Percy Jackson & the Olympians was a well-loved fantasy series that remixed ancient Greek mythology with a modern setting, and it stood with the likes of The Hunger Games and Harry Potter as a hallmark for young adult literature. However, unlike those books, which saw their cultural impact expand through their film adaptations, Percy Jackson, a five-book series with several spin-offs, only had two films, both of which were widely reviled by fans of the novels.
With a new adaptation being developed as a series for Disney+, it’s a good time to reflect on the movies and figure out what didn’t work, and why the fans and the author, Rick Riordan, do not look back on them fondly.
The Lightning Thief is the first book in the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series, and it has a pretty simple plot structure. Percy is a demigod, a half-god/half-mortal child of Poseidon. He’s accused of stealing Zeus’s lightning bolt and sets out to retrieve it from Hades in order to clear his name. The movie manages to get all of those broad strokes right, but it messes up almost all the details that make the story work.
For one, the initial setup of the heroic quest is altered. In the book, the quest itself is about trying to get from Camp Half-Blood, a New York based refuge for demigods, to the entrance of the Underworld, which is in Los Angeles. There’s a lot of incidents that result in monster attacks, but the objective is always to keep moving west. The movie alters this, making the quest about obtaining three pearls, which Percy and his companions can use to escape to the Underworld. This makes the structure of the movie feel artificial and overly constructed, as opposed to the natural, wandering tone of the book.
The other glaring issue is the film’s handling of Luke, a son of Hermes and who helps Percy when he first gets to Camp Half-Blood. Luke is later found out to be the real “Lightning Thief,” having stolen the bolt and framed Percy. He reveals this at the end of the book, poisoning Percy and nearly killing him. In the movie, Luke reveals this earlier while Percy is attempting to return the bolt to Olympus, which led to a fight that Percy wins. This sets a different tone for the pair’s interactions in later films and makes Luke a less threatening antagonist, as is seen in The Sea of Monsters.
The bulk of The Sea of Monsters is fine; however, this time they alter details in individual scenes instead of the structure of the story. That doesn’t mean it’s a successful adaptation, especially in regards to the climax.
The story of The Sea of Monsters is of Percy’s quest for the Golden Fleece, an artifact with healing properties. Luke wants the Fleece in order to heal Kronos, the father of all gods. In the books, Kronos, the climatic final boss of the series, doesn’t show up until the fourth title.
The film adaptation on the other hand has him show up at the climax of this movie. Not only does he show up, but Percy also defeats him. While he could be a recurring villain who gets defeated multiple times, Percy Jackson is a series where prophecy is a recurring theme. A child of the “Big Three” (Poseidon, Zeus, Hades) is foretold to defeat Kronos, which means once he’s defeated, the prophecy is fulfilled. Not only does The Sea of Monsters commit the same sin of its predecessor, defeating a villain ahead of time and undermining them as a threat, it also messes up one of the central themes of the series.
The mistakes made by previous adaptations of Percy Jackson share one common error; they’re short-sighted. Adding the pearls might sound like it gives more structure, but it results in the film being artificial. Making confrontations with the principle villains of the series too early results in more cinematic fights, but it weakens the series as a whole. Disney+ needs to take an big-picture approach when planning out their adaptation. That doesn’t mean they can’t make changes to the books, but it does mean they need to make sure those changes don’t harm future storylines.
The odds of them achieving this are pretty good with Riordan stating that he will be involved “in person in every aspect of the show,” which stands in stark contrast to the previous films. In addition, television as a medium lends itself to a series like this with multiple episodes and seasons being able to structure the show after the chapters and books of the series. While none of this guarantees the show will be good, it seems likely it won’t make the same mistakes the films did.
Disney+ has ordered a series based on Percy Jackson, which have already had a failed film adaptation, but Disney can make better on the series.