As chequered histories go, the story of Artemis Fowl’s marathon trek to the big screen is not quite up there with that of Terry Gilliam’s famously long-gestating The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, but it is not far removed. First conjured up almost two decades ago under the now largely defunct Miramax studio, it has had to survive the departure of several directors, numerous attempts at a screenplay and the removal of Harvey Weinstein as producer.
Unfortunately, as the film enters the final strait of its long journey to the multiplex, the news is not getting any better. Finally due out in May, with Kenneth Branagh in the director’s chair and a cast that includes Judi Dench, Colin Farrell and Josh Gad, the movie is now facing almost universal derision from fans of the eight-novel original series of books by Irish author Eoin Colfer that inspired it.
The problem is the latest trailer, the first to offer up a proper look at what Branagh has done with the world of pre-teen criminal mastermind Artemis Fowl II, often described as a sort of miniature Hans Gruber from the first Die Hard movie (if Alan Rickman’s teutonic terrorist had been determined to make his fortune by unveiling the existence of a magical fantasy underworld rather than just ruining Bruce Willis’ Christmas.) The fans say this version of Artemis is simply not cold and calculating enough, resembling a typical Hollywood wide-eyed innocent thrust suddenly into a world he never imagined existed rather than the sharp-minded kid who works out there must be a hidden world of fairies and decides to use it for his own ill-gotten gain.
Branagh’s movie seems to be conflating the plots of the first two books in Colfer’s series, allowing Artemis’s kidnapped dad (Farrell) to appear from the very beginning (rather than being introduced in part two). The 12-year-old’s antagonist in the first book, elf reconnaissance officer Holly Short, is introduced as his ally, as is the dwarf Mulch Diggums (Gad), who in the books starts out very much on the other side. A lot of the fun of Fowl’s journey from callow evil genius to antihero with a conscience, which takes place over several of Colfer’s stories, is rather lost, and there is a funny whiff of Spy Kids to the whole affair.
What’s surprising here is not that Hollywood appears to have got Artemis Fowl (or at least its marketing) so wrong, but that studios still haven’t woken up to the importance of fan service in 2020. The two totems of fantasy film-making that Disney ought to have been looking at when adapting Colfer’s books are Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Harry Potter series. Jackson won Oscars and almost universal praise from fans of JRR Tolkien’s novels by cleaving close to the original text but changing just enough to squeeze the movies into cinematic shape. By the time of part three, 2003’s Return of the King, Tolkienistas were so in thrall to this vivid and vivacious Kiwi vision of Middle Earth, that there was barely a murmur of complaint when the film-maker started adding shonky new elements such as the fate of elf maiden Arwen being tied to the fate of Sauron’s dastardly one ring.
The Potter films are a different kettle of Anglerfish. In many ways the movies followed the original novels too closely, in a manner that often gave the weakest episodes a 90s TV movie quality, as if producers were determined to eschew pacing and dynamism in favour of squeezing in every scene and character that JK Rowling had included in the books. But fans loved them and went to seem them in their droves. Eventually, critics were also grudgingly won over.
The point here, as the makers of the recent Sonic the Hedgehog movie will no doubt tell you, is that if you’re going to mess with the original vision that inspired a particular film adaptation, you had better have a damned good reason for doing so. It remains to be seen whether Artemis Fowl’s tinkering with the original text makes sense when the full movie hits cinemas, but it cannot be a positive thing that Disney has alienated the very audience it needs to drum up hype for this movie before anyone has even seen the film’s opening frame.