The “Percy Jackson” book series, with its expansive and imaginative world, loveable characters, and surprisingly tension-filled and emotionally resonant conflicts, seemed destined to inherit the reins from “Harry Potter” and become the next family-friendly big-screen phenomenon—a new fantasy adventure movie saga to capture the minds of youths and tweens around the globe.
Indeed, even to nine and ten-year-old readers, it seemed like a mind-bogglingly easy adaptation to handle. The “Harry Potter” franchise had already provided a practical template for such adaptations and the books were all published—the storyline was all wrapped up so as to provide ample planning for the movie series as a whole. Thus, it came as a very unpleasant surprise when 20th Century Fox distributed “The Lightning Thief” in 2010 and “The Sea of Monsters” in 2013, which were so bad that they completely destroyed the prospects of the franchise as a whole. The films rewrote the stories to such an extent that they could not even be said to resemble the books at all, the writers completely bastardized the characters and the relationships, and sucked the souls out of the novels’ beloved settings: disappointed and bitter fans were left wondering, “What the hell happened?”
Luckily, Percy Jackson is getting another chance to shine in audio-visual format, this time in the form of a TV show set to air on Disney+ (production details and a release date are still unknown). The following is a list of tips so as not to repeat the debacle of the previous decade. Although much of this upcoming advice is simple and seemingly obvious in some cases, in retrospect, it should have been repeated ad nauseum to the original producers.
1. Use the end to guide the beginning
In an advantageous set of circumstances, the showrunners of the upcoming series (whoever they may be) are provided with a great opportunity to avoid the pitfalls that befell even the best adaption-based franchises, like “Game of Thrones” and “Harry Potter”, in that they can write and plan the whole series with the books having already concluded.
The piece of advice? Read the whole series, trace the characters’ arcs, understand what lessons they learn and how that affects both their inner personalities and the relationships with the people (and Gods) around them. Study the ending especially: piece together how the various elements of the characters’ trajectories lead to their ultimate destinies and the final expression of their maturity.
Doing all of this will not only ensure the able translation of thematically resonant character arcs and beloved, complex personages (already proven by the success of the novels), but also provide insurance against several potential problems that beset most other television series. First, if followed correctly, there will be a lesser chance of severe backlash to the conclusion, since it not likely that overly-rushed pacing or out-of-character moments will plague the ending, effectively preventing another “Game of Thrones” Season 8 controversy. Second, the knowledge of how the whole story unfurls is a near-guarantee that major and necessary plot-points from the books will be incorporated into the television program in a seamless and natural manner, rather than feeling shoehorned and forced. Even “Harry Potter” was not immune to this: the romance between Harry and Ginny Weasley, done so well in the book, was horrifically stilted in the films, primarily due to the earlier miscasting and mischaracterization of Ginny—if only they had the proper prior knowledge beforehand….
Therefore, this point can be summed up as follows: read the books (the ending, especially) in a close manner. Plant the seeds of the characters’ growths and destinies early on, so that the subsequent journey is logical, authentic, well-paced, and resonant.
2. Make Camp Half-Blood fun
In order to rectify what was one of the most egregious sins in the original film adaptation, it is imperative that the showrunners make Camp Half-Blood a place where kids would actually want to go to. Not only will this engage a younger audience and permeate their daydreams, but it will also be truer to the source material.
In the books, Camp Half-Blood serves nearly the same purpose as Hogwarts in “Harry Potter.” Underneath the sense of wonder it instills and its magical allure, it truly is a home for a character who never really had a home before. Percy, like Harry, always felt adrift in the normal world, misunderstood by nearly everybody he has come across. It is not until they enter the magical world that they start to feel normal.
Look at how well “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” was able to communicate all of this. The opening sequence at Hogwarts is appropriately grandiose: that magnificent shot of the castle’s exterior from the lake, the floating candles in the interior, the friendly array of ghosts, and the talking Sorting Hat combine to convey vicariously the awe and amazement that Harry is feeling in the moment. Yet, as the film progresses and eventually ends, Hogwarts is imbued with a deeper and more significant sense of emotion for Harry. Although the wonderment has not diminished in the slightest (indeed, Harry’s fascination with magic and Hogwarts never wanes), Hogwarts has gained a sense of warmth as a sanctuary of comfort and belonging for Harry: it is the first time that Harry has formed sincere interpersonal connections in a family-like manner. As such, Hogwarts becomes a character in itself, amazing in its otherworldliness yet, simultaneously, has a nostalgic homeliness to it as well.
Contrarily, 2010’s “The Lightning Thief” robs Camp Half-Blood of any such affectations, including its sense of magic, which should have been a given. Instead of the warm summer-camp-like atmosphere and ingenious incorporation of ancient Greek mythology in the books, the film opts to turn Camp Half-Blood into an unimaginative, military-like boot-camp with nearly no sign of otherworldliness and absolutely no home-like atmosphere: only a masochist would ever want to attend this place. Where is the vicarious sense of wonder? Where is the sense of inclusion that was so central in the books?
Of course, the purpose of Camp Half-Blood is to train the campers to defend themselves from mythological beasts, and, in the adolescent age range especially, there are bound to be bullies. But did not Hogwarts always have its share of severe danger, and were there not slimy, spoiled antagonists? Yet, what child, if asked, would ever turn down an invitation to attend Hogwarts?
The point is, it is definitely possible to make Camp Half-Blood a fun and inviting setting, and would definitely be in the show’s best interest. It is important for the function of the story and to capture the imaginations of the target audience.
3. Bestow upon the characters their proper age
Another moronically bizarre decision that the original film adaptation made was to increase the characters’ ages from 12 to 17. As expected, this not only resulted in severe audience backlash, but also ruined the original themes and lessons from the book.
The book series traces the characters as they age from 12 to 17 and, as such, the character arcs deal with material befitting that age range: the gradual transition from dependence to independence, the responsibility for one’s individual actions and ethical choices, and the ability to create meaningful interpersonal relationships. Yet, because the film opted inexplicably to up the characters’ ages, all of that went out of the window. And, fools that they were, the screenwriters did not even imbue the story with any new themes. Rather, interpersonal connections are just hormonal expressions of lust, and the journey is reduced to a one-dimensional quest with little to no evidence of character growth.
Indeed, when the producers sent the author of the books, Rick Riordan, the initial notes and screenplay to the movie, he replied by detailing the foolishness of changing the ages of the main characters (Riordan’s full letters to the movie producers can be accessed here: https://rickriordan.com/2018/11/memories-from-my-tv-movie-experience/. I strongly recommend reading through it all). In addition to the problems it would bestow upon the story, he also smartly forecasted the practical issues of doing so, including alienating the core book audience, the subsequent inclusion of crass humor instead of the family-friendly charm of the books, and the preclusion of developing future sequels since everybody would be too old.
Yet, the producers chose not to take any of Riordan’s counsel, which brings us to the last and final word of advice….
4. Obtain Rick Riordan’s advice and get his approval
Reading through Riordan’s letters and notes to the producers way back in 2009 (link to which is above), it is astonishing how much better the movie would have been if they had just listened to him. In addition to the age issue, he also pointed out several other issues plaguing the adaptation, including: the all-too-quick hormone-fueled romantic fulfillment between Percy and Annabeth, effectively ruining four more books’ worth of development; the relegation of Grover to comic relief, precluding his interesting backstory and ridding him of his arc of redemption; the illogical deus ex machina of Persephone and her pearls which have no basis in the book; the excising of the epic battle with Ares; and the total absence of Kronos, even in conversation (as an analogy, this would be like if “Sorcerer’s Stone” never mentioned Voldemort).
That was just a little taste of Riordan’s criticisms, all of which are salient and all of which properly diagnosed and predicted the disappointment that the majority of the audience would experience with the movie. It is predictably tragic that the producers and writers did not seem to heed a word of Riordan’s advice, a moment of ignorance that, even without the added wisdom of hindsight, is amazingly foolish.
Per the terms of Riordan’s publishing contract, the producers technically did not have to seek Riordan’s notes or approval at all, and the current showrunners do not have to either. Yet, that would just be a shot in the foot. Riordan is a great asset to make sure that the adaptation is faithful in all of the right ways.
As the original author of the work, there is no one who better understands the inner machinations of the characters and how the external events shape their relationships with each other and with themselves. He plotted each installment single-handedly and thus best knows how each event segues into the next, and how the end ultimately can have its roots traced back to the beginning. Above all, as the creator of this world and its inhabitants, there is no one who wants to see a great adaptation and true-to-life rendering of Percy Jackson and his friends more than Rick Riordan. Thus, it is inevitable that his advice will be detailed and earnest in its attempts to make sure that this project is realized to the best of its potential. To the showrunners at Disney+, please do not repeat the disaster that was 2010’s “The Lightning Thief.” The control technically lies all in your hands, and Riordan need not be contacted at all, but we all saw how that ended up ten years ago. Do the right thing. If the author is satisfied, then it is a surefire bet the audience will be too.