- Film & TV
- 18 Jun 20
Kenneth Branagh on adapting Eoin Colfer’s fantasy adventure Artemis Fowl: “We decided we would take the origin story model, and in my mind The Godfather!”
It’s been nearly twenty years since Eoin Colfer released Artemis Fowl, the fantasy novel that would become the first of the best-selling eight-book series following the misadventures of 12-year-old devil-may-care genius Artemis Fowl II, a descendant of a long line of criminal masterminds. Artemis’ unimaginable brainpower is only rivaled by his willingness to flout the rules, and while Colfer’s ability to combine humour, adventure and reimaginings of Irish folk tales proved an international hit.
Discussions of a film were almost immediate, but it’s taken nearly two decades for Kenneth Branagh to bring the film to the big screen – almost. Originally due to be released in cinemas last August before getting postponed, and then affected by the closure of cinemas due to Covid-19, Disney decided to release the $125 million film onto their new home streaming service, Disney+. Serving as a tester for how successful big budget movies can be when released on VOD – and no doubt giving parents of small children a welcome distraction this weekend – Artemis Fowl has taken on a new character arc: the beloved book series that became a cinematic experiment.
Irish student Ferdia Shaw plays Artemis, whose father (Colin Farrell) disappears. Trying to track him down, Artemis discovers that his father’s incredible the folk stories about the world of fairies, goblins, trolls and dwarves may have been true all along.
Uncovering an incredibly advanced, high-tech world of magic, Artemis decides to kidnap fairy Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), and hold her for ransom so he can find out what happened to his father. Holding her prisoner in Fowl Manor, Artemis finds himself in a perilous war of wits with the all-powerful fairies, led by Commander Root (Judi Dench), the shrewd, cagey chief of the fairy reconnaissance forces. To break into the Manor and rescue Holly, Root enlists the help of motormouth, oversized dwarf Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad); a seasoned criminal with a skill for getting into places he shouldn’t.
Will Artemis be able to use his brilliant mind to outsmart the most powerful, magical civilization in existence? Or will he forge some unexpected alliances?
For five-time Oscar nominated actor and director Kenneth Branagh, who recently directed Disney’s live action remake of Cinderella, he already knew that fans of Colfer’s books were dying for a film adaptation, and had his own personal focus group.
“I was introduced to ‘Artemis Fowl ‘by my nephews, Will and Sam, who were reading the books on holiday,” he recalls. Coincidentally, not long after, Branagh received a phone call. He explains, “When I got back maybe a week later, the Disney folks, who had been working on developing this story for some time, asked me what my take on it would be. My goal was simply to introduce Artemis and his family and bring a whole new cinema audience into a world that is very exciting, different and full of surprises. I think the backbone is a terrific, breathless, exhilarating adventure in just the way great movies might aspire to. There’s tremendous energy.”
Developing a much beloved book series into a film is always tricky, and Branagh felt that minor adjustments needed to be made to the stoic mastermind child prodigy in order to make him more relatable to new audiences. In thinking of the character arc, Branagh looked to another infamous cinematic criminal for inspiration.
“We wanted to introduce a new world of cinema goers – who perhaps didn’t read the books at all – to a character with whom they could initially identify, which is why we make our Artemis at the beginning of the film a little more ordinary; he’s going to school, he’s not just Little Lord Fauntleroy in a massive house and a privileged lifestyle, slowly moving towards that more cynical Artemis that begins Eoin Colfer’s book. We decided we would take the origin story model, and in my mind The Godfather!” he explains. “Michael Corleone is invited to take over the family business, he doesn’t know if he’ll be any good at killing people or running racketeering – that was our little arc for figuring out who was Artemis Fowl!”
Branagh also combined material from the first and second books into this film – but assures me that he had Eoin Colfer’s blessing from day one.
“I met Eoin and was lucky enough to talk with him about this project,” says Branagh. “He was very realistic in believing that – particularly for a first film - filmmakers were going to have to make some changes. It couldn’t just be a step-by-step recreation of the book. So he gave me a lot of encouragement to be imaginative. But he was also very pleased that I was Irish, and that we engaged the screenwriter Conor McPherson who is also Irish. And Conor’s work is often very poetic, very mysterious, he’s written a lot of ghost stories so he’s completely unafraid of the strange and unique. Like most Irish, we’ve kind of grown up listening to stories like this, and we’re encouraged to be storytellers. So Eoin’s invitation was to maintain a kind of freedom, to find that cinematic translation and be as bold as possible.”
For many people, Branagh’s evolution as a director could be surprising. Known for his love of adapting, directing and acting in Shakespeare, such as 1989’s Henry V, 1993’s Much Ado About Nothing, 1996’s Hamlet, Love Labour’s Lost in 2000 and As You Like It, released in 2006. But in the past decade, his direction has turned towards the most modern of cinematic trends: comic book films and Disney live-action remakes. After directing Marvel’s Thor in 2011, Branagh made the live-action Cinderella starring Lily James, largely regarded as the most successful of the Disney adaptations. But Branagh sees a very clear through-line between Shakespearian plays and modern audience’s love of fantasy and adventure films.
“I recently made a little film about Shakespeare, All Is True, and at the end of his life, Shakespeare was only writing fairy tales. The Tempest, A Winter’s Tale, Pericles, Cymbeline are all stories with magic, he solves the stories with magic. You could almost say he’s post-modern, post-cynical; he’s decided that human beings can’t provide happy endings but if you use magic in your storytelling, maybe you can. Maybe that points to something, to quote Don Quixote, ‘Maddest of all is to see the world not as it is, but as it could be.’ So maybe these fairytales let us see the world how it could be. And on these films, they give you the resources to do it on big canvasses.”
Though Branagh admits that when he began moving from theatre and play adaptations to modern films, he found the transition from adhering to an existing script to making more free adaptations a challenge.
“For me, a starting part that really comes from working in theatre, I grew up believing that your job was to serve the writer,” he says. “It took a long time for me to even refer to scripts as ‘material’. And that’s when I began to understand that for people in movies, a story was clay, it was stuff to be molded. And I’ve been in situations where I’ve had my first cut in, and studio executives have rolled their sleeves up and said ‘Okay, now we can start!’ Someone gave me a sculpting analogy once and said ‘When making a film, you literally have to make the block of stone first, so many studio executives then use the first cut as the block and start to chip away, to find the statue within.’ So my instinct with all films, and particularly Artemis Fowl, was to go to the book. And I wanted to speak to Eoin – these are bestselling book, so he must be doing something right! And then you find out where his work bumps up against cinema.”
Having worked on Thor, Branagh was also aware of the particular difficulties of working on an origin movies, and introducing audiences to a new world.
“This is a boy genius, Ireland, fairies – it’s a lot!” he laughs. “Sometimes it’s tough on a first movie, just to get people interested is a major phenomenon. I remember when we did Thor, it was a major win that it wasn’t trash! A surfer dude riding on rainbow bridges in space wasn’t laughed out of cinema? But then in the second, third, soon to be fourth movies, there’s a chance to play with people’s expectations. But you have to start at the source, and start simple.”
Shakespeare, comic book movies and adaptations of beloved animated films and book series are all genres that come with an in-built accompaniment of very passionate – and often very critical – fans. The more toxic aspect of fandom is increasingly coming under close scrutiny, as a subsection of Star Wars fans were so racist and misogynistic towards The Last Jedi star Kelly Marie Tran that she left social media. Similarly, a toxic strand of fandom followed Marvel’s first female-led superhero adventure, as a deliberate campaign against feminist actress Brie Larson say the film’s ‘Want to See’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes drop to 47%, making it the lowest-scoring film in MCU history. Except, the film wasn’t due for release for nine months. Of course, there are also fans who deeply love the material and want to support it, but as always, criticism can often drown out enthusiasm.
What is Branagh’s experience with fandom across the genres, and has that changed with the increase of fan communities online?
“I think the basic thing is you have to respect people, and be grateful to people who are enthusiastic about the stories you’re working on. I find I’m always interested in talking with people who, in this case, like the books and want to talk about the characters. What I find is that I resist it when it gets to proprietorial. I respect it, but I just don’t want to develop ‘shoulds’ or ‘musts’ about art or entertainment. I do enjoy a bit of back-and-forth, it’s amazing when you talk with people who really know their stuff, and enjoy discussing the material in-depth. But when it gets crazy negative, or there’s a sense of ‘I like black, this one’s white’, etc, that sense of ownership, I detach and say ‘May your God go with you, thank you very much, and you must watch another film if you don’t like this one, thank you for your interest.’”
My conversation with Branagh takes place over Zoom, highlighting the inescapable, ever-present impact of Covid-19, which influenced Disney’s decision to release Artemis Fowl onto Disney+. Does he believe that Covid-19 and how we’ve been consuming media over the past few months will have a lasting effect on cinemas and our approach to seeing films in theatres?
“It’s significantly changing it right now,” he notes somberly, “so it really depends on whether people want to rush back to see movies in a theatre when bans are lifted, or whether people have decided that they quite like home entrainment of this kind. I personally want to get back to the movies. But I don’t know widespread that will be. If there’s risk involved, of course people will be cautious. But things will change. And the new normal won’t be as abnormal as people fear, would be my guess.”
How is Branagh currently filling his time, without being on film sets on in theatres?
“Yeah, my mother always said I could never sit still, so it’s been difficult!” Branagh says. “Like many people, I’ve been exercising a lot, doing a lot of yoga, and I have the most walked dog on the planet.”
- Artemis Fowl is available to watch on Disney+ now.
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