The Artemis Fowl movie is unlikely to please anyone: not superfans looking for a hyperfaithful adaptation of the novels by Eoin Colfer; not nostalgic adults who want to relive the spirit of the series, if not every little detail; and not even Disney+ newcomers just looking for a fun way to spend 90 minutes. The Artemis Fowl books represented something unique in YA lit during the 2000s: a fantasy world of elves and dwarves with an antihero protagonist who aspires to be a dastardly, brilliant criminal mastermind like his father, Artemis Fowl Sr. The Kenneth Branagh–directed movie, which mostly covers the events of the first two books, Artemis Fowl and The Arctic Incident, delivers something very, very different from its source material.
A script by Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl waters down Colfer’s multilayered world of morally complex characters into something more traditional and Disney-friendly—and in doing so, misses the point of the entire series, which always avoided giving Artemis a classic redemption story. We’ve rounded up the changes, from the banal to the bizarre, below.
The movie is mostly narrated in flashback by Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad), a dirt-eating-and-expelling dwarf interrogated by MI6 after being apprehended at the Fowl Manor. While being questioned, he takes the opportunity to tell the story of how he got there. Diggums is not the narrator of the books, which are told from a third-person perspective and follow various characters, Diggums included.
The Fowl Household
The book Artemis Fowl kicks off with the 12-year-old greedy, evil laddie already comfortably leading his family’s criminal enterprise, his father presumed dead following a bad deal with the Russian Mafia. (As readers discover in The Arctic Incident, Artemis’ father is actually alive and being held prisoner. More on that later.) The series is set in motion when Artemis—having taught himself about the underground world of fairies and elves after threatening a sprite for information—decides to kidnap a fairy and hold her for ransom in exchange for gold to restore the family’s billionaire status. He works on this plot with his bodyguard, Butler. The only other person in the mansion besides them is his mother, who’s emotionally and mentally unable to deal with the loss of her husband.
In Artemis Fowl the film, we have something completely different. Artemis (Ferdia Shaw) appears to be around the same age as in the book, but we get to see him palling around with his father (Colin Farrell), who teaches Artemis about the fairies and often disappears for long “business” trips, leaving his son with Butler (Nonso Anozie). The movie also gives Butler a niece named Juliet (Tamara Smart), who, in the books, is actually his sister.
Artemis’ brilliance and insolence, while not quite at the sociopathic levels of the novels, are demonstrated in a movie scene (inspired by a similar one in The Arctic Incident) in which Artemis talks to a counselor. The counselor also helpfully reveals that in this version, Artemis’ mother has died. Soon after Artemis’ father leaves again, Artemis gets a call from a gravelly voice—later revealed to be the pixie Opal Koboi (Hong Chau), who doesn’t appear in the first book at all but does play a major role in the later ones—telling him his father has been kidnapped for ransom. The price for his release is not just gold but the Aculos, an all-powerful device that’s not in the books at all and is totally invented for the film.
This completely changes Artemis’ motivations for his unsavory deeds. He finds his dad’s journal, uses it educate himself further on the underground world of magic and the Aculos, and decides what he needs to do next—in this case, doing his own kidnapping and taking advantage of an elf’s powers.
We soon meet the major players of the nonhuman underground world, including the elf Commander Root (a man in the books but played by Judi Dench in the movie), head of the major police force known as the Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance, or LEPRecon. Under her are Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), a young officer itching to prove herself to Root. In the movie, Holly is well known as the daughter of a new character, Birchwood Short, whom many seem to think was a criminal, though she knows in her heart he was a hero. He disappeared long ago, but she wants to clear his reputation. After she is dispatched to track a troll who’s appeared aboveground (and disobeys direct commands by directly fighting the troll) she speeds off to figure out something about her father, which then leads to her being tranquilized and kidnapped by Artemis and Butler.
In the book, Holly is the only female member of LEPRecon, and much of her early time in the force consists of her having to get around the men—including Commander Root—who consistently underestimate her. It’s also not her father but her mother, Coral Short, who motivates Holly in the book: Coral died from human-caused radioactive poisoning, leading Holly to initially swear vengeance against all humans.* But the movie is all about dads. Artemis idolizes his father, insisting, “He’s not a criminal—he’s my dad,” which gives him and Holly something in common. And as it turns out, we later learn that Artemis Fowl Sr. and Holly’s dad were partners in saving the world! What a coincidence.
Oh, and there’s a nefarious scheme afoot by another LEPRecon officer, Briar Cudgeon (Joshua McGuire), which combines a couple of his plots from the books. It’s well established on both the screen and the page that he doesn’t like his commander and desires Root’s power. In the film, when LEPRecon attempts to rescue Holly from the Fowls and finds Artemis and Butler to be shrewder than they expected, Briar basically takes over the operation from Root by force. He’s also revealed, earlier in the film, to be secretly working with Opal Koboi. In the books, both of these things happen but in a slightly different manner: Briar doesn’t start working for Opal until The Arctic Incident, so his takeover in Artemis Fowl is merely a power grab within the system, not influenced by an outsider.
In both the book and the film, LEPRecon lays siege to the Fowl Manor to rescue Holly, employing a time freeze to, well, freeze time for the humans. Artemis, a genius, manages to avoid the effects. In both, LEPRecon also recruits Mulch to get into the manor, although in the book LEPRecon blackmails Mulch while in the movie the dwarf attempts to negotiate his prison sentence by offering to help. Mulch successfully breaks in and finds objects of interest: In Colfer’s version, it’s the book where Artemis learned all the secrets of the fairies. In the movie, it’s the Aculos, which just so happened to be behind some painting in a safe Mulch cracks open. But Mulch ends up siding with Artemis in the film instead of just following LEPRecon’s orders.
In both the book and movie, Briar, after taking the lead, sends a troll to destroy the Fowl Manor in order to rescue Holly. However, Butler and Holly manage to defeat the troll after a big fight—during which Holly unexpectedly decides to heal Butler with magic—and Root eventually takes back command from Briar.
Holly and Artemis are not as chummy in the books as they are in the movie—they don’t have the dad connection, Artemis isn’t such a friendly guy, and Holly still resents humans. However, things do take a turn near the end of the first book: When LEPRecon sends in the ransom gold, Artemis asks Holly if she can cure his mother, and she agrees. After Holly returns to her team, LEPRecon attempts to kill Artemis, his mother, and Butler. Artemis manages to ensure their survival.
The film is, again, vastly different. LEPRecon does not attempt to kill the Fowls and the Butlers. Instead, when the time freeze is lifted, Holly stays with Artemis and, using the Aculos, brings back his father from Opal’s clutches. The elder Fowl praises Holly and gives her a list of her father’s old accomplices. Holly then uses the Aculos to return underground, places it under protection, and is promoted to lead a new team, like she always wanted.
After Mulch tells this whole tale to his captors, Artemis and his rescued dad break Diggums out and fly him away on a helicopter, enlisting him for some “unfinished business” (presumably dealing with Opal in the sequel, which, given the terrible reviews for the first one, seems unlikely to happen).
Correction, June 12, 2020: This piece originally misspelled Coral Short’s first name. It was also updated to clarify that Juliet Butler appears in the books as Domovoi Butler’s sister, although not as his niece.