British teen spy Alex Rider returns to screens this week with the first season of an Amazon Prime series based on the beloved novels by Anthony Horowitz.
But this is not the first time that Horowitz’s series has been earmarked for a blockbuster adaptation. Way back in 2006, filmmaker Geoffrey Sax helmed Stormbreaker — known by the franchise-friendly moniker Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker in the USA — based on a screenplay penned by Horowitz, adapting his own first novel.
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Everything was in place for this to become a franchise. They’d plucked a young star from the ether in Alex Pettyfer, who had turned down another potentially big YA role in Eragon. The supporting cast, too, was mouth-watering, with Bill Nighy as spymaster Alan Blunt, Alicia Silverstone as Alex’s guardian Jack Starbright and, notably, Mickey Rourke as tech villain Darrius Sayle.
Confident of the potential for a big screen franchise, Horowitz had even penned an early draft of a script for Point Blanc — the second novel in the series. It is that novel’s story that forms the basis of the new Amazon TV series.
So what went wrong? And was it Harvey Weinstein’s fault?
The philosophical principle of Occam's Razor suggests that the simplest solution to a problem is usually the correct one. Applying that to Stormbreaker, it seems that the most likely reason for failure is that the movie wasn’t very good. It currently has a dismal 35% approval score from critics on Rotten Tomatoes and, at the time, critical discussion of the film’s lack of originality came hand in hand with die-hard fans upset at the multiple changes from the book.
Timing also hurt Stormbreaker, with numerous children’s book franchises failing to launch on the big screen in the wake of the continued success of the Harry Potter juggernaut, but before the new boom presented by the likes of Twilight and The Hunger Games. The likes of the aforementioned Eragon, The Golden Compass and Inkheart all flopped at around the same time as Stormbreaker.
Slightly earlier, in 2004, A Series of Unfortunate Events also struggled at the box office. That one was ultimately rescued as an acclaimed Netflix TV series, which perhaps bodes well for this take on the world of Alex Rider.
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As with so many of those blockbuster franchises, the American box office — shepherded by distributors The Weinstein Company — was inevitably going to be crucial to securing the future of Alex Rider at the multiplex. The casting of Rourke, in particular, seemed to be geared towards amping up the Hollywood credentials of the story as, in the book, the character is a short, Lebanese man called Herod, rather than the six-foot tall American named Darrius played by Rourke.
When it came time for the American release, however, The Weinstein Company seemed to get cold feet. Despite a premiere aboard the aircraft carrier Intrepid in New York City, the Weinsteins only released the movie on 221 screens in the autumn of 2006. For perspective, most major blockbusters are put on at least 2,000 screens in America today. Stormbreaker only made $678,000 (£541,000) during its US theatrical run, contributing to a pretty grim worldwide haul of just $24m (£19m).
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In a 2007 interview with Reuters — a year after Stormbreaker whimpered across American cinema screens — Horowitz blamed Weinstein’s release strategy for the film’s struggles. “Harvey Weinstein decided not to distribute it [in the United States],” he said. “It is one of the most bizarre and annoying things that the film didn’t get given its shot in America. To this day I don’t know why.” In the same interview, Horowitz acknowledged that the chances were “fairly slim” that Point Blanc would ever get made.
Horowitz was right, in a fashion. Point Blanc never made its way to cinemas, but it is now the heart of Amazon’s Alex Rider series — an eight-part adaptation of the book, set at a secretive Alpine academy. The author is not involved in the script process this time around, with BAFTA Children’s Award winner Guy Burt on writing duties. Early reviews are good and, teasingly, Horowitz has said the series could “run and run”. Second time lucky?
Alex Rider is available on Amazon Prime Video now.