star Ferdia Shaw on Kenneth Branagh’s books adaptation


Any time a movie is made from a much-loved series of books, the question is inevitably raised of whether it can possibly live up to the source material.

It’s particularly pronounced in the world of fantasy and sci-fi, where the fantastical worlds and magical characters dreamt up by authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien and JK Rowling are interpreted by directors whose visions might be at odds with the fertile imaginations of readers.

Eoin Colfer’s much-loved, best-selling, young adult Artemis Fowl series, which he has previously described as “Die Hard with fairies”, is no exception.

Oscar-nominated director Kenneth Branagh is the man tasked with bringing life to the Irish author’s world of fairies, trolls, dwarfs and humans and there’s already chatter from the fans that the title character, a 12-year-old genius and supervillain, is rather more heroic and less villainous than they were expecting.

Ferdia Shaw, the Irish actor making his feature film debut as the lead character alongside screen veterans including Judi Dench, Josh Gad and Colin Farrell in the $180 million blockbuster that is bypassing cinemas to debut on Disney+ this week, is entirely unfazed.

“They are separate entities, the Artemis Fowl book series and the Artemis Fowl film series, if it does become a series,” he says.

“If we’d copied it exactly from the books, it would be kind of boring for the fans because they’d be watching the same thing and they would know what was going to happen. We put our own stamp on it and I think you always have to change things slightly. Artemis himself is very different and that’s just our adaptation.”

Shaw was already a fan of Colfer’s eight Artemis Fowl books, published between 2001-2012 and touted by some at the time as the successor to the Harry Potter series. He says his intimate knowledge of the books was a huge leg-up during the protracted process to land the role when he beat out 1200 other hopefuls over five auditions in his homeland and London. While acting was in Shaw’s blood – his grandfather was Robert Shaw of Jaws and The Sting fame – before Artemis Fowl, he’d only appeared in plays and student films in his hometown of Kilkenny and been to just one audition (for James Cameron’s Avatar 2), so he was managing expectations from day one.

“We kind of went into it not with high hopes because obviously there were a lot of people going for the role so it was a very slim chance that I was going to get it,” he says.

“It was more a fun day out, get to meet cool people and see the sets, but when I got to the third audition, it got more serious and I was thinking that I might actually have a chance. They were saying ‘you’re down to 12 people, you’re down to three people’ and it got more serious as it went along.”

Branagh, who had previously directed the first Thor film for Marvel, as well as the hit
live-action version of Cinderella and the 2017 adaptation of Murder On the Orient Express, was impressed with Shaw’s dry, laconic sense of humour, intelligence and curiosity.

“He’s interested in everything,” says Branagh. “He’d also read all the Artemis books and was well versed in the subject matter and he was very open to being directed and to being exposed to this quite intensive experience for the first time.”

Shaw says winning the part was “surreal”, and he threw himself into the stunt training, voice work, learning to surf and making “gloopy cupcakes” with Dench as a bonding exercise during the month of preparation before the shoot. And during the filming on the enormous sets at London’s Longcross Studios, while dodging computer-generated trolls and decked out in what he called “the suit of woe” and trying not to crack up at the endlessly ad libbing Gad, Shaw was grateful for the steady hand and guidance of Branagh.

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“He was really nice to work with on set as well because he has been an actor, so he knows what it was like to be in your shoes,” Shaw says.

“So he will let you do the scene and then he will say ‘OK, now let’s try it this way’. He just kind of tweaks your performance now and again, but not too much. Just to let you do your own thing and adding in little things to help you out.”

Artemis Fowl is streaming from today on Disney+

BOOKS OR MOVIE?

HARRY POTTER

JK Rowling’s tales of the boy wizard were already a pop culture phenomenon by the time the eagerly anticipated first film Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was released in 2001.

It was a monster hit, as were the seven films that followed and the lead actors have become synonymous with their characters, but inevitably some of Rowling’s richness and subplots were lost in paring down some of the doorstopper books for the big screen.

Verdict: Books – by a width of a phoenix feather

THE LORD OF THE RINGS

Aside from an uneven, unfinished animated version in 1978, J. R. R Tolkien’s towering trilogy about a plucky hobbit tasked with destroying a magical ring remained unfilmed, and to many unfillable, for almost half a century. While the books, and the accompanying meticulously crafted mythology of elves, orcs, dwarfs and men, remain bestsellers and revered by nerds and
non-nerds the world over, Kiwi director Peter Jackson’s bold and brilliantly executed vision of filming all three chapters at once stands as one of the most astonishing achievements in movie history and won 17 Oscars between them.

Verdict: Dead heat – so precioussssss

TWILIGHT

Stephanie Meyer’s bafflingly popular young adult vampire romance novel about a surly 17-year-old schoolgirl who falls for a sparkling-skinned bloodsucker was always bound for the big screen after it climbed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list in 2005. Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart (left), both excellent actors who have done far better work elsewhere, battled gamely with the industrial-strength brooding and the dodgy dialogue, but you just can’t polish a turd.

Verdict: Movies – but both suck

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