2006’s Stormbreaker, an adaptation of Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider novels, was the latest in a series of teen spy movies – why was it unsuccessful.?

On paper, everything about Stormbreaker (released as Operation Stormbreaker in the US) indicated it would be a huge success. A bestselling book series, an ensemble cast of huge Hollywood stars and a screenplay by author Anthony Horowitz himself. The film was released in 2006, a time when Harry Potter dominated the cultural zeitgeist (Hogwarts even getting a shoutout in the dialogue) and with six books in the series at the time the film was released, hopes were high for a blockbuster franchise.

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The teen spy genre was well trodden ground by this point, with the likes of Harriet The Spy, Agent Cody Banks, Spy Kids and the much underrated D.E.B.S released throughout the previous decade. However, these were all from America, and there really wasn’t any precedent for the genre in Britain (it would be another eight years before Matthew Vaughn launched his Kingsman franchise).

Horowitz was already a prolific scriptwriter for UK television with the likes of Foyle’s War, the terrific Crime Traveler and anthology show Murder In Mind, and his first feature film credit was an adaptation of his book The Diamond Brothers called Just Ask For Diamond, in 1988. He wouldn’t get another screenplay made until 2003, when he penned psychological horror The Gathering, starring Christina Ricci and Ioan Gruffudd.

Stormbreaker follows teenager Alex Rider as he is drawn into the world of espionage. After finding out his uncle actually worked for MI6 and was recently assassinated, Rider is blackmailed into picking up where he left off. After undergoing a torturous training regiment, he’s sent undercover to the base of billionaire Darius Sayle, who is planning to use his Stormbreaker computers to release a deadly toxin into the UK.

But before looking at what went wrong, it’s worth looking on the bright side, because the film gets an awful lot right. For starters, Alex Pettyfer, chosen from over five hundred hopefuls, and who turned down a role in Eragon to star in Stormbreaker, is ideally cast as young rapscallion turned teen superspy Alex Rider. Director Geoffrey Sax, perhaps best known for helming the 1996 Paul McGann Doctor Who film, makes sure things zip along at a frenetic pace, the film clocking in at a lean 90 minutes.

Cast around Pettyfer is an outstanding ensemble of talent, both homegrown and from further afield. Alicia Silverstone is hugely endearing as his guardian, Jack Starbright and Bill Nighy has great fun with the role of Alan Blunt, the icy head of MI6. Then there’s Stephen Fry as the jovial but brusque Smithers (this film’s answer to Q), while Sophie Okonedo and even Jimmy Carr appear in minor roles. The villains are Mickey Rourke as Sayle, Missi Pyle as accomplice Nadia Vole, and Andy Serkis in what was at the time a rare live action outing as the sinister Mr Grin, so named because of a facial scar caused by an accident at the circus.

The other point of great interest is that the martial arts sequences in the film were choreographed by future Ip Man star Donnie Yen. The first sequence sees Rider take on a gang of thugs in a junkyard, wielding a rope to keep them at bay. With just enough hard hitting violence to be permissible at a PG rating, it is Yen’s creativity in using the environment that makes these sequences stand out. However, these scenes also drew criticism from fans of the book series, where Rider is not nearly as skilled in hand to hand combat.

Alex Pettyfer in Stormbreaker

Adaptation is a delicate art, and finding the balance between staying loyal to the source material and making it entertaining for the viewing public can be very disparate things. The second sequence is more cartoonish, actually cutting between Silverstone and Pyle’s skirmish and a Tom and Jerry cartoon complete with sound effects, as they use everything from pots and pans to microwaves and even a blowfish.

Other deviations from the book include changing the name of the main villain from Herod to Darius and his nationality from Lebanese to American to accommodate the casting of Mickey Rourke. Rourke’s presence in the film is a strange one. Underplayed almost to the point of inertia, Rourke really isn’t given a lot to work with. The same can also be said for Pyle who, it has to be said, is almost pantomimic in her villainy. Likewise, Serkis is wasted in such a tiny role, given nothing of note to do.

This all feeds into what is arguably the main issue with the film – the tone. The book series was written for young adults, but the film had to appeal to a family audience. As a consequence, Horowitz had to include enough action to satiate older members of the audience whilst keeping it comedic and lightweight enough to involve younger viewers. The end result is a wildly uneven tone that ricochets from slapstick to melodrama then back to high octane chase sequences.

As with any film, although the pressure is inevitably higher with an adaption, even more so with a long running series, everything came down to the box office and this, sadly, was where the film fell short. Extremely so. Made on a budget of $40 million, it made a little over half in global box office returns, grossing just $23,937,870 worldwide. Horowitz penned a screenplay for the follow up, Point Blanc, on spec but as it became clear the box office takings were far lower than anticipated, the film fizzled out. Horowitz subsequently blamed The Weinstein Corporation for failing to market the film properly, particularly in America. In a 2007 interview with Reuters, Horowitz said that “Weinstein decided not to distribute it [in the United States]. 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.”

A more recent interview showed that his view of the film has softened a little over time, saying that“I was very happy with ‘Stormbreaker’ when it came out. But I had one issue with it. I’ve always been quite open about this — it wasn’t adult enough. I mean, the Alex in that one was a 14-15 year-old-boy and the levels of violence, threat and of danger, to me, for my money, could have been turned up a notch.”

It would take another 14 years for Horowitz’s creation to get another adaptation, this time for the small screen. Alex Rider premiered on Amazon’s Prime Video service in 2020 and was a huge success. Eschewing the plot of Stormbreaker entirely and starting instead with Point Blanc, much of the praise pointed to how loyal the series is to the books. The serialized storytelling of television enables much more intricate worldbuilding and character development, and plot elements from Stormbreaker were instead integrated into the first season.

With the second season released recently and 12 books in the series thus far, the popularity of Alex Rider shows no signs of abating, leaving Stormbreaker a curio in the canon of YA adaptations.

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