ARTEMIS FOWL and the Death and Rebirth of the YA Adaptation

Just after his 2001 novel Artemis Fowl was optioned for a Hollywood film adaptation, author Eoin Colfer went on an informal location scout. “I remember me and my dad got a video camera, a VHS video camera, and went around to locations that we were pretty certain they would be using within six months,” Colfer said in a phone interview. He chose a house to represent the titular character’s home, where the book’s titular twelve-year-old criminal mastermind kidnaps a fairy government agent and holds her hostage for the proverbial pot of gold. He even engaged in a little bit of fancasting of his own. “I was so determined to keep it as close to the book as possible,” Colfer said. “And I gave a list of actors I’d like to see in all the parts.”

A little more than six months later, Kenneth Branagh’s Artemis Fowl has finally made its debut, on Disney’s flagship streaming service Disney+. It’s the first big-budget blockbuster the studio has released since the beginning of a global pandemic that has seen theaters shuttered around the world. It’s also far removed from the film that Colfer expected, back in the early 2000s. In the decades since then, dozens of young-adult fantasy adaptations have come and gone from cinemas. When Artemis Fowl was optioned, on the eve of Harry Potter, YA fantasy was the Next Big Thing for Hollywood; in the time that it’s taken to arrive, the genre has withered on the vine.

After 2013, a year that saw YA adaptations like Warm Bodies, Beautiful Creatures, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, and Ender’s Game hit theaters, the well seemed to temporarily dry up. Artemis Fowl is hitting television sets and laptop screens at a time when only your occasional Mortal Engines scratches Hollywood’s YA-fantasy itch. In a world now dominated by superhero films and live-action fairy-tale remakes, it’s worth wondering just what happened to the genre that Artemis Fowl hopes to invigorate, even as the film itself falls into so many of the same pitfalls as its fellow adaptations.

It’s easy to trace the genesis of the genre back to its most successful entry, a film that came out a little more than six months after Colfer’s first Artemis Fowl book. “Thirty years ago, before Harry Potter I suppose… you would rarely see a kid’s book being made into a movie,” said Colfer. Harry Potter was the Warner Brothers’ golden goose, a guaranteed franchise for as long as the books kept coming. In both the publishing world and Hollywood, it was a phenomenon that begged for imitation. A bestseller with a set of promised sequels was catnip for studio executives; who didn’t want the opportunity to unleash a Harry Potter-sized franchise upon the world?

The hits (or lack thereof) came fast and furious. City of Ember, The Golden Compass, Eragon: The mid-2000s were crowded with wannabe Potters snatched from the New York Times bestseller list. In terms of quality, the genre as a whole is a perfect cross-section of a certain type of 21st-century blockbuster. There are films mangled by franchise dreams (The Golden Compass ends a full ten minutes before its director intended, so as to set up for a sequel). There are others so crammed with storybook lore that audiences don’t have a second to breathe (The Spiderwick Chronicles crams five books worth of story into one 95-minute film). And still others barely exist on their own terms, so obsessed with imitating current trends that they fail to establish their own identity (The lived-in world of Lois Lowry’s The Giver inspired The Hunger Games, and then finally arrived on screen shrouded in that film’s same shiny silver production design).

For many, the difference between a successful adaptation like Harry Potter and a failure like the notorious Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief comes down quite simply to loyalty to the text. Authors typically take that tune, the tune that Colfer did back in 2001. “It’s my life’s work going through a meat grinder while I pleaded with them not to do it,” Percy Jackson author Rick Riordan recently tweeted. In reality, it’s a little more complicated than that. The early Potters, as charmingly slavish to the texts as they are, pale in comparison to the slightly more free-wheeling adaptations that the franchise saw later. Perhaps the best scene in any of those films, a plaintive, sad moment that sees Harry and Hermione dancing away the pain to a Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds song, has no relationship to anything in the text.

So it would be a simplification to say that the changes made to Artemis Fowl are what sinks it. Colfer himself has come a long way from the young man who mailed in his chosen Artemis Fowl cast along with a video tour of Irish filming locations. “I doubt anyone ever looked at that video or read that list, which I probably sent by post in those days,” he said. Outside of public readings, the author hasn’t read Artemis Fowl since he wrote it. Watching the film, there were moments where he struggled to remember whether he’d written a story beat, or whether the screenwriters had. “I definitely have softened my approach to that,” he said. “I’m much more interested in people interpreting stuff now rather than just transcribing it pretty directly from the page to the screen.”

There are frequent moments of interpretation in Branagh’s Artemis Fowl; there are also moments of pure loyalty to the text, including a standout scene where Josh Gad’s kleptomaniac dwarf Mulch Diggums unhinges his jaw, dives into the ground, and starts eating dirt and farting it out (Even for longtime fans of Colfer’s series, this is a scene that has to be seen to be believed). The frantic whip-sawing back and forth between two distinct methods of adaptation feels less like a 2000s YA adaptation and more like that classic brand of blockbuster we’ve all become so familiar with. In arriving so long after the heyday of its own genre, Artemis Fowl has stumbled headlong into the next big studio trend: Suicide Squad-style editing disasters. Disney wanted another Harry Potter; instead, they got a new Justice League.

Looking back at the history of the genre, it’s difficult to see the quest for a Harry Potter equivalent as anything other than a fool’s errand. Studios couldn’t truly imitate the franchise, because there was no real equivalent available. “That was almost of biblical proportions. That was really extraordinary,” said children’s literature expert Leonard Marcus. A few authors came close; Marcus cited Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events as one series that approached the scale of the Potter phenomenon.

A Series of Unfortunate Events was adapted by Paramount and Nickelodeon in 2004, into a gothic, underperforming Jim Carrey vehicle that lumped the first three books into one film. At the time, that type of packaging was in vogue, a way of allowing gun-shy studios to build a franchise without committing to adapting all thirteen of the original novels. Only a few years later, the genre leapt in the opposite direction, in response once again to Potter. The decision to split Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows into two parts was a shameless ploy to keep the golden goose alive for an extra year; it was also a lucrative one, giving the studio two massive blockbusters instead of one.

Other franchises followed suit promptly. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 and Part 2 both proved massive successes. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 underperformed. The Divergent Series: Allegiant bombed; its sequel was cancelled. Harry Potter had heralded the beginning of a new era of YA fantasy in Hollywood; it also helped fast-track that era’s natural conclusion – at least, in that form.

But according to Marcus, there are still plenty of examples of Hollywood turning to middle-grade and young-adult fiction for inspiration. “I think Hollywood is desperate for stories from teen fiction, and it continues to be a major trend,” he said. Marcus pointed to another Disney adaptation, The One and Only Ivan, a talking-animal story that just moved to Disney+ later this year. Indeed, that less bombastic style of children’s literature remains a great source of fodder for Hollywood; something like 2017’s Wonder, about a young boy with Treacher Collins Syndrome, can wind up a sleeper hit among kids and parents alike.

For Dahlia Adler, author of YA books like Behind the Scenes and Just Visiting, the division is clear: Modern kids are looking for books about people who make them feel seen. “I think a lot of marginalized readers have been discounted as being readers,” she said in a phone interview. Adler believes young audiences are tired of the same old protagonists, and the types of books and adaptations they’re flocking to are far from the rigidly structured representational world of Harry Potter.

That type of new world is currently well-represented on Netflix, specifically in the company’s 2018 word-of-mouth smash hit To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Unlike The Hunger Games or Artemis Fowl, the most unbelievable thing about To All the Boys is an unchaperoned high school field trip to a ski lodge. The film’s rush comes not from its depiction of a world we’ve never seen before, but instead from depicting a story we’ve seen hundreds of times, this time from the perspective of a young Asian-American woman. “If I’m not seeing myself in books, eventually they become less interesting to me,” said Adler. For audiences aching for the kind of representation that Jennifer Lawrence and Kristen Stewart don’t provide, To All the Boys was a revelation. Mainstream studios have also begun the process of diversifying their output, with films like Love, Simon and The Sun Is Also a Star telling familiar stories with new protagonists. Long gone are the days where anthropomorphic surfboard Alex Pettyfer could headline three separate wannabe YA franchises.

Some of the authors who found such success with straight, white, male protagonists have had trouble adapting to this new era. Rowling herself, whose books have had such a profound influence on the direction of the genre, has waffled and whined about unfair criticisms of her books. This month, she came under fire for yet another transphobic tweetstorm, and her retroactive attempts to jury-rig LGBTQ representation onto Albus Dumbledore have become a popular online laughingstock. Rowling seems to react to criticisms of her books’ political worldview as personal slights, and has retreated into radical bitterness rather than adapting to the times. Fans’ total rejection of her speaks to an admirable edge in the YA community, one that’s prepared to kill their darlings if it means protecting the vulnerable.

For other authors, like Percy Jackson scribe Riordan, readers’ desire to be seen is an opportunity instead of a hindrance. The author has written a few popular series based around ancient myths drawn into our own modern world, but he’s also used his platform to lift up authors more qualified to write about other cultures. “He started his own imprint [Rick Riordan Presents] when people kept asking him ‘Are you ever going to do this kind of mythology?’” Adler said. The books, which range from Roshani Chokshi’s Indian cosmology to Carlos Hernandez’s Cuban science-fiction, have proven quite successful for the Disney imprint, producing multiple bestsellers. Riordan’s own Percy Jackson books as well have seen a greater spectrum of races and sexualities represented on the page.

Artemis Fowl, too, has seen a few changes in representation in the two decades since it was first put into production. The book’s hulking bodyguard Butler is now a black man played by Nonso Anozie; its gruff fairy Commander Root is played in Branagh’s film by Dame Judi Dench. “There’s a few people who were gender-flipped and there’s a few people who were racially flipped, and that’s all great,” he said. “I’m all for all of that. I love seeing female Hamlets, whatever, anything. Just something surprising and interesting.” In practice, the casting is interesting but not much more; Butler and Root barely make an impression in a film so scattered that comic relief sidekick Gad winds up getting the most screen time. The effort feels good-natured but incomplete, cloaking itself in the aesthetic of representation without actually putting in the work required to really make an impact.

One hopes Disney’s next attempt at YA representation will carry more weight. The streaming service recently announced a new TV series based on Percy Jackson, with Rick Riordan’s blessing and promised involvement. It’s difficult to imagine the studio allowing a frank depiction of LGBTQIA+ romance on its flagship ‘family’ streaming platform, especially after it shunted the tame, charming Love, Simon spin-off Love, Victor to Hulu. Riordan’s later books have seen multiple transgender, gender-fluid, and gay characters take the stage. Hopefully the studio will take note, and give them the spotlight they deserve, rather than simply relying on the lazy “exclusively gay moments” that have become notorious in the past. Audiences have already demonstrated their hunger for representation – and their distaste when that representation is erased.

But the Disney+ pickup of Percy Jackson symbolizes something else: a new phase in the journey of the YA adaptation, one that acknowledges the continuing popularity of the books among young readers while also stepping away from the massive blockbuster films of the past. Netflix has promised an adaptation of Bone, along with a long-in-the-works Chronicles of Narnia redux; HBO continues to forge ahead on its new His Dark Materials show. Artemis Fowl may be the last gasp of YA on the big screen, but there are plenty of places for it to go from here. As with most things in Hollywood, nothing stays dead for long. “I think producers and movie companies are sitting up and taking notice,” Colfer said. “They know there’s a massive built-in audience for those stories. But again, like everything, the quality varies.”