Author Rick Riordan took the internet by storm on the afternoon of May 14th when he posted a message to fans on Twitter – announcing an upcoming adaptation of his popular young teen novel series Percy Jackson and the Olympians for Disney Plus. Considering the less than favorable history of the series in live action, the almost unanimous sense of celebration at the release of the news was accompanied by reasonable concerning questions and doubt.
For those unfamiliar with the franchise, Percy Jackson and the Olympians is a five-book novel series for young audiences centered on Percy Jackson, a demigod half-blood who turns out to be the son of Poseidon. Annabeth Chase, daughter of Athena, and Grover Underwood, their part goat and human satyr protector, join efforts to prevent a world-ending prophecy over the course of the books. They come face-to-face with modernized versions of classic Greek myths along their journey.
Depicting a world where the Greek gods turn out to be real and mythological beasts attack at every turn, the franchise has captured the hearts of millions. Though previous responses to fans’ pleas for screen adaptations of Riordan’s myth-infused coming-of-age tales were met with dire distaste. Two films released in 2010 and 2013 respectively twisted the story far beyond its source material. In a letter to the 2010 film’s producers, the author himself was heavily critical of the film: “The script as a whole is terrible. I don’t simply mean that it deviates from the book, though certainly it does that to the point of being almost unrecognizable as the same story.”
As predicted, the films were critically panned, resulting in poor scores on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. Both films about doubled their budgets in box office totals (a combined budget of $185 million earned a worldwide total of $428.7 million), but the all-around poor performance of the franchise brought the franchise to a halt. These criticisms also reflect the opinions that reverberated throughout fan networks online after the release. The films offered what the studio thought to be a more marketable, teen-targeted adventure movie at the cost of being faithful to the original books’ plot and audience. A new adaptation is on the horizon though, and these are the five things audiences can expect from a new venture on Disney Plus.
1. Child-Friendly Content
The original Percy Jackson novels were written and planned similarly to the often-compared Harry Potter books: designed to follow the protagonists as they matured, the tone of the stories slowly matching their development into a much more fateful story. While the series included its fair share of action and violence, it was within taste to target audiences of nine to twelve. In his letters to producers, one of Riordan’s biggest initial complaints with Fox’s 2010 adaptation was the inclusion of suggestive language and content as “a lazy attempt to make the script seem hip to teens,” thus butchering his child-oriented coming-of-age story.
To the dismay of fans and the creator, beloved characters were degraded to vessels for sexual innuendos and foul language. Riordan went so far as to say, in reference to a younger audience, “I would be horrified if I steered them into a movie with this kind of content. I wouldn’t see it. I wouldn’t let my kids see it. I wouldn’t recommend anyone else see it, and I certainly wouldn’t want my name associated with it”. So it is safe to say we won’t be encountering any f-bombs in Disney’s iteration of Percy Jackson.
2. A Mostly Pre-Teen Cast
This differentiation in the on-screen appearances of Percy, Annabeth, and Grover will offer a much more interesting, faithful depiction of their relationships from the novels. The two demigods begin their journey at twelve years old, and their satyr protector is described to appear sixteen. In the previous film series, they all seemed to be about the same age, with Percy and Grover attending the same school with the same classes. If anything, Grover was a more immature character in the movie than his younger companions. An older, more protective spirit will surely follow the character in this adjustment – allowing for a more accurate adaptation of the character.
3. No Pearls
Anyone who has read The Lightning Thief likely rolled their eyes at the inclusion of ‘Persephone’s Pearls’ in the theatrical adaptation. They represent little more than an unnecessarily complicated alternative to the novel’s explanation for the road-trip nature of Percy’s quest. Instead of being forced to drive cross-country for fear that Zeus would zap his plane out of the sky, the gang must weave across the continental United States for no other logical purpose than to fill up runtime. For a story based on a quest to find a stolen lightning bolt, the pearls boil down to superficial plot tokens with no mythological basis. In the words of Rick Riordan: “A truly bad plot device.” Based on the strongly worded disdain for their contrived inclusion, Riordan is not likely to add any sort of comparably extraneous plot device.
4. More Character Backstory
With more runtime to play with, it should be no surprise that a streaming service will offer more insight to the characters of Percy Jackson than a cinematic franchise ever could. However, as is quickly becoming cliche, the producers of the 2010 film were all but considerate of including even basic characterizations of the story’s main characters.
The original novel is about rising above difficulty to become a hero. Percy, as the protagonist, embodies this theme in coming to terms with his divine parenthood and being a hero despite his conflicted feelings about his father. The film portrays this conflict in the most basic way, delivering knowledge of an absentee father as if it is nothing more than a means to superpowers. In reality, it is the base for Percy’s entire inner turmoil throughout the series. Portraying the mindset of Percy in an empathetic, understanding manner is key to delivering an emotionally compelling story.
Similarly, Annabeth is meant to be less of a source of romance for Percy – but one of intimidation, uncertainty, and jealousy. In the books, she has a much more extensive relationship with Luke, having grown up with him on the streets. Her family history and connection to Luke is integral to the character, along with a strong desire to lead and demonstrate her abilities as the daughter of Athena.
Out of all characters in The Lightning Thief, Grover is maybe the most complex in terms of backstory and goals. He holds guilt over his past failures as a keeper (not only for Percy) and a drive to do what no other satyr had and locate the long-lost god of the wild, Pan. These motivations are mostly absent in the first theatrical film and are a strongly emphasized shortcoming mentioned by Riordan in his lengthy production notes.
The god of war himself, Ares was one of the key antagonists of Riordan’s original 2005 novel. His role as a manipulative, deceptive force of opposition in the books was noticeably absent from the film. Removed entirely and replaced with an expanded inclusion of Luke Castellan, introducing the son of Hermes as a much more influential and pivotal villain much earlier in the story. The author’s notes on the film, of course, mentioned this in passing – alluding to replacing the Hydra scene at the recreated Parthenon with a confrontation with Ares. Obviously, his suggestions were not influential to the final version of the script. The Hydra remained one of the main set pieces in the film with Ares only appearing as a side role, sitting on Mount Olympus. Thankfully, with Riordan’s heavy involvement, fans can likely expect to see Ares assume an accurately important role in the plot of the first season’s adaptation of The Lightning Thief.
If there is one thing to take away from Riordan’s announcement, it is a clear dedication to capturing the spirit of his original novels. As evident by his comments on the earlier failed cinematic adaptations, he understands the passion that fans have for these stories. He has proven to be an avid supporter of bringing these stories to life on-screen, in a faithful fashion. While the true extent of his involvement in the upcoming show’s production remains unknown, members of the fandom should sleep well knowing that the future of the franchise is safe in Rick Riordan’s hands.