Why Kenneth Branagh Drastically Changed 'Artemis Fowl' On The Way To The Big Screen

On the set of Artemis Fowl in London, Kenneth Branagh paces a cramped old English study, filled to the brim with funky baubles and trinkets. He's in the midst of directing Disney's long-awaited adaptation of Eoin Colfer's fantasy novel, the first in a series of eight books that were devoured by thousands of young readers growing up in the early 2000s. I was one of those fans — my old paperback copies of the Artemis Fowl books are still tattered from the intense speed with which I tore through them. They're no Harry Potter knock-offs like many reviewers at the time had brushed them off as, but could maybe be labeled as an urban fantasy series for the cool, alternative kids who thought Harry was too vanilla.

So I was eager to talk to Branagh about his upcoming feature adaptation of Artemis Fowl, which is set to hit theaters on August 9, 2019. Based on the first 2001 entry in Colfer's Artemis Fowl series, the story follows a 12-year-old boy genius and aspiring criminal mastermind named Artemis II who kidnaps a fairy to find his missing father.

Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl has all the hallmarks of the fantasy genre: a spunky protagonist, a dire rescue mission, fairies, gold, and a sinister, yet sympathetic villain. Except in the book, the titular Artemis Fowl is the villain. The Irish novelist cleverly reversed what we expect in a child fantasy novel: Here, the spunky protagonist is a hotshot fairy cop named Holly Short, while the "villain" is an Irish 12-year-old boy genius who kidnaps her for gold. The books are rife with puns and witty wordplay, and the story is — honestly — a bit weird. So what about Artemis Fowl drew Branagh, who has helmed more conventional fantasy films like Thor and Cinderella to direct the Disney adaptation?

"The imagination," Branagh told a press group on the set of Artemis Fowl in April. "It felt very original. I loved [Artemis'] Irishness... and the sort of — the collision sometimes, but the proximity of worlds. And I like that creatively, it always feels like it's a good, risky place to be."

Artemis Fowl, The Comedy?

Branagh may be best known for his erudite Shakespeare adaptations and straightforward adaptations like Murder on the Orient Express,  but he's no stranger to blending modern fantasy with humor. The 57-year-old British filmmaker famously broke out of his niche with 2011's Thor, a comic book movie that blended Branagh's Shakespearan sensibilities with Marvel's signature tongue-in-cheek levity. He compares the process of making Artemis Fowl to the marriage of tones that he pulled off with Thor.

"I had some experience with it making the film of Thor, where it had a very contemporary feeling, still heightened, world of science is right next door to a world of magic. And so the way those things interrelate has always been very fascinating to me because it means you can be poetic, it means you can be — have a size that does invite an audience to see it on the big screen, to see it with other people, because somehow the subject matter expands away from the norms. And the combination of tones, not just the worlds and the looks and the textures, or the different kinds of visual techniques you might use, but just tonally, very funny — often very, very funny — and as I always find myself drawn to, you know, a sort of balance between that and an emotional content, which we've chosen to really try to emphasize."

Artemis Fowl, the comedy? Fans of the notorious villain-turned-antihero may hiss at that depiction, but hey, this is a story that features a no-nonsense fairy cop, a tinfoil-wearing centaur techie, and a dwarf whose farts could level buildings. Colfer definitely has a sense of humor. But an important facet of the books is the redemption of the titular Artemis Fowl, who begins the series as basically an outright villain, harboring little — if any — scruples about kidnapping and ransoming a fairy, though he does love his family above all else. Over the course of the series he learns to loosen up and even heroically save the day. But Branagh revealed that this wouldn't be the case for the Artemis played by newcomer Ferdia Shaw.

A More Sympathetic Artemis Fowl

"[Artemis] may be, if not sympathetic, recognizable," Branagh said. "A little bit more one of us."Branagh's Artemis Fowl won't be the case of a villain becoming a hero, but of a hero's "origin story." And Branagh notes that while in the first book, Artemis is "a bit more disposed to be villainous...the idea of master criminality being sort of a cool thing" is something that that he has to depict responsibly in the Disney film. This Artemis Fowl is a normal kid who wears hoodies and goes to a public school.  He lives in a "beautiful, crazy, bonkers house" that is spilling over with gadgets and gizmos accumulated by Fowls over the centuries — Fowls who have all been fascinated with the "world of magic and the cosmos and astronomy." Growing up in an environment like this, it's no wonder that Artemis develops a fascination with fairy tales — one that aids him in his quest to find his missing father.

Artemis Senior's shadow looms large over Artemis II in Artemis Fowl. At the start of the story, he's been missing a year and declared legally dead. But his mysterious disappearance in the arctic tundra only drives Artemis to dive deeper into the Fowl Empire's criminal enterprises at risk of his own moral sanctity — a conflict that Branagh compares to Michael Corleone's descent in The Godfather.

A story that — please don't take this too literally — but a story's shape that I found interesting, I always look at the masters, the classics, is The Godfather. At the beginning of the first film, although they are part of a family that's known to be in business, [Michael Corleone] is somebody who has been in the services, who's not entirely certain about what dad does. And I think Artemis has [that same dilemma], but by the end of the picture he has to face up to: 'Well, should I do some of this as well? Do I believe in it? Am I behind it?' Here we're in a world that offers up a different kind of fun and enjoyment, and I hope adventure and pace, as well. ..."

That's a heavy burden to lay on the shoulders of a newcomer actor. But Shaw beat out over 1,200 young actors who auctioned for the role — and it's not just because he is Irish, an essential part of Artemis' identity in the books. It certainly helped Shaw settle into the role and develop a rapport with his co-star Lara McDonnell, the young Irish actress who won the part of Holly Short. "In his case he comes from Kilkenny and Laura McDonnell, who plays Holly Short, who's part of the fairy world that appears to be underneath Ireland...also happens to be Irish," Branagh said. "And I think that helped locate something quite distinct in the tone of the movie. We hear the accent so much, that it feels as if we just really are in another place."

Why The Main Cast is Younger

Holly Short is the other major figure who sees a drastic change from her characterization in the books. Depicted as a short, adult woman in Colfer's books who in fairy years is nearing the age of 80, McDonnell's version is a 50-year-old young adult fairy who looks like a preteen. But while Holly is aged down only in appearance, the sister of Artemis' bodyguard Butler (Nonso Anozie) has been aged down from the rebellious teenager of the books to Artemis' age range, played by actress Tamara Smart. Branagh explained these big changes from the book to the big screen made it feel "as if Artemis was less isolated and that we could have some fun with that particular age group."

"There was a kind of youthful quality across these stories that I thought would just be really emphasized and perhaps enjoyable in a way that maybe people of the same age might relate to if there was that sort of collegiate quality — the camaraderie. And where maybe the idea of older sister or sort of teaching figure, Holly to Artemis, was differently sort of calibrated. Holly is by no means, it seems, character-wise, a Tinkerbell, you know, she's not a small and miniature character. She's very spirited woman, although she's very...of course [Eoin Colfer] plays beautifully with human characteristics in his own made up fairy characteristics. But, an idea we might see, we're only really going into the idea of making one film because the public will tell us if they want to see anything else — that if it works, they can sort of grow up together."

But one of the biggest major changes is one that even hardcore fans of Artemis Fowl could probably be on board with: the casting of Dame Judi Dench as the previously male Commander Root. Nicknamed for the beetroot color his face turns when he's cross, Commander Root was the hardnosed police chief that every cop drama needs — except, you know, it's fairies. And in a fantastic bit of gender-bending, Dench was cast in the part, though her casting could drastically change the dynamic between Root and Holly Short, who in the books was renowned (and patronized) for being the first female LEPrecon officer. But Branagh promises that beloved dynamic between the two of them won't be altered that much.

"I think, you can imagine, with Judi Dench, we have a powerful, female mentor discussing other ways in which Holly is an advancement and her particular position in the LEPRecon can be distinct and powerful and effective, has a different kind of spin. So, I'd say we retain a very strong interest in Holly's independence and also the isolation that the story puts her under pressure with legends about so-called possible father, so we don't make life any simpler for her in terms of progress. There are plenty of obstacles — systemic and sometimes male — that get in her way, and that extends to some extent the character of commander Root as well. So, we try to inject with lightness and fun a bit of realpolitik into that."

Though Artemis is the title character, Artemis Fowl is as much about Holly as it is about him. So it's natural that her story and her struggle against the system and the patriarchy will factor greatly into the essence of the film, and how it fits in today's society. "I think the world will get reflected, I think you'll find, in the way she goes through the story," Branagh said.

Artemis Fowl is set to hit theaters on August 9, 2019.