Originally billed as “Die Hard with fairies”, Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl has been ripe for a film adaptation for almost 20 years – yet things didn’t go to plan.

This feature contains no spoilers for either the book or the film version of Artemis Fowl.

For fantasy fans of a certain age, Disney’s Artemis Fowl feels like a relic from the days of bad adaptations past. It’s no mark of a great adaptation to be slavishly reverent to the source material, (which is why it’s hard to credit anyone arguing that Alfonso Cuarón’s stylised take on Prisoner Of Azkaban is the worst Harry Potter film just because streamlining the plot) but Eoin Colfer’s best-selling 2001 fantasy novel comes tailor-made for the screen with a tried-and-tested cinematic formula.

The novel follows 12-year-old Irish supervillain Artemis Fowl II, boy genius and presumptive heir to his family’s criminal empire, through his audacious scheme against the People, a magical underground society who have access to advanced technology and treasures untold. He’s unrestrained by his parents (his father Artemis I is absent, and his mother Angeline is afflicted with schizophrenia) and assisted in his schemes by his formidable manservant, Butler.

After successfully capturing Lower Elements Police officer Holly Short, Artemis ransoms the fairy for one ton of 24-carat gold, prompting Holly’s superiors in the LEP to mount a siege on Fowl Manor. As Colfer has always put it, it’s Die Hard with fairies, complete with a siege story and a character called Holly. But in this case, Holly is the John McClane and, in that first book at least, Artemis is way more of a Hans Gruber than a Harry Potter.

Originally optioned by US publishers Miramax during the height of the Potter publishing phenomenon in 2001, the book has had a long, troubled road to the big screen. Heck, due to the current pandemic, it hasn’t made it to cinemas at all. Starring Ferdia Shaw, Lara McDonnell, Josh Gad, Judi Dench, and Colin Farrell, director Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation arrived on Disney+ last week, to widespread negative reviews from critics and fans alike.

Although the film has one or two standout moments and an invigorating Irish-influenced score by composer Patrick Doyle, we were disappointed too, especially by the way it ditches the time-honoured structure of an action classic in favour of a more generic fantasy plot about a newly invented magical MacGuffin. But looking back at the project’s spell in development hell, we wonder why they didn’t just make Die Hard with fairies…

 

Development and delays

 

Firstly, the film didn’t start as a Disney production.

Miramax was owned by the House of Mouse and the public acrimony of the studio’s split with the Weinstein brothers in 2005 won’t have helped it along much But from the outset, this was intended to be made under the Miramax Family label, which mostly distributed independently produced and foreign family fare rather than producing its own. Partnering with Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Productions, the Weinsteins tapped Laurence Guterman (Cats & Dogs) to direct the adapted script by Jeff Stockwell, (who would later adapt Bridge To Terabithia and A Wrinkle In Time from page to screen for Disney) based on the first novel in Colfer’s series.

Though sceptical that a Fowl movie could get made under the Miramax banner, Colfer provided regular updates about the film via his website. Nevertheless, a whole decade came and went without much movement on the project. According to Colfer, even the great Jim Sheridan took an interest and met with producers in LA in 2011 to try and “get it unblocked”, nothing came to pass. Sheridan had also met with Saoirse Ronan to discuss her possibly playing Holly, which would have been and still is dream casting for that character.

It came as a surprise then when Disney announced in 2013 that it was teaming with – ugh – Harvey Weinstein to produce the Artemis Fowl movie and, as had previously been hinted in some of Colfer’s updates, they were angling to adapt the first two novels of the series into one film. They had a script by Michael Goldenberg (Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix) that mixed the plot of the original in with the sequel, in which Artemis helps the LEP battle a new enemy in exchange for help in rescuing his father from the mafia’s clutches.

Sometime later, Kenneth Branagh was on holiday when his nephews gave him a copy of Colfer’s novel to read. As he told Simon Mayo in an interview on last week’s BBC Radio 5 Live film review programme last week, Branagh read and enjoyed it, and was just finishing his live-action Cinderella remake at Disney when the subject of the Artemis Fowl movie came up during a meeting. Having enjoyed the book, he became attached in September 2015, with Irish playwright Conor McPherson now assigned writing duties. (Hamish McColl shares the writing credit on the finished film.)

After Weinstein was removed from the project in the wake of the sexual misconduct scandal that finished his career, the film was shot between March and June 2018 and originally earmarked for an August 2019 release. However, the completion of the Disney-Fox merger brought several changes to the studio’s slate (Branagh’s Murder On The Orient Express sequel Death On The Nile was also pushed back to October 2020). Artemis Fowl was bumped from August last year to this May, then announced as a Disney+ exclusive release after cinemas around the world closed their doors, and it was finally released last weekend.

To put the 19-year span of the film’s journey to the screen in context, early editions of the book and its sequels included a competition for young readers to win a walk-on role in the film. Colfer confirmed in a roundtable interview that the young winner of that competition didn’t film a cameo in the end, but don’t forget, they’ll have grown up in the time it’s taken for the film to actually get made.

 

The Disney factor

Many of the reviews have observed that Artemis Fowl’s unique selling point was probably its major stumbling block in the eyes of Disney executives. Although it hardly had an easy time of development while it was at Miramax, it’s hard to imagine the House of Mouse sanctioning a $125 million with a juvenile criminal as the lead. Newcomer Ferdia Shaw (grandson of Robert Shaw!) plays what he’s given well, but it’s not unfair to say that the story’s edges have been filed off on the way to our screens, making Artemis decidedly more Potter than Gruber.

Moreover, from when the novel was first optioned, it was considered as a franchise-starter, and while Colfer’s eight volumes chart Artemis’ evolution from criminal mastermind to anti-hero, Branagh had a different vision of how the character’s first screen outing could serve as an origin story.

“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 told /Film, going on to compare his intended arc over the first film and any sequels to that of Michael Corleone in The Godfather.

This approach centres Artemis, rather than Holly, as the hero of the story, rather than just the title character. It’s a misconception that seems to be at the root of the project’s long, fruitless development, and here, it has the unfortunate side-effect of flattening Colfer’s inventive, gleefully silly fantasy thriller into yet another story of a son of a significant lineage (and the foregrounding of Artemis I over Angeline feels especially insidious) embarking into a magical world in search of a McGuffin.

Branagh has said he likes the book and its anarchic sense of humour, and we’ve absolutely no reason not to believe him, but somehow, the humour also seems to have been the main casualty of the adaptation. We know the director has comedic flair from his work on Marvel’s Thor, among other works, but this version feels somewhat bereft of either his or Colfer’s comic sensibilities.

On that score, the film’s biggest tonal failure is represented by Mulch Diggums. By now, Josh Gad has more than proven his comic chops, but his role as a narrator (very possibly the result of a re-edit during the 9-month delay, given how hasty the film’s pacing feels) involves incessant, humourless exposition. But where Die Hard has a SWAT team in that armoured car, Colfer’s novel has a giant dwarf who tunnels into the manor by eating dirt and firing it out of his bottom. So, when Diggums stops narrating and does what he does in the film version, the result is more unexpected and frightening than it is funny, mostly because it involves Gad forcefully unhinging his CGI jaw without warning.

To the film’s credit, it’s a comic masterstroke to switch LEP Commander Root from the book’s cigar-chomping mustachioed tough-guy to Judi Dench for the film. The funniest moment in the film comes when she arrives at Fowl Manor, resplendent in her Green Ranger uniform, and drawls “Top o’ the morning” in a Northern Irish accent. The fact that this has been pointed out by so many reviewers as ridiculous and jarring only shows up the fun and funny tone that the film should have had.

 

Why not Die Hard?

The real missed opportunity in all of this is that at this stage, a Disney-produced Die Hard knock-off would have been infinitely more welcome than a Harry Potter knock-off. Harry Potter may have had loads of sequels based on existing stories, but then so did Die Hard, even if they weren’t Die Hard books or scripts to begin with. We know that Disney knows this because Die Hard is one of the many properties it’s acquired through that Fox merger.

Moreover, we’ve seen more than our share of each, but where all of the latter films are aimed at a family audience, we’ve never really seen a PG-certificate Die Hard. Under Siege wasn’t for kids. Speed wasn’t for kids. Even Toy Soldiers, the underrated 1991 thriller that is literally “Die Hard with kids”, wasn’t actually suitable for kids. In any case, John McTiernan’s 1988 masterpiece has so often been imitated because it has a cast-iron structure that can be turned to all kinds of settings and even, once in a while, different genres.

Of course, we don’t know if Kenneth Branagh would make a Die Hard knock-off. With a terrific recent track record across various genres, his traditionalism doesn’t necessarily make him the wrong choice for a film like this. Far from it, Thor showed how the director’s classical leanings can be made to work for both comedy and pathos in the context of a massive genre flick. But here, he’s working in a relatively new tradition of fantasy adventure franchises, where Harry Potter has been the most desirable relevant model throughout development, and either he or the powers that be have hewed more towards that.

With all of this in mind, it’s tantalising to wonder what someone like Joe Cornish would have made of the source material, given his comedic background, his success with siege movie setups in Attack The Block, and his knack for family-friendly thrills in The Kid Who Would Be King. Cornish reportedly turned down an offer to direct A Good Day To Die Hard in between those projects, (and good for him if he did) but for him or a director who grew up with Die Hard and its knock-offs, Artemis Fowl could have been right in their wheelhouse.

The yippie-ki-yay of it aside, it’s been a long road to see the Artemis Fowl movie finished and even though it doesn’t live up to the irresistible elevator pitch of the original novel, Colfer seems to approve of the variations from the novel and he’s just all-around glad the film finally got made. If you’ve seen the film but you haven’t read the book, we’d recommend you give it a read.

But for disappointed fans, it’s another post-Potter wannabe fantasy adaptation that we have to hope will one day be plucked out of the Cauldron of Penguins and turned into a TV series, as with Alex Rider or (as Disney+ recently announced) Percy Jackson. But even after almost 20 years in production, the promise of a truly great Artemis Fowl feature remains sadly unfulfilled.

 

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