Page vs Screen: Artemis Fowl

I’m sorry for the obscenely long post, but I have Many Thoughts about this.

I’ve seen some bad adaptations of beloved books in my time, but Artemis Fowl is certainly up there with the worst executed, least loyal, least entertaining. Thus, it’s time to vent.

There will be SPOILERS for both film and novel (and minor spoilers for other books in the series).

Artemis Fowl is a Disney live-action film that was going to be released in theaters, but thanks to the pandemic, has instead been released on Disney+. I’m grateful because this way, I didn’t waste time driving to a theater and spending money on an overpriced ticket and snacks, because this film isn’t worth that.

The plot is unnecessarily convoluted, the characters are uninteresting, the dialogue is painful, and the overall viewing experience is baffling. The only good thing was the set design.

So, yeah. This wasn’t fun, and the more I think about it, the more it seems a betrayal to the source material. So here, I’ll attempt to explain what went wrong with this movie. Namely, the characters and the plot. You know, tiny things.

First, I have to say that director Kenneth Branagh and the screenwriters (or, BATS from now on, because that’s faster to type—and the sooner I finish this review, the sooner I can forget about the film) mostly fell short. Far short. And no, that is not a pun on Holly’s last name. The film doesn’t deserve clever wordplay in reviews of it.

One of the biggest problems was BATS’s representations of the characters, especially Artemis. Instead of getting an Irish child Megamind, we got 2018 Grinch. No, not even that; film-Artemis doesn’t do anything bad, let alone anything that would make him a justifiable “criminal mastermind.” In fact, his main motivation throughout the story is to save his missing father. That is not villainous, and is not what drives book-Artemis, who wants to ransom Holly for fairy gold to restore his family’s fortune. There isn’t a reference to Artemis using that money to fund a search-and-rescue expedition until the second book.

To me, BATS have fundamentally misunderstood the core of Artemis’s character. Book-Artemis not only believes himself to be—and demonstrably is—smarter than everyone else, he sets himself apart further by being the only person to genuinely believe fairies live underground. His quest to kidnap one is therefore both a way to make quick money, and to prove his theory correct.

In the film, though, Artemis spends the majority of the story denying not only that his family are master criminals—a fact treated as gospel by book-Artemis from page one—he also vehemently denies that fairies are anything more than folklore.

Furthermore, the entire reason Artemis is sympathetic in the book has been erased in the film because they had Angeline, Artemis’s mother, pass away before the film even begins. Why?! The scenes in the book between Artemis and Angeline are the most touching, because they are the only times we see him kind, acting like any other child. Her presence and troubles are even the impetus for one of the only (perhaps the only) selfless acts he does in the book. So having her not in the film at all makes no sense, especially since BATS apparently wanted to make him sympathetic.

The point is, by trying to make Artemis less of a bad guy (and yet failing to utilize the parts of the book that would help them do that), the filmmakers have betrayed the essence of what makes him compelling in the first place. Because characters like Artemis Fowl, Megamind, and even the Grinch are all similar in that they are both the protagonist and the “bad guy.” They start out unequivocally bad but become more empathetic over time. But book-Artemis at the beginning of the series is the bad guy, no doubt, so to sanitize him in the film like this is a major oversight. I wonder how deeply BATS actually examined the source material. Then, to make matters worse, Artemis claims to be a criminal mastermind at the end of the film. I sat scratching my head at that, wondering what crime he was supposed to have masterminded.

Ugh. Anyway, enough about him.

As for every single other character, even Holly Short, none of their depth from the books is present in the film. They are all so one dimensional. You could even remove Juliet from the film entirely, and nothing would change. And Butler, Commander Root, Mulch Diggums, Foaly, and even Cudgeon are hardly done justice. You only get fragments of their personalities, and even then there are unneeded alterations.

(On a related note, book-Root would never be caught dead saying “top ’o the morning.” Dame Judi Dench, why did you do this?)

Also, while I understand wanting to diversify a cast… again, did BATS read the book? The Butlers are described as Eurasian (which I always interpreted as mixed race Asian and European), and Holly has “nut brown skin.” So the decision to cast two black actors as the Butlers and a white (or white-presenting, at least) young woman as Holly is confusing. Not bad, since these actors did a decent job, only confusing.

Gender-bending Root is yet another source of befuddlement. In the novel, the foundation of book-Root and book-Holly’s relationship is that Root is the only one to believe in and root for (get it?) Holly in her career as the first female captain in the LEP. This way, Root’s support allows him and Holly to bond, and shows the kinder side of his gruff personality. In the film, however, all that is gone; there are women LEP officers everywhere. Holly’s struggle to break fairy glass ceilings has been replaced by a vague backstory of her father having done something disgraceful in the past. Sure, it gives her and film-Artemis something to commiserate about, but I certainly wasn’t interested, even when it somehow impacted the plot.

Speaking of the plot—in a word, it’s a disaster. BATS took a perfectly entertaining, easy to understand, and brilliantly executed heist/hostage plot, and ignored most of what made it fun and good. They added a random MacGuffin the importance of which I’m still not clear on; they heightened Artemis’s father’s role from nonexistent to integral; and they brought in the big bad of the whole book series (when, again, the villain of this installment should have been the film’s namesake).

Due to all these elements, by the time the climax came around, I didn’t know what was going on or why. I also didn’t care, because the essence of this story was so lost.

Even having film-Mulch as frame narrator throughout didn’t help me follow the story. This wasn’t in the book, where Mulch is a delightful side character but who plays a single albeit vital role, then escapes. This is not at all what happened in the film, and I doubt I have to spell out which version of Mulch I like more. (I can only assume Disney wanted to squeeze as much Josh Gad as they could into this movie, even at the expense of telling a decent story.)

And if all this weren’t enough, BATS decided to incorporate (inaccurate) elements from the second book into this film, namely in the introduction of Opal Koboi. Film-Opal bears no resemblance to book-Opal. Admittedly I lost track of film-Opal’s motivation, because it had to do with the annoying MacGuffin, but I’m pretty sure she wasn’t after world domination and chocolates like her book counterpart. Her presence only serves to add additional layers to an already overly complicated story.

Basically, BATS didn’t respect the source material whatsoever. They didn’t bother to understand the nuances of the characters’ personalities, their motivations, or what makes them beloved by the book fans. They didn’t believe the book’s plot to be good enough and added too many extra elements that resulted in a sloppy, unclear storyline. They didn’t even write good dialogue to back up their complicated mess. Worse of all, they missed the point of Artemis himself. For the last time, he’s a villain who—despite being likeable—will commit actual crimes to get what he wants. He is not a boring child who misses his dad and meets some fairies, then… picks up a glowing metal acorn, or whatever.

Sigh. Oh, well. Maybe someday we’ll get an Artemis Fowl film adaptation. It would make such a delightful movie; it’s a shame they haven’t done one yet!

2 thoughts on “Page vs Screen: Artemis Fowl

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