The Adaptation ‘Percy Jackson’ Deserves

The Harry Potter of Greek heroes is returning to the screen after his first 2010 attempt.

The aughts are defined by the young adult literature boom and the subsequent movie adaptations the books spawned. Harry Potter opened the floodgates of novels for teens and preteens that spoke to them through a lens of imagination and fantasy. Then Hollywood came swooping in. Studios’ attempts to recreate the magic money-printing power of Potter and Twilight flopped as often as they succeeded, and among the disappointments were the adaptations of the first two Percy Jackson books, a series that defined much of my own angsty pre-teen-dom.

Much like the works of J.R.R. Tolkein, Percy Jackson began life as a series of bedtime stories. Author Rick Riordan drew from his experience teaching Greek mythology to blend contemporary and classical, creating a world in which the gods live on in a magic penthouse above the Empire State Building, continuing their longstanding tradition of bickering and causing problems by being way too horny. Into this chaos is thrown the titular character, a social outcast who finds his ADHD and dyslexia (traits shared with Riordan’s son) are in fact boons, indicators of his divine heritage as a demigod. Thus begin his adventures at Camp Half-Blood, a summer camp for demigods, where he embarks on quests to battle monsters straight out of eighth grade English class and, obviously, save the world.

The Percy Jackson & the Olympians series, which began with the publication of The Lightning Thief in 2004, was a hit with the youth of the day, explosively popular and naturally drawing the eyes of 20th Century Fox. However, the 2010 Lightning Thief movie (helmed by Chris Columbus, director of the first two Harry Potter movies) suffers due to extensive executive meddling, from plot-hole inducing changes to character alterations. Riordan described many of these gripes in a 2018 blog post and swore never to work with Hollywood again. The movies, for their part, bombed hard and never made it past one sequel, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters.

The second movie was followed by years of radio silence. Then, in December of 2019, Riordan posted a blog entry hinting that discussion of a possible Percy Jackson reboot was on the table with “the Mouse god,” since Disney’s gained the adaptation rights by way of their acquisition of Fox. These rumors became reality earlier this year when Riordan and his wife announced via Twitter that the project was officially happening — as a series for Disney+. Further details remain a secret, but the news sent excitement rippling through the fandom.

The longer form of a television series, particularly one on a streaming service, is better for YA adaptations. Often these stories are structured with a vignette nature — telling a number of small, separate adventures with an overarching narrative as a bridge — and this makes them easy to pick up for the young reader. Much like video games, young adult novels have a built-in episodic nature that translates neatly to the binge-able small-screen format.

And Percy needs that space, more than Harry and Bella and Edward did. While the basic premise of Percy Jackson’s call-to-adventure has a distinctly Harry Potter bent to it, the story’s save-the-world objective and the other characters’ goals often diverge dramatically. Harry’s ultimate quest to defeat Voldemort is more or less synonymous with saving the world from the latter’s wrath. Percy spends much of The Lightning Thief rather indifferent to the quest given to him by the gods; he’s in this solely to rescue his mom from Hades.

Percy’s companions, the brainy Annabeth and satyr sidekick Grover, similarly have their own reasons for embarking on the adventure with him. Annabeth is anxious to prove her worth by taking on a quest, any quest, after having been cooped up in the safety of Camp Half-Blood her whole life and vastly underestimates the danger involved. Grover wants to advance his ambitions to eventually find the long-lost god of nature, but he has a history of failure as a demigod protector and must accomplish this task before he can pursue his dream. Personal conflicts are interwoven into the fabric of the overarching narrative in a way not often found in the Percy Jackson books’ YA contemporaries.

That requires more raw screen time to accommodate, far more than a two-hour movie is (and was) capable of. The Lightning Thief movie made enormous blunders in this regard, cutting important setups and subplots that fed into future stories and replacing them with meandering side objectives that weren’t in the original story that Riordan himself derided as “mak[ing] the story read like an illogical hatchet job.” Notably, the initial setup of arc villain and rival Luke was completely botched in the film, but it’s a setup that is necessary to drive the eventual romantic tension that becomes a prominent part of future stories when the characters start to slam headfirst into puberty.

That’s not to say Riordan won’t have his work cut out for him translating this story into the present, even with a liberated runtime. Over a decade has passed since the books were published, and the world has changed dramatically in that time. No kid had an iPhone in their back pocket in 2004 (heck, some of us didn’t even have flip phones). This is an integral detail that will need to be addressed: in-universe, cell signals attract monsters; therefore communication over long distances — or, the lack thereof — is often an important plot point.

Acceptance of ADHD and dyslexia is also on the rise. Enough that not having a smartphone in 2020 would make Percy more of an outcast among his classmates than a behavioral condition or learning disorder. Percy’s mother is consistently portrayed as impoverished, but he attends a private boarding school at the beginning of the story, presumably paid for by his wicked stepfather to keep him at an arm’s distance. It is hard to believe that a private school like this would be able to maintain funding and a strong public reputation among its stated primary clientele of wealthy New Yorker parents without providing a special program or accommodations for students with special needs.

Of course, the simplest solution to this problem would be to just set the series in the early 2000s. We’re sitting right on the cusp of the twenty-year pop culture gap, and a throwback to the aughts wouldn’t be unwelcome, particularly to the younger millennials and older Gen Z fans whose nostalgia would bring them to this series anyway. A pop-punk soundtrack of My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy would lock in that new millennium feel and gel pretty well with Percy’s own delinquent attitude that characterizes his behavior early in the series.

As for which director is best suited for the reboot, the name that immediately springs to mind is Jon Watts. He cemented his ability to replicate that John Hughes teen feeling with the Marvel Cinematic Universe Spider-Man movies. On the casting side, Jack Dylan Grazer (Shazam!) has displayed an extraordinary talent for precocious wit and seems the ideal choice for bringing Percy to the small screen with the biting sarcasm that colors the titular hero’s narration. I can think of no better actress for Annabeth than Elsie Fisher (Eighth Grade). As for Percy’s other companion, I’m thinking Tyler Alvarez, whose portrayal of an awkward but determined documentarian in American Vandal could be easily flexed into Grover’s own earnest devotion to a cause.

Since the conclusion of the original Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, Riordan has gone on to expand his shared universe faster than Marvel did, with both an Egyptian and a Norse series. They culminate in a book imprint called “Rick Riordan Presents,” which highlights diverse and talented authors from all walks of life. A successful reboot could open the doors to bringing all of these stories to a larger audience. Perhaps there could even be some spinoffs.

Beyond that, a high-quality, multi-season adaption of Percy Jackson would shatter the narrative that YA adaptions are necessarily bad, with the (debatable) exception of Harry Potter. Kids aren’t stupid and deserve entertainment that speaks to them on their own level. Percy Jackson could be the one to break through this particular glass ceiling, and as an avid fan, I continue to have hope.

Hans Qu: Hans Qu is an animator with Strong Opinions about animation. Along with said opinions, his art and animation can be found on his Bird App account: @NerdyChineseBoy