Why 'Artemis Fowl' Director Kenneth Branagh Made So Many Major Changes To The Book [Interview]

In the aftermath of the global phenomenon that was Harry Potter, Hollywood released a string of children's fantasy knock-offs eagerly trying to fill the hole it left. But as we cycled through the Eragons, and the Golden Compasses, there was one fantasy series waiting in the wings that might have been the cheeky alternative to the boy wizard that we needed: Artemis Fowl.

The film version finally arrives on Disney+ this summer and we spoke to director Kenneth Branagh about, well, why he changed the source material so much.

Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl was published in 2001, right at the height of Potter-mania, and developed a loyal following of its own, with young readers flocking to the story of a 12-year-old criminal mastermind who was more conniving villain than fantasy hero. Artemis Fowl would never reach the heights of Harry Potter's global success, but it was funny, tongue-in-cheek, hip — perhaps just the kind of antidote to J.K. Rowling's earnest adventures that audiences would have enjoyed. But trouble plagued Artemis Fowl's road to the big screen. Miramax picked up the film rights quickly after the book was published, but the project languished in development hell for nearly a decade, with a series of directors cycling through it and Colfer's screenplay going through draft after draft. It wasn't until 2013 that Disney swooped in to make an adaptation, with Cinderella director Kenneth Branaghsigning on to direct two years later. But it wasn't all smooth sailing from there either, as the involvement of the Weinstein Company, and the subsequent exposé of Harvey Weinstein, would trouble the production once again.

Now, nearly two decades after Artemis Fowl was first announced to be adapted into a feature film, Branagh's Artemis Fowl is coming to our small screens. But did movie miss its shot to become the next franchise to vie for that coveted Harry Potter crown? Are we just too cynical, too jaded for yet another boy prodigy? Branagh doesn't think so.

"It felt as though Eoin had created Artemis in a space that belonged entirely to him," Branagh told me in an Zoom interview ahead of the Disney+ debut of Artemis Fowl. "There was more lunacy running through Artemis Fowl, more people howling at the moon as it were."

But audiences may not be ready for that lunacy just yet. The story was a "tough nut to crack," Branagh admitted, adding that as the latest in a long line of people attempting to adapt the story, Colfer had given him surprising freedom. So Branagh made significant changes to Artemis Fowl, tweaking the title character's "Bond villain" template into something a little more sympathetic and accessible — putting Artemis (newcomer Ferdia Shaw) in a regular school, making him wear regular clothes, giving him a normal, healthy relationship with his father, Artemis Senior (Colin Farrell). Artemis Fowl is, for all intents and purposes, a normal kid who is thrust into fantastical circumstances. Like every other fantasy protagonist.

"I was less interested in presenting the story from the get-go, of a character who was marooned in a privileged life. I wanted us to find the humanity inside the character," Branagh said, before explaining that his Artemis Fowl will be an origin story for the would-be villain in a "story arc that resembles something like the Michael Corleone in The Godfather."

Branagh explains more of why he changed Artemis Fowl so much from its source material and why Colfer was on board with those changes in our interview, edited for clarity, below.


Were you familiar with Eoin Colfer's books before you signed on to direct Artemis Fowl?

Just before, actually. I'd been on a holiday with my extended family and my 11-year-old and 9-year-old nephews were reading the book on this ski holiday and said, "You've got to make this as your next film." I laughed that off but I did read the book and I enjoyed it enormously, and literally a couple weeks later, Sean Bailey's president of [production at] Disney rang. We were working together on Cinderella, which was in post production, and he said, "Would you be interested in developing it?" I said, absolutely. So we sat down and had the first conversation, and I was so glad to have come to it sort of naturally — it wasn't with the idea of making a film, it was with just an enthusiastic, joyous reaction to the book itself via the analysis of its target audience: my 11 and 9-year-old nephews.

Having starred in another major children's fantasy series before, were you wary of comparisons to Harry Potter heading into Artemis Fowl?

Literally anybody in this territory, and with Eoin's great success with the books, cannot but be compared with perhaps the greatest landmark in in modern children's literature that will be unsurpassed, which is J.K. Rowling's great work of genius. [Artemis Fowl] was sufficiently different. It was in a way it was cheekier. Artemis Fowl is a more proactive protagonist, less passive than say, Harry, at least at the beginning of the story. The world itself a little less Gothic, and the Irish part of it is differently kind of anarchic. So it felt as though there was more lunacy running through Artemis Fowl, more people howling at the moon as it were. Yes comparisons — we should be so lucky by the way — comparisons must be inevitable just because of the dominance of Harry Potter as a young person's series of books. But it felt as though Eoin had created Artemis in a space that belonged entirely to him.

I was a major fan of Artemis Fowl growing up, so I have to ask about the major changes you made while adapting the film. The biggest having to do with the characterization of Artemis, who is more of a traditional hero and less the redemptive villain/anti-hero than he was in the books. Why did you choose to go this route?

It was a decision based on a sort of inverse take on what I saw in the books, which was Eoin introducing Artemis gathering a sense of morality across the books. He said that he had him preformed as an 11-year-old Bond villain. It seemed to me that for the audiences who were not familiar with the books, this would be a hard, a hard kind of thing to accept. And that one-way of mirroring what he did in the books, was to simply in one film — and to some extent I had some experiences with this with Thor, in the infinite number of possibilities of presenting him — in order to have sufficient people root for him, because Eoin manages to do that the books but it's very hard if you don't have context, we meet him in a story arc that resembles something like the Michael Corleone in The Godfather. Where someone has to, in the context of the first story, arrive where the story begins with in the novels. So the origin story of it, like Thor, was one in which we saw the character come from something more raw, in this case more familiar: going to a school, a bit like some of our audience might be familiar with. And I was less interested in presenting the story from the get-go, of a character who was marooned in a privileged life. I wanted us to find the humanity inside the character, before going on a journey which might be the opposite to the books but sort of integral in the sense of what I was looking for, which was a journey that maybe took our Artemis which he arrives at the end of the movie ready to go to the dark side.

So we see him acquire those characteristics, and it seems to me that that is a way of potentially introducing a much wider audience who didn't know the books to the characters so that the great landscape that Eoin has in the rest of the books, we can hopefully, perhaps, go through, but traveling in the different direction.

Do you think that that could potentially alienate book readers who were really attached to that depiction of Artemis Fowl?

I think for my money, he acquires it during the course of the picture. His handling of the conversation with Commander Root, by the time they're negotiating, the way he handles Holly Short. We simply get to it halfway through the movie, we see him acquire it. If I see it from the beginning, it's a different thing.

And also for me, it's a misnomer to believe that you can get inside the individual heads of everybody who may have loved the book, and then provide them with what I think is a sort of bogus idea: the, as it were, "definitive" version of the book. Because it's always going to be different in everybody's mind, even if they're looking at exactly the same sentence, or the same character. But do you get Butler, do you get Foaly, do you get a version of Juliet? Do you get his dad from the beginning of the segment? You get all of those things, just not exactly the way it is in the book. And I think that I came into a process of development, where those stories have been developed by film companies for 15 years, trying to wrestle with some of the questions that you're talking about here, and clearly they hadn't worked. And so we arrived at this particular version, which, you pay us your money and it takes your choice. When we open Thor, people said many of the same things about the alleged difference from an alleged authentic version. Turns out that you know if there's enough of what people like, then the debate becomes about how it develops. You have to start somewhere.

So I was actually on the set of Artemis Fowl in 2018. And when I was there, there wasn't any mention of Colin Farrell being cast in the film yet. Was Artemis Senior originally a major part of the plot or was that something that got reworked when Farrell was cast?

No, the father was always there and always talked about, and the story of the film stayed consistent, I think, across the across the development. Once we decided that [Artemis Senior would play a bigger part], our goal was to try to stick as close as we could to the events of the first film, bringing in the incident of the second book with The Arctic Incident. And so the idea of the kidnapping, which would be the inciting incident that allowed everything, that reveals who Artemis Fowl is, has to happen through the course the first film. What became clear was we needed to see it. So we'd written a lot about him and we referred to him and we had a story that was determined to rescue him, but we didn't see him, and it became clear that we had to see him. So the scenes that we'd written off-screen became scenes we put onscreen. And we happen to be very, very fortunate that Colin Farrell was available when we made that decision. And he became an integral part of the onscreen story, even though the dad been an integral part of the entire story from the beginning.

So, with a potential sequel as you're speaking of — The Arctic Incident book does deal mostly with Artemis Senior's rescue. Does that mean with any potential sequels down the line, you will be in creating a new story or would you potentially be adapting further books in the series?

My instinct — I mean, the audience are going to decide this obviously, I assume nothing about this — but my goal...would be to try and get me out of the way. I think it's difficult to start origin stories with something like this [because] people feel a great amount of ownership. We must have a huge respect for that audience but you cannot please all of the people all the time. The important thing is to start. And once we start with as much fidelity to the material as possible, then, what I would always return to is Eoin Colfer. What did he do? Who were the characters, what were the incidents?

So for my money, any returning future films would be, [after] I hope a noisy response from people who like the films — I would imagine I or future filmmakers would listen to that — you've got another seven books of terrific material from Eoin Colfer. So I'd like to think that, having been able to start, if you look at that kind of journey that Thor's taken in Marvel, there's been no limitation in terms of where you start from and in terms of where you go. My own instinct would be to keep going back to the books [where] there are some amazing stories. And I think now that the general territory has been laid, out the world's your oyster. But the oyster would be Eoin Colfer's. I personally don't feel you need to be making up new stuff unnecessarily, but that's all. In the wake of success, that would be a nice problem to have.

Speaking of Eoin Colfer, how involved was he in the production of Artemis Fowl? And did he have any pointers or wishes for your adaptation while you were working on the film or did he take a step back?

He met with us at the beginning. He was very free about an understanding he had, that it needed to be its own thing. Part of the reason I've mentioned, it had been in development for a long time, he done a screenplay to share it on the screen for various other people, very distinguished talents have been involved with it, so it was a tough nut to crack. He, by that stage said, "Go, follow your instinct, you get on with it and if you need to ask me questions ask them." And we would, from time to time.

By that stage, he was almost too close to the thing itself, and he had other creative ways of working further on the character. He was very heavily involved in a couple of excellent graphic novels involving the character, where he could explore some of the visuals. And so he let us have the license. He visited the set he talked to [screenwriter] Conor [McPherson], he saw versions of the screenplay as we went along. He had the opportunities to say this or that, and did sometimes. He was always a kind of arm's length, but very friendly and helpful collaborator all the way through to the end, when as you may be aware, he makes a tiny vocal appearance in the movie which we felt blessed to have.


Artemis Fowl debuts on Disney+ on June 12, 2020.