SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to prolific writer EOIN COLFER about Artemis Fowl, Disney+ and the film adaptation that was two decades in the making …
I have several friends with young children and their verdict is unanimous: Disney+ is a godsend. It has kept the sanities of parents intact, leaving them to power ahead with all that lockdown throws at them. I know the rulebook says you’re not supposed to park your kids in front of the box, but now’s the time to rip it up.
Eoin Colfer, best known for his globally famous Artemis Fowl children’s series, has been due a movie adaptation ever since he published the first book in 2001. Two decades, seven more instalments, three graphic novels, and one pandemic later, it’s finally here. Sadly, as with most events on the Irish arts calendar, the May 29 theatrical premiere was cancelled. Artemis Fowl will be available exclusively on Disney+ from June 12 instead.
With everything COVID-19 has brought us, the small-screen debut of one of 2020’s big releases must feel anticlimactic for Colfer. Artemis Fowl is the highest-profile film to be affected by the crisis, apart from the new James Bond. Prior to lockdown, there was a red carpet hoopla on the horizon, and now we’re into the “new normal.” I understand that he asked Disney+ to step in: that was great foresight. “I did suggest that the movie be moved to Disney+ but I doubt that my suggestion made it to the top of the company or influenced the decision in any way, though the Disney president did call for a chat to make sure we were on the same page,” he explains. “My logic was that as a newly minted movie character, Artemis could be pushed out for years because of the pandemic. It would be better to plonk it directly onto Disney+ as a nice goodwill gesture to all those movie lovers stuck indoors.”
I have yet to get Disney+ but I might just join the party. For those less familiar with the premise, Artemis Fowl, son of missing crime lord Artemis Senior, is a teenage mastermind who infiltrates the fairy world in order to exploit it. Admittedly, sci-fi and fantasy isn’t typically my thing, but Colfer’s creation is irresistible. While aimed at a younger audience, I quickly identified humour that would sail over some children’s heads and straight into those of giddy adults such as myself. “I was trying to create layers so that the stories would work for everyone,” he says. “My model for that would be books like The Princess Bride, which can be enjoyed by everyone who reads it. The Artemis stories are littered with Easter Eggs for older readers that will give grown-ups a giggle while not disrupting the story for young readers. My logic being that often parents read with their children, so why not entertain everybody? Also, I try to remember that young people are highly intelligent and make a point of not writing down to them. They are able to grasp far more than they are given credit for, so I am quite strict with myself: no patronising allowed.”
I ask Colfer to describe witnessing his characters on screen for the first time. After what seems like an eternal wait, I can only picture how satisfying this experience was. “My sons and I did see the movie a few weeks ago with Ferdia Shaw, who plays Artemis, and Kenneth Branagh, who directed it. However surreal it was for me watching my imagination up on a screen, I imagine it was ten times more so for Ferdia to see his face twenty feet high. I really enjoyed the movie. I think it is funny and fast paced, and it makes Ireland look wonderful. I am very pleased with the results and I hope the Artemis fans, who have been waiting for a long time to see this movie, really enjoy it. There are some big changes from the book, but nothing that doesn’t work on screen.”
There are indeed some big changes, starting with an early entrance from Artemis Fowl Senior, played by Colin Farrell, who doesn’t appear until book two, while Commander Root, a crotchety cigar-smoking codger in the series, is now a woman. Not just any woman – she is depicted by Dame Judi Dench. A recent article in The Guardian claims the film faces “almost universal derision” from fans, judging by the trailer. Personally, I never let bad reviews or negative commentary ruin movies or novels, and I suspect Colfer has the same philosophy.
Colin Farrell, as ever, is an ideal ambassador for Irish cinema, and there’s a fine crop of young actors following in his footsteps: the aforementioned Ferdia Shaw and Lara McDonnell (as Holly Short). Yes, Judi Dench is an unlikely choice for a distinctly male part, but then I remember the surprise when she was selected to play M in Goldeneye (1995). She did a stellar job fleshing out the iconic character over the years, so I look forward to seeing her play Commander Root. Plus, she looks spectacular in the stills. “It is great to see two young Irish actors at the heart of this movie and they are both so talented,” says Colfer. “I first saw Lara back in 2015 when she was playing Matilda in the West End and it was clear even then that she had a fierce talent. Judi Dench was perhaps the biggest surprise to me, but they showed me footage from her first scene and I was hooked by the end of her first sentence. She really can do no wrong.”
Along with Dench and Farrell, the boast-worthy cast includes rising star Josh Gad as Mulch Diggums, a hilarious troll of many previous convictions. Did the author get to meet them all? “I met most of the cast except Judi Dench, so that is the biggest single disappointment of the move to Disney+; no meeting Dame Judi on the red carpet, but hopefully we can shake hands some other time,” he concedes. “Coincidentally, I met Colin Farrell maybe ten years ago at a reading for Amnesty International in New York. Colin and Roddy Doyle read first and I was last, at which point a lady pointed out that my Irish accent wasn’t very good. Colin is a brilliant actor and a compassionate person who travelled from South America to do the Amnesty reading, and I think the ideal person to play Artemis’s dad. Of course, I claim that the dad is based on me, so Colin Farrell is actually playing me, which no-one is buying.”
Ferdia Shaw posted a lovely photo with Colfer on Instagram, when they appeared at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival last year. What are his impressions of the teen actor so far? “Ferdia is a very impressive young man who put everything into the role,” he says. “He captures Artemis’s intelligence and brings a physicality to the part which was not there before, but suits the role perfectly. It was a very typically Irish meeting when the Shaws and the Colfers met on set, as we discovered that of course we have friends in common.”
Artemis Fowl is an excellent advertisement for Ireland, not to mention our myths and legends, putting to bed those pesky leprechaun stereotypes. When “all this is over” can Colfer envisage a new breed of tourist? Perhaps there’s scope for a tour or a convention of some kind. “I would love to see fans of the books and movies come to Ireland and tour the places featured or mentioned in the story,” he says. “Already we are seeing LEP (Lower Elements Police) costumes showing up at conventions, so I would be thrilled to see those fans making the trip to Ireland. Ireland is such a wonderful little country to visit that any Artemis tourists would discover so much more to enjoy. We could call it Fowlcon. If that does go ahead I feel we would need a Minister for Leprechauns.”
Obviously, you can’t please everybody when it comes to major film versions of beloved books, but what can Colfer hope fans will ultimately take from watching Artemis Fowl? And how would he respond to nay-sayers? “Artemis has always been about fun and family,” he says. “I would hope people can sit down as a family and spend two fantastic hours together lost in a magical world and perhaps decide to visit that world, ie Ireland, for their next holiday. I would urge nay-sayers to watch the movie with an open mind and not compare it to the book. If people don’t enjoy it then that is completely their right. I won’t be trying to change their minds, as we hardly ever change our minds about anything. I might take a little break from social media in June, so that I can just enjoy the experience of Artemis Fowl being a Disney movie, which is a pretty cool thing to happen.”
Finally, how has the author’s home and work life changed since the arrival of coronavirus? Like many people I’ve observed since our country closed up, he has seen the positive side. “The lockdown has been very hard on everyone,” he agrees. “I am in that small group of people whose lives have not been changed all that much. I spend most of my time in my office anyway, working away on the next Fowl story. I do feel sorry for the teenagers out there who were so looking forward to weekends with their friends and big events like Longitude, but are now stuck watching old movies with their parents. It is very difficult for young people to lose their social life overnight. I think apps like Zoom have been invaluable in keeping friendships alive, and I would urge people to stay in touch with their friends and even call people that you might not usually call. I have heard lovely stories of friendships that have sprung up in isolation and that is very heart-warming. I will say that I have gotten to know my own sons much better in these past few weeks, which has been a wonderful experience for me.”
Amelia and Nate with their dog, George Bailey.
I asked two of Eoin Colfer’s biggest fans, Amelia (10) and Nate Harrington (8) from his native Wexford, to share what Artemis Fowl means to them.
“We listened to Artemis Fowl on audio on our holidays a few years ago in France. And then we got the books too, which I preferred. My favourite character is Butler – he’s the bodyguard. He’s cool and he acts like a dad to Artemis, protecting him. At first I didn’t really like Artemis, because he does bad things. But then I felt sorry for him, because he was sad that his dad is missing. By the end, I liked him too.
Holly Short is also one of my favourites. She is a tough fairy and even though she is small, she isn’t scared of anything. I was on her side, all the time. We are all excited to watch the movie on Disney+ when it comes out. We had planned to go to the cinema, but I think this will be just as good, because my mam said we can have a party at home to watch it.”
“Artemis Fowl is clever and really funny. I love that he fights really hard to get his dad back and to get the gold. It’s cool that he is a super-hero and he’s only a kid. Because kids can do things too. Butler is good too, but my favourite character is Mulch Diggums. He’s a dwarf who steals. And he so funny. He makes me laugh a lot.
We’ve watched the trailer a few times now and I can’t wait to see the movie on Disney+. We watch movies on that nearly every day. Josh Gad is in it playing Mulch Diggums and he is my second favourite actor. Dwayne Johnson is my favourite. We are going to have a party to watch the movie and there will be lots of treats.”
Amelia and Nate’s mother is bestselling author Carmel Harrington, who added – “Wexford is so proud of Eoin, not only an outstanding literary talent, but also one of the nicest guys you could meet. We’ve celebrated his success for decades and could not be happier for him now, as Artemis Fowl reaches a new audience through Disney+”
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