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Percy Jackson and the Olympians: A Failed Promise by Victor Sanchez

The world of Percy Jackson is one fraught with Greek gods and monsters living among our modern world. In each subsequent adaptation of Percy Jackson, the story morphs along with its medium, however some things seem to get lost in translation.

In 2005, one of Rick Riordan's first best-selling novels "Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief" follows an ADHD and dyslexic boy who is thrust into a world of god.

    and monsters after being accused of stealing Zeus' master bolt from Olympus. Percy comes to find out that he’s not just different, but special, discovering his origins as the son of Poseidon. Receiving ninth place on the New York Times Best Seller, critics praised the novel for its “electrifying moments chasing each other like heartbeats” and its “riotously paced quest tale of heroism that questions the realities of our world, family, friendship and loyalty.”

Hollywood saw the franchise potential in Riordan’s mythologically-based universe, immediately putting a movie into production, and releasing it for the world in the summer of 2010. The film, starring Logan Lerman, Alexandria DiDarrio, and Brandon T. Jackson, opened to a modest $31 million, but was regarded as very middling by critics, calling it “a by-the-numbers fantasy adventure that merges the modern world with a magical one” although still “good juvenile entertainment”. While this was passable enough to merit a sequel, Rick Riordan, the original author of the books, publicly criticized the film as his “life's work going through a meat grinder”. The lack of support from the creator as well as the significant fall in its sequel’s box office ended up killing the franchise, with no news of it being heard until Disney obtained the rights when they purchased 20th Century Fox in 2019. Almost a year later in May of 2020, Riordan wrote to fans on his blog, revealing the beginning development of a new on-screen Percy Jackson adaptation, only this time as a television series streamed on Disney+.

Now after over a decade since The Lightning Thief film , fans of the franchise were more than ready to finally receive a “faithful on-screen adaptation of Percy Jackson’s world”, with Riordan announcing that he would not only be endorsing the project but that he’d be personally involved in its production every step of the way. On his blog, Riordan promised that fans will “recognize the stories you know and love”. In January 2022, two years after the initial announcement, the show was given the official greenlight from Disney and casting was soon underway. 

Of course, the first character that Riordan and co. needed to cast was the titular Percy Jackson, and a few weeks later, they found someone who could be defined as perfect casting in Walker Scobell. Shortly before he was cast, Scobell starred in a Netflix film with Ryan Reynolds, titled The Adam Project. In many ways, Riordan (and fans) viewed it as a Percy Jackson audition tape, as the young talent showcased his “perfect mix of comedic timing, sweetness, rebelliousness, snark and heroism”. Scobell was already a big fan of the franchise, and with much hype from Riordan, fans were even more excited for the series as well as his portrayal of the demigod. Shortly after the rest of the main trio was cast, with Leah Jeffries playing Annabeth Chase, daughter of Athena, and Aryan Simhadri as Grover the satyr.

Filming began for the series in June of 2022 and wrapped 8 months later in February of 2023. Riordan provided many updates throughout the filming process, informing fans of the show’s progress and the young cast’s many antics during the course of the shoot. One thing that Riordan stressed in these updates was the fact that even though the story of The Lightning Thief would be changing mediums, he promised that it still felt like the book and that fans would regard the series as ‘finally, a faithful adaptation!”. This promise became the lifeline of book fans, waiting for the show to finally release and not only immerse them in a familiar world but introduce new fans to this world of Greek gods, monsters, and heroes. 

The show premiered to audiences on December 20th, 2023, debuting to 13.3 million viewers in its first six days on Disney+ and Hulu, making it one of Disney’s most popular titles in the last 3 years. Reviews for its premiere were equally as high, with IGN giving the first two episodes an 8/10 and describing it as a show “bolstered by its dreamlike visual language and emotional core” that “welcomes audiences both new and old into the world of gods and monsters''. Likewise, Forbes gave the premiere a positive review, calling it “charming and fun and filled with magic and great action and special effects”.

However, not everyone was enamored with the show as it may seem. USA Today called those same first two episodes “more half-baked than half-blood” and “confusing, with jagged pacing and an over-reliance on novice young actors”. The Daily Tar Heel reviewed the entire season, stating that while it was a better adaptation than the 2010 film, “the writing was lacking” and that throughout the show’s run it “quickly adopted an unimaginative formula”. Many hardcore book fans were torn between these two distinct sides of loving the show and finding it as yet another unfulfilling adaptation. 

Judging it on its own merits as a show, it’s a decent, light-hearted watch that kids and parents will enjoy as they grow up alongside Percy, just like us book readers. The young cast is excellent, with amazing chemistry between the main trio of Scobell (Percy Jackson), Jeffries (Annabeth), and Simhadri (Grover) as well as decent performances from the plethora of side characters. In addition, the adult cast also fires on all cylinders, save for Lin-Manuel as Hermes and Jay Duplass’ Hades, bringing a gravitas to this modern rendition of Greek mythology. Through and through, the story feels like it’s set in the world of Percy Jackson, but at the same time it also feels as though there’s something missing from that world. 

This show succeeds largely when it lets its young cast interact with one another in scenarios befitting their age, with banter and light-hearted jokes at one another. Where the show fails is in the way it decides to retell the Lightning Thief story, removing the majority of the fun and suspense from the novel and replacing it with long, drawn-out exposition in every single scene, detracting from the light-hearted tone that this series should be striving for. There’s no longer any magic or wonder, simply characters going from scene to scene, explaining everything about where they are, who the new character is and what they’re going to do next. While the story follows the same basic plot points, the journey to reach those plot points are vastly different from the original Lightning Thief.

There are so many changes from the book which are extremely difficult to justify, even accounting for the shift in medium. Just in episode 1 alone, the majority of Percy’s time at school is changed significantly. Book Percy sees his Pre-Algebra teacher turn into a monster, fights & kills that monster, and then is be paranoid and questioning himself as everyone in his school keeps telling him that they have no idea who that teacher is, meanwhile show Percy sees his Pre-Algebra teacher turn into a monster, falls on his back & kills that monster accidentally, and then is told that the teacher doesn’t exist right before being expelled that same day. 

Another deviation that the show takes is that in every monster encounter the trio simply explains the monster’s entire gimmick and how to defeat them, quickly subduing them in a matter of 5-10 minutes. This removes all of the suspense and action from the story, making it so that they never really have to fight anyone or figure anything out. All of a sudden everyone is a genius and through the power of exposition, the problem is solved and the monster is defeated.

Disney’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians feels like it was made to be a type of “second draft” from Riordan, what he would’ve done differently if he were to write The Lightning Thief today. This approach is perfectly acceptable for an artist to take, as they don’t want to retell the same story over and over, especially if that story is already in existence and extremely popular. However, where Riordan and Disney failed is in how they decided to present this show as a “more faithful on-screen adaptation” instead of a second draft. If it was pitched as a different retelling, then the show could easily be judged as a worthwhile watch for all fans. The promise that Riordan made all the way back in 2020, was a blessing for what was to come but a curse for what we received.                              

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