'Alex Rider' Boss on Bringing the Sprawling Espionage Saga to "Rip-Roaring" Life

'Alex Rider'
Courtesy of IMDb TV

[This story contains spoilers for the first episode of IMDb TV's Alex Rider, and light spoilers for other episodes in season one.]

Sure, James Bond knows his way through a high-flying adventure, but has the legendary spy ever escaped a treacherous mountain using an ironing board as a snowboard?

(If he has, don't tell me; clearly, I haven't seen that one yet.)

In any case, enter the iron-boarder himself: Alex Rider, the budding espionage operative at the heart of … well, Alex Rider, the first original series from Amazon's IMDb TV, based on Anthony Horowitz's novel series of the same name.

Bowing Nov. 13 with the entire first eight-episode season immediately available on the free TV streaming service, Alex Rider takes its cues from Point Blanc, the second book in Horowitz's saga (clocking in at thirteen novels and counting), in which titular teenager Alex (Otto Farrant) learns his beloved uncle is a secret spy; it's not long before Alex himself is sucked into the family business, putting him at odds with deadly enemies and tossing him into life-threatening circumstances. (See again: the aforementioned iron-snowboarding adventure.) Adapted as a feature film in 2006 starring Alex Pettyfer, the newest take on Alex Rider comes from showrunner Guy Burt, a novelist himself; as such, he knows all too well the perils of the adaptation process.

Ahead, The Hollywood Reporter speaks with Burt about bringing a much loved property to life for television, plans for the show beyond the first season (Alex Rider has already been renewed for a second season), and much more.

In Alex Rider, you're bringing a known brand to life. What were the fundamental points from the novels you felt you needed to capture for the adaptation, versus areas you felt you needed to take it for your own ride?

I mean, the books are fantastic on plot. They have these rip-roaring stories that motor along. So a lot of the heavy lifting was done for me there. And that's always a nice thing to come into when you read the stories and you're gripped and excited by them. So I think that in adapting it, I had a couple of tasks to take on. One was to bring the stories up to date because, of course, the first books in the series were written about 20 years ago now and I think being a teenager then was quite different.

The second thing was to dig a lot deeper into the characters. To enjoy and explore Tom (Brennock O'Connor), Alex's best mate, who's not really in the novel very much, but is a big part of the screen journey, as well as Alex's relationship with Jack (Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo), which is a kind of cornerstone of who he is. I wanted to make sure that we were emotionally connected to this guy, that he's not just having adventures. He is somebody who is reluctantly thrown into a world that really should have no place in his life, but there he is, in at the deep end. I wanted to make sure Alex's life was genuine in that respect.

You're telling a story about a teenage spy, but you're also telling it through a genre with some darker story beats. How challenging was it to find the right tone?

For me, in any project, the question of tone is pretty much the first one I want to answer. I can't get my head around a project until I know, is it a comedy? Is it a drama? If it's a drama, is it a character drama or is it all about the plot? Where's its heart beating? And what was interesting here is that obviously we have very exciting stories and they get quite big. They get quite high concept because the bad guys in this really mean business. They have horrible, global ambitions rather like we see in the world today.

But I think that the important thing is that the tone is, as much as we can make it, one of reality. It's rooted, through Alex, into an ordinary adolescent upbringing, ordinary background. He has no idea that his uncle is a spy. No idea at all, until it all suddenly comes crashing down because the car crash that kills his uncle isn't real, and that revelation right off the bat changes everything because then Alex is left thinking, "Was anything that I've been told genuine?" And just at the point where he really needs to go and have a big talk with his uncle, he can't because the guy is gone. So that's a very tough spot to be in.

One of the things that I wanted to do tonally was to ease this away from the atmosphere of the books, which can be lighter. For example, in the books, there are gadgets which Alex gets given by Smithers (Nyasha Hatendi) who is a bit like Q in the James Bond stories. And I felt strongly that the gadgets were not the right way to go. That all the sort of tools Alex needs are in his head. They're the skills that have been built in by every foreign language course, every outward bound mission with his uncle to the hills has had an ulterior motive, and that ulterior motive is training him to be a spy.

How did you land on Otto as the right actor for this role?

It was a really important decision, obviously, and what was interesting is that the more we looked at people, the more it became clear that we needed to cast not just Alex, but the kind of trio of Alex, Tom and Jack. So, getting Brenock and Ronke right as well was vital. And there's an audition reel where those three actors are just shooting the breeze. They're playing off a scene where Tom brings pizza around and it's just a nothing little scene, but the chemistry between them is so spot on, you totally buy that Brenock is Otto's best mate, you totally buy that Jack is kind of an older sister, but also trying to do her best to look out for him as a sort of surrogate guardian. It's brilliantly warm. And I think the moment we saw that, the execs thought, "Yeah, we've got it. We've nailed it."

And Otto is particularly important, of course. But what I love about him is that he brings a vulnerability to that role. He's got the action chops. He can do the running and jumping and punching and kicking stuff. But he's also awkward around the girl he fancies, he's not exactly on top of things at school. There are a little cracks in his life and he's really credible. He brings an emotional credibility to it that nails it for me.

The series starts small before becoming rather sprawling with the Point Blanc storyline …

It looks brilliant. All kudos to Christopher Smith, who directed the second block, which is mainly the Point Blanc stuff, and Andreas Prochaska who did the first block, which is setting up Alex and all of that. They did incredibly well getting the thing to look cinematic, getting it to look very much larger budget than we were actually working with. And Chris, in particular, for block two, was achieving this incredibly eerie, weird, weird school in the middle of nowhere in this kind of brutalist cold war establishment. And he just manages to make everything look and feel really, really freakily strange.

All of that stuff is fantastic, [especially when] it goes into action because Alex has to escape. He has to snowboard down the mountain, but there aren't any snowboards, so he has to repurpose an ironing board and go down on that. And that's... I mean, that was a sequence in the books where we said, "No matter what else, we've got to be able to shoot the ironing board down the mountain, because without that we haven't got our story." So that's in there and it just looks fantastic. I was really, really pleased.

I've worked on shows which have had more or less unlimited budgets and I could just say what I wanted and there it was on the screen, and I've worked on shows where we were counting the pennies to a ridiculous level. And this is in the middle. I can't just write anything and have it happen. I have to be conscious of achieving it. But the way that the cast and crew managed to achieve things and make me look good, really, is wonderful.

As a novelist yourself, what are some of challenges of adapting a beloved source material into a different medium?

It's really hard being a novelist and then adapting somebody else's work in that you know you've got to change it, you can't just put the pages onto the screen. It doesn't work that way. And at the same time you know, from your own experience, that that can be difficult and painful to watch happen. The good thing was that Anthony, as well as being a novelist, is a very accomplished screenwriter so he knows this, too. He was also really, really supportive, right from the get-go with the project. He said, "Change what you want to do, pull characters out, put characters in, do what you need to do to make it your own." So he was both very open to allowing it to shift, and also he was very available. So, whenever I had written myself into a corner and needed help, he was right there at the end of the phone or email or in the room, and I was able to pick his brains. We were able to work together on some of it. It was very collaborative and very positive, I think, as an experience. And I think he's come out of it happy that it's done justice to the spirit of the books, which is what you have to go for. You can't literally get it, but you can do the spirit justice.

This first season leans heavily on the second book in the series. As Alex Rider moves forward for season two, do you have your eye on other books to adapt? How much do you have an eye on the future of the series?

I think I read nine of the books before I set about on season one. So I had a really clear sense of Alex's arc across most of the series. And since then, Anthony has been filling me in on the remaining books and also indeed on what he has been writing since then. So I've been ahead of the readership in this respect. I know what's coming. It's been really useful. And so I was conscious all along, even in my head of, "Okay, now I know what I'd like to do in season three, so let's start building something towards that in season one that we can then pick up in season two, and we can try and push it into specific directions. It's great, because we're not thinking on our feet. We have a road map that makes sense.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.