I must confess first and foremost that Percy Jackson and the Olympians was one of my favorite book series growing up. Throughout middle and high school, I was completely sucked into Rick Riordan’s urban fantasy stories where a world of mythology hides just beneath the surface, and great heroes emerge from otherwise inconspicuous 8th grade field trips. I continued into Riordan’s vast YA universe with series like The Heroes of Olympus, The Kane Chronicles, and Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, but none of them quite struck me the way Percy Jackson did when a friend first loaned me The Lightning Thief in 7th grade.
After one disappointing move in 2010 followed by a very disappointing movie in 2013, I resolved that this story would never be put to the screen correctly, and settled to appreciating the books as books. Fast forward to 2021, and Rick Riordan, revered architect of a million childhoods, walks out of Disney headquarters with an impossible deal – an 8 episode live-action series with a decent budget and 100% contracted creative control. No studio notes, no interference from Disney execs. Rick, his wife Becky, and his writing partner Johnathan E. Steinburg (Black Sails, Jericho) are the first and last word on a new Percy Jackson adaptation.
First, I must say that overall I immensely enjoyed seeing the opening chapters of The Lightning Thief put to screen in the double-episode premiere. Walker Scobell (The Adam Project) takes his lead role as the titular character seriously, and it’s evident at once that Riordan found the right kid for the job. He’s enthusiastic about the role, and he plays his part well, but he is written as much more of a traditional YA blank slate protagonist in the show than in the novel. Sadly, I’m unable to comment on Leah Sava Jeffries’ (Empire) performance as Annabeth as she’s only given three lines in these first two episodes.
Rather than being quippy and sarcastic to the point he literally can’t stop talking his way into trouble, Percy is presented as one of the most serious and self-meditative 12-year-olds I’ve ever seen. Grover, Percy’s partner-in-crime, is played by newcomer Aryan Simhadri and has decent chemistry with Scobell – but again loses some of the humor the character is known for. The same is true for Jason Mantzoukas’ Dionysus – where did the humor go? While the acting is on point, the writing feels a bit stilted from this angle and I hope Riordan allows the quick, hyperactive humor he’s known for to shine through in future episodes.
A few scenes from the novel were removed in the transition to TV, but I believe all of them were for the better. Virginia Kull does fantastic work as Sally Jackson (Percy’s mother), and is given much more screen-time in this adaptation so that the audience can truly feel it when she makes her sacrifice. I must say my favorite translation of a character from screen-to-page was Charlie Bushnell’s turn as Luke, Percy’s kind and respectful mentor figure in this strange new world. His honesty, tough exterior, and soft heart mirror the character in the first book well. Dior Goodjohn’s Clarisse also impressed me, coming off as a bit more of a psychopath than a bully – but hey, I’m in for the ride.
I am confused about a few of the editing decisions made in this show, particularly concerning the fight scenes and transitions. I assume the fight scene with the (excellent) CGI Minotaur is so dark and so filled with jump cuts because of cost-cutting purposes, but it came out looking jarred and hard to follow. Meanwhile, the Capture the Flag fight in the second episode looked great, with all practical work and some decent sword choreography. Transitions between scenes are sudden, with a lot of quick fades, and it really took me out of the moment a few times. However, the cinematography work is impressive, and makes up for the editing issues. The centerpiece on display here, however, is the set design.
Camp Half-Blood looks real. I am having trouble, after watching that episode, believing it’s not a place that exists out in the New York countryside where young demi-gods are training right now. It is both just as I envisioned it in my head 18 years ago and beyond my imagination’s capabilities. These practical sets are, I think, the crown jewel of this adaptation, and any other book readers out there are going to hear their jaws hit the floor when they see the cabins. The on-set filming was worth every penny, with the deep forest environments and rocky lake shores transporting me into scene after scene. And credit to those in lighting as well, everything in the second episode looked perfect.
The first two episodes of Percy Jackson were great in many ways, but there is definitely room for improvement in both the writing and editing. Percy Jackson‘s success as a book series was largely due to the outrageous humor in Percy’s inner monologue, and simply removing it from the show loses some of the charm. However, I’m confident that Scobell and Simhadri have some chemistry cooking, and their performances alongside a slew of talented actors we’ll meet along the adventure makes me hopeful.
This adaptation feels like it was directly made for book readers, in a way – not that non-readers won’t be able to follow, but there’s almost more reward of “look, we actually translated this to the screen” than interesting sequences in these episodes. If you’re a book fan, this is what almost exactly what you dreamed of. If you’re not, stop on by! There’s always room in the Hermes cabin for a few guests. Regardless of which you are, I’m confident that this adaptation will continue to be very good, and hopefully become great by the time Percy stares down Ares on the beach for his legendary fight.