Thirteen years out from the less-than-beloved 2010 film adaptation, the world now sees a second stab at bringing the “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” novel series to life on screen – this time, to your home devices. Guided by author Rick Riordan, Percy Jackson and the Olympians on Disney+ confidently walks the tight line between a faithful and innovative adaptation. In addition to bringing many of the novel’s long-awaited fan-favorite moments to the silver screen, the Disney+ original series has a fair share of surprises for audiences, including a young cast of expressive actors vying for their chance to bring the iconic characters of Camp Half-Blood and this mythical world to life. It feels like an instant classic, exciting and magical while staying true to the emotion and heart of the original books. There’s a lot to love in Disney+’s new series, yet every adaptation has its challenges.
Disney’s 2019 purchase of 20th Century Fox and the scramble to beef up the catalog of their premier streaming service made another go at Percy Jackson and the Olympians a no-brainer. Short of a few early hit series from Marvel and Star Wars, the streaming service has needed more diversity among its tentpole attractions. To this day, the first season of The Mandalorian and WandaVision remain Disney+’s only unchallenged successes. There was a lot of pressure behind the scenes for Percy Jackson to change that and bring new eyes to the platform, particularly as interest in its two largest two franchises became less dependable. The potential was huge; at over 700 weeks on the New York Times’ Children’s Series Bestsellers list, Percy Jackson rivals even juggernaut competitor Harry Potter (767 weeks), which notoriously birthed a multi-billion dollar entertainment ecosystem of films, theme parks, videogames, and a Broadway play.
With the news coming straight from the mouth of creator Rick Riordan as well as his wife and business partner Becky Riordan, the announcement of Disney+’s Percy Jackson promised a very different version of the series than what we had previously seen on the big screen. The author himself had openly criticized the 2010 film and its 2013 sequel for its many liberties taken from the source material and abandonment of many foundational elements he had instilled into the primarily middle-grade text. With the new Disney+ rendition, Riordan promised that he would be “involved in person in every aspect of the show” – a famous point of contention held against the original films.
Spanning the entirety of Riordan’s first novel “The Lightning Thief,” Disney+’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians is the story of a young boy named Percy, played by Walker Scobell of The Adam Project fame, who discovers that he is in fact a godspawn. When his mother (Virginia Kull) is seemingly killed during a run-in with the mythical Minotaur, he is thrust into the world of Greek mythology full of gods, monsters, and half-bloods – the children of the Olympians and their earthly affairs. But something is different about Percy, and he soon learns that he, the only son of Poseidon (Toby Stephens), is at the center of a prophecy that fates him to settle a dispute between his father and Zeus (Lance Reddick) over the latter’s stolen Master Bolt, a crackling weapon of incomparable power that has gone missing.
Joined by his half-goat – more properly, satyr – friend and protector Grover Underwood (Aryan Simhadri) and the sharp-witted and ambitious young daughter of Athena, Annabeth Chase (Leah Sava Jeffries), Percy is tasked to embark on a quest to recover the Bolt and save the world before the gods go to war and tear it apart. Created by Riordan and Black Sails’ Jonathan E. Steinberg (the latter of whom reunites with collaborator Dan Shotz as showrunner), Percy Jackson and the Olympians is organized into eight episodes, each of which is cheekily headed with snarky chapter titles torn directly from the book’s pages – a warm, welcome emblem of the love that his series has for its original text. And this homage is far from superficial.
Setting straight faults of the past, the Disney+ adaptation gains much of its identity from its young cast. Series lead Walker Scobell and co-leads Leah Sava Jeffries and Aryan Simhadri bring a distinct voice to the show that realizes its core trio in a way anyone over the age of 18 never could. Leah Sava Jeffries’s Annabeth was initially seen as a “subversive” pick by some as she doesn’t strictly follow the book’s description of her as a gray-eyed blonde, but the actress offers up a compelling embodiment of the character’s stubborn ego, curiosity, and intellect. Though the youngest of the cast, she impressively manages to capture Annabeth’s maturity and project that into a confident and experienced performance that squares up with Scobell’s more emotional and personable take on the titular hero.
It would be easy to dismiss Scobell’s take on Percy as playing to his own sarcastic strong-minded strengths, like his role in The Adam Project, but he does show quite a bit of range. Impressive for any young actor, he consistently feels engaged with the material – here, Walker Scobell truly becomes Percy Jackson. It’s not a flashy performance by any means and he mostly shines through interaction with other on-screen characters, being especially great in scenes with actress Virginia Kull. Despite being this story’s “Chosen One,” he does bring an everyman energy that helps ground the show in an approachable perspective. Aryan Simhadri’s Grover brings a fun energy to the trio, a nice contrast to some of Annabeth and Percy’s more tense moments. For every moment of welcome comedic relief, however, there are a few where inexperienced dramatic chops make for moments that fall a bit flat.
Together, the trio has a realistic, strong dynamic that is sometimes too charming for their its good. Although their jovial dynamic does generally feel appropriate to the material, there are cases where their real-world friendship seemingly bleeds into frame, and urgency comes off as something a bit more comical than life-threatening. Textually heated conversations can sometimes feel a bit less pointed than they should, and longer dialogue scenes can feel emotionally stagnant, leaving the score (which is largely unmemorable) to build tension and do the emotional heavy lifting. It’s hard to discern whether this is a problem with the chemistry, acting, or directing, but it does dilute the efficacy of the show’s central heart and, at times, bog down what is an otherwise fast-moving narrative.
The first episode, “I Accidentally Vaporize My Pre-Algebra Teacher,” moves at a rip-roaring break-neck pace, moving from New York City to Percy’s private boarding school to Montauk to camp in a brisk 35 minutes. Such a fast-moving introduction to this world and characters leaves foundational moments of character and world-building practically screaming for more time to breathe. This is especially disappointing when you consider many of Percy Jackson’s contemporaries thrive because of their richly developed and wholly realized worlds. This is also, of course, the episode that establishes the relationship between Percy and his mother, a central keystone to the narrative and Percy’s motivations as a character.
Virginia Kull, who plays Sally Jackson, steps into a profoundly compelling performance of an interesting character and role; a woman who can see beyond the mortal world and is forced to exist outside of it, but her child, whom she raised largely alone, suffers because of it. Though her screen time is short, she captures this complex and nuanced frustration and tragedy with genuine depth and understanding, and when she shares the screen with Scobell, their relationship feels larger than life. Given some of the most dynamic material in any episode, she is by far the most expressive actor in the show. As a result, however, her command of emotion and screen presence overwhelm shortcomings in script and direction in ways both good and bad, adding new thematic layers while sometimes clashing with the show’s faster-paced presentation.
Percy’s step-father Gabe Ugliano, whom he detests in the novel, also occupies this first episode but feels all but unrecognizable as the abuser he is in the book. Here, played by Timm Sharp, he feels more incompetent than violent, more bumbling and annoying than demanding and hate-inspiring. This rewriting of Gabe is reinforced later when the character is leveraged in a comedic beat as Percy consults with the Oracle for his quest. At a small level, this speaks to an overall interest in the show to lean into a more light-hearted, family-friendly atmosphere. Though it isn’t fair to compare this to popular criticisms of Marvel Studios’ latest fodder, it does beg the question of lack of confidence in the series’ more mature elements and perhaps the influence of corporate hands in the matter. Regardless: not everything is played for laughs, but it never gets very dark.
Jessica Parker Kennedy marks another significant, interesting element of the show, moving beyond its first episode. Kennedy’s “Aunty Em” is a slightly different Medusa than readers will recognize from the book, lending the role to a larger, holistic thematic understanding of the Percy Jackson thesis. Though a “monster” herself, Medusa is mythologically a victim; when mortal Medusa is caught having an affair with Poseidon, the goddess Athena curses her with snake hair and petrifying eyes, not her immortal sea god lover. Even in the story for which Medusa is most popular, she is not an antagonist: the mythological hero Perseus (for whom Percy Jackson is named) cuts off her head as a gift to a far-off king, making her yet again a victim of male objectification. Her existence and cultural image as a “monster” surrounds a sexual, objectifying gaze, robbing her of agency.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians addresses this historical complexity by using her character in its thematic exploration of trust: are people really who they seem? Shifting the lens of the trio’s encounter with the Gorgon from one of “surprise” (in the book, they do not initially realize that “Aunty Em” is Medusa until it is nearly too late) to informed hesitance makes for more compelling characterization. It forces characters to make decisions and reflect on their biases – much more interesting than sudden action set pieces. Besides, what student of mythology wouldn’t connect the dots between “Aunty Em” and a store full of life-sized garden statues?
But Medusa’s sympathetic depiction poses a major problem. Existing partially thanks to fan support, the creative team behind this adaption dare not omit any of the major memorable moments – especially not one so iconic as battling Medusa. The script thus sees a compelling character turn brash, a startling 180 that feels more mandated than natural. The show hides this turn within a different theme of identity and loyalty, but it feels like a betrayal of its former supposition that not all monster-looking monsters are monsters. “You are not your parents until you choose to be,” would be an interesting sentiment if we felt any pressure on our protagonist to be his father, but we don’t. He has already made the character decisions that prove Medusa’s accusation wrong, and thus their interaction feels unchallenging.
These themes of parental relationships and godly criticism are extremely important to the show, much like they are to the book. Episode two “I Become Supreme Lord of the Bathroom,” our introduction to Camp Half-Blood and its residents, establishes the nuance of a world connected yet separate from that of its godly rulers. Demigod children yearn to impress, to be recognized, or to merely be acknowledged by their godly parents, and this manifests itself in a multitude of ways. It is through this lens that a Greekified summer camp becomes something more tragic: this is the only place where these abandoned children can have a future, yet they are limited by relationships with absent parents who will not give them the time of day.
Clarisse La Rue, played by Dior Goodjohn, is quick to anger as she expects the same fear and respect associated with her father Ares (Adam Copeland), but is still inherently just a kid at hero camp. Similarly, Charlie Bushnell’s Luke Castellan brings a dismissive air to his godly relationship. To him – son of absent father Hermes (Lin-Manuel Miranda), and as such, the counselor of all “unclaimed” campers – none of it matters. The whole system is broken, and the gods are to blame. On a more general level, criticism of the gods appears constantly, naturally incorporated into almost every motivation and throwaway moment – Medusa’s words strike true. Fans of the series will know where this is going, and it’s a necessary point of emphasis vital in complicating later narrative developments. The groundwork is laid simply but comprehensively – if not thoroughly, for lack of time to slow down.
Even Percy and Poseidon are no different, and we see a much more explicit exploration of desperation and resentment in their relationship here than in the “Lightning Thief” book. Percy’s relationship with his mother stands out for its affection; no other demigod talks of having a close relationship with their parents, godly or otherwise. This palpable presence of love helps drive Percy’s motivation to go on the quest.
There is also something to be said about the visual diversity of the entire series; in constantly changing its presentation, the road-trip format does not get tired, and each location feels fresh and distinct both visually and tonally. From the lushly vegetated Camp Half-Blood nestled in the mountainous hills of Long Island (eye roll) to the confined small spaces of the Gateway Arch’s interior in St. Louis, there is an unflashy but close relationship between visual language and setting, rendering a well-realized perception of visual tone. Cinematographers Pierre Gill and Jules O’Loughlin do well to visually guide the seams between the many worlds of the story: the real and the magical, the natural and the man-made, the practical and the digital.
For a story about the fantastical, Percy Jackson remains a show largely grounded in reality. While its CG monsters are an attraction, the vast majority of its visual effects remain, thankfully, invisible. The show famously uses one of ILM’s StageCraft Volume stages, the virtual production LED wall technology made famous by The Mandalorian. The Volume’s use in later seasons of The Mandalorian and in movies like Thor: Love and Thunder have been universally criticized for looking “fake,” but Percy Jackson never quite fumbles the execution so badly. The lighting is consistent, and the environments look serviceably real, with the only exception being surreal dream sequences sprinkled throughout – an impressive feat for an effects-heavy long-form series.
Much of Percy Jackson and the Olympians feels tailor-made for television. Its neat episodic structure is refreshing in the current landscape of franchises on streaming, and each chapter is mostly well-suited to 30-40-minute episodes. Even the oddly paced first episode begs forgiveness through this lens, as it conforms itself to the necessary shape and structure to exist within the larger narrative and structural framework of an 8-episode season. It’s also interesting that the directors of Percy Jackson often include intermittent fade-outs that feel like commercial breaks, as the show will be headed to Disney+ rather than traditional cable. For these reasons, it’s hard to ignore its forever home on the platform where it will likely find many eyes both familiar and new. It does also beg a further question, though, of whether this will be enough to expand the larger cultural legacy of Percy Jackson.
Episodic television does feel right for this story, which previously proved itself a little too robust for theatrical adaptation, but with streaming on the decline, its reach may not be quite as far as its potential would imply. Much like the world saw with the Harry Potter films, a good, faithful live-action Percy Jackson series could and should be huge. Even if it gains the audience needed to adapt the entire series into later seasons, will it ever gain the kind of overwhelming, universal cultural notoriety typically reserved only for theatrical films? For all its quirks, the team behind Percy Jackson and the Olympians has created an interesting and complex adaptation of “The Lightning Thief” that both respects its source material and builds upon it, but its ultimate limiting factor may end up being the platform on which it lives.