge on most Bond girls since she actually sticks around long enough to matter and her friendship with Alex is an emotional touchstone of the series, given how he scarcely has any friends. She does though have her very own classic Bond girl name pun. Whilst it’s not as lewd as ‘Miss Pussygalore’, ‘Xenia Onatopp’ or ‘Honey Ryder’ (let alone ‘Felicity Shagwell’) I can’t help but feel ‘Sabina Pleasure’ (get it, “It’s been a pleasure”) would’ve been one heckuva Bond girl name.
Then you’ve got the villains. Oh me oh my. We have a former circus knife juggler who gave himself a Glasgow smile, we’ve got a doctor who conducts experiments into the nature of pain, we have an evil pop singer, an eco-terrorist with the tattoo of the globe, and then we have Scorpia. Think S.P.E.C.T.R.E./S.M.E.R.S.H./Quantum with a scorpion motif and run by a cougar. Finally there was Yassen Gregorovich. He only showed up in 2 novels but he’s presence in the series warranted he get his own prequel novel showing a parallel life to Alex’s as we see his transformation into an assassin.
Overall in the series there simply wasn’t a lame duck of any of the 10 books, each one being solid as a rock.
The film version of the first book (Stormbreaker) however…sucked. Yes, Alex Rider was a young adult novel series about a 14 year old but it wasn’t intended to have the same tone or intelligence as a movie for 14 year olds. The novel watered down the material something terrible, stuck in a lot of unnecessary (and often juvenile) humour, changed elements too drastically (like bringing in Sabina way too early), made the first movie way too big considering sequels were intended, made the main character waaaaaay too cocky and self-assured (which I don’t blame the actor for), sucked the humanity out of a lot of the characters (or introduced some to characters who shouldn’t have had much) and crammed far too many big names into the movie, relying upon the star power to sell the film. It was very much a film deliberately designed to follow in the wake of Harry Potter’s success, attempting to apply a formula and force something.
The film needed to basically be a PG-13 James Bond movie where the protagonist didn’t use a gun and there was less sex involved. The danger and violence of Bond (particularly the Craig incarnation, which admittedly hadn’t been released when the movie was made) needed to be there though, that was integral. The Alex Rider series when you tell someone the premise out loud might SOUND silly, but when you read the books it’s very much got a gritty edge to it. The fact that there are gadgets dressed up as teenaged paraphernalia (I believe in the first book he has zit-cream which can melt through metal) might seem ridiculous and childish, but when he’s using it to save his life from very real danger it then becomes a merely superficial detail and you’re on the edge of your seat, hoping that zit-cream will save his ass. Also like the Craig Bond (or even Jason Bourne) Alex Rider needed to be tough and stoic but with a tiny bit of snark. The movie presented him as basically a cocky, pretty boy Mary sue. He shouldn’t be invincible, he should get injured and it should really, really hurt. More than this though he’s got a heart, something the film Bond (exempting Craig) rarely had. He keenly feels the injustices of the world and wants to help out, he wants to get his own back on people who screwed him over but he is still a kid and still has a moral compass, thus he has a lot of reservations when it comes to killing. He needed to be a person, but the movie presented him as more or less a suit the actor was putting on to just play a role. The character never came to life.
Nevertheless I do still feel Alex Rider would make an absolutely brilliant film series or even TV show. Obviously each book would comprise a season or two but it can be done. The problem which crops up is that because it’s a young adult novel and stars a 14 year old many people have and will sort of target it at younger audiences when the source material doesn’t warrant that. It’s like the subject matter for a young adult novel is one thing, it has a certain tone and darkness to it, but a young adult film or TV show requires it to be lighter and less serious. And I know the marketing guys think of the series in this way because the movie was a 12/PG not a 15 or PG-13 which it needed to be, and when they made an audio version of the books for radio they popped it in the kids block where it didn’t belong.
I don’t know how they’d work out the practicalities of a movie series or TV series but I just know that Alex Rider DESERVES a second chance in live action.
So, big up AR.