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Book vs film: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

The Book Corner season 5: Book vs film. Episode 3: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

The Percy Jackson heroverse is a middle grade mega-brand today, but 2005’s The Lightning Thief was cast firmly in the role of Harry Potter wannabee by its 2010 movie adaptation. Does the plucky young demigod deserve his reputation, and what does Disney’s 2023 Christmas reboot do to his story?

The Book Corner

The Book Corner is a regular break from critiquing for the writing group of my former MA colleagues. We work out a theme and everyone chooses a book that we’ll read and discuss. Previous themes have included literary genre award winners and books that shaped our writing journeys. I’ve done round-ups of previous seasons, but for the sake of good SEO and keeping my blog lively, I’ll try to review them as we go this year.

As usual, it’s an odd mix with a skew towards SF and fantasy, and in this season we’re comparing books to their screen adaptations. Catch up with Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion and The Dark Tower vol 1 — The Gunslinger by Stephen King.

Coming up: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin vs Tales from Earthsea by Goro Miyazaki, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, The Colour Out Of Space by HP Lovecraft (vs the bonkers Nicolas Cage adap.) and Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynn Jones.

The Lightning Thief: the story

A boy with a lightning bolt: the cover of Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan

On first read, The Lightning Thief looks like a box-ticking exercise for children’s fantasy.

Orphan boy Chosen One with magical powers who doesn’t know what he is: TICK. Step-parent who doesn’t ‘get’ the Chosen One: TICK. School for other magic kids who know more stuff than the Chosen One but they aren’t as powerful: TICK. Male and female magic friend sidekicks for a save-the-world MacGuffin quest: TICK. Gruff mentor who’s actually a half-human half-human centaur: TI

OK, the last one breaks the formula, but The Lightning Thief looks very at home in the world of Noughties YA fantasy.

Who is Percy Jackson?

Perseus ‘Percy’ Jackson is a dyslexic New York 12-year-old and the not-so-secret son of absent father and Greek god-of-the-seas, Poseidon. When someone steals top god Zeus’s lightning bolt, Percy is unmasked and sent to Camp Half-Blood for his own safety. His mother cannot enter the sanctuary, and a minotaur sent by Hades, king of the underworld, appears to kill her.

At the camp, Percy meets other children of Greece’s promiscuous pantheon, discovers his best friend Grover is a satyr, his favourite teacher is a centaur, and he begins to understand his water-related supernatural powers. Before long, Percy, Grover and Annabeth — a daughter of Athena — are questing for the stolen lightning bolt, because not finding it could result in a war on Mount Olympus that would have apocalyptic consequences on Earth. The gods seem to think Percy’s the thief and he hopes that finding it will win recognition from his father.

Embarking on a road trip to enter Hades and recover the lightning bolt, they encounter monsters and perils of Greek myth at iconic American locations. Percy discovers that the real thief planned to start a war and claim Olympus for themselves. Percy masters his powers and is able to defeat the villain. Delivering the lightning bolt to Zeus also wins Percy an audience with his proud father, but when he returns to Camp Half-Blood, another traitor unmasks themselves and reveals that there was a dark force behind the plot. The threat to Olympus is not over.

The Lightning Thief: a writer’s review

The origin story even looks a bit like Harry Potter: Rick Riordan created Percy Jackson for his son, who was obsessed with Greek mythology. Percy Jackson’s debut also struggled to find an agent, although unlike JK Rowling, Riordan was already a successful crime writer. Since the first edition in 2005, he’s turned it into a middle-grade brand spanning more than 20 books and numerous mythologies, a video game and a musical.

The most striking aspect of The Lightning Thief is its style, particularly compared to YA fantasies like Harry Potter or His Dark Materials. It often feels basic in comparison to Rowling’s or Pullman’s prose, but that makes more sense when you discover that Riordan wrote with his son’s ADHD and dyslexia in mind. The simple language and the direct storytelling look more like a feature than a bug, although it also anchors The Lightning Thief firmly in its category; I can’t imagine adults wanting to read this.

In some ways, that’s a shame because Riordan has fun bringing the ancient myths into a modern context. The Lotus Eaters in Las Vegas stood out for me, and the concept of demigods being discouraged because their irresponsible creation has lead to terrible conflicts throughout history.

No room for American gods

The notion of Greek gods following the ‘dominant’ civilization through history doesn’t stand up as well to adult scrutiny. It’s a kid-friendly idea with a nasty neo-colonial aftertaste. I couldn’t help thinking that America’s existing gods had to make way for the European immigrants, and what happens when the dominant civilization moves again? If it ends up in Asia, India and China have packed pantheons of their own. These questions apparently occurred to Riordan as well: in 2016 he co-created a middle-grade imprint to “focus on diverse, mythology-based fiction by new, emerging, and under-represented authors”.

The Lightning Thief’s origin as a series of bedtime stories lends a reason to its accessibly episodic structure and chapter titles like “Grover Unexpectedly Loses His Trousers”. Unfortunately, it also sometimes breaks the tension that you might experience with a more flowing narrative.

As for Percy himself, the first person narrative allows him to be a boy discovering his potential, describing his adventures and troubles in his own language. He’s modest and likeable, refusing to play his own fanfare, sharing his loyalty to his friends and understandable frustrations with life. It’s a neat twist to turn his dyslexia and ADHD into aspects of a restless warrior spirit that’s more in tune with ancient Greek than modern English.

Grover Underwood, Percy Jackson and Annabeth Chase in the 2005 film Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief
Grover Underwood, Percy Jackson and Annabeth Chase catch flies in the 2010 film Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. Image: 20th Century Fox

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

A teenage boy stands heroically amidst swirling waters in a poster for the 2010 film Percy Jackson and The Lightning Thief.

The movie adaptation was released into the post-Potter YA fantasy peak, looking great on paper. The supporting cast alone includes Sean Bean (spoiler: he doesn’t die), Steve Coogan, Rosario Dawson, Ray Winstone, Uma Thurman and Joe Pantoliano. Despite this star power, PJATOTLT settled at a lacklustre 49% on Rotten Tomatoes. That’s probably because strong set pieces don’t overcome an on-rails Hollywood plot that significantly departs from the book.

It doesn’t have much fun with the premise and the changes annoyed both fans and Rick Riordan. The producers aged-up Percy and his companions from early teens to young adults. Independent platonic friend Annabeth became a love interest (because Hollywood) and some fun scenes and characters are excised.

Satyr Grover’s horniness was amped-up into a caricature, and he also suffers one of the film’s most uncomfortable scenes (one that’s not in the book). Rosario Dawson’s purring sex-kitten goddess Persephone seduces young mortal Grover, and no-one seems sure if it’s cheeky or creepy. Kevin McKidd’s a flat, ungodlike Poseidon, and the FX fail to meet the standards audiences expected for the genre. It’s a solid shrug from me.

Decent box office take and the era’s appetite for YA won a sequel, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, but a third film never appeared. Despite this, the print franchise continues to thrive and Disney+ has slated a TV adaptation for December 2023. This time around, Riordan is an executive director, which will give Percy Jackson fans some security.

What’s better, book or film? The book knows its audience but the film is a bit of a soggy mess.

UPDATE Percy Jackson and the Olympians: the TV show

A teenaged boy with a shortsword kneels on a beach in front of crashing ocean waves and lightning, in a poster for the Disney+ Percy Jackson series.

In the 14 years since the first Percy Jackson film, Rick Riordan has become the showrunner of an entire YA and MG Demigods universe. As a storyteller, I was curious to see how much influence he’d have over the Disney version compared to the films, since he and his wife are both executive producers on this show.

The story has been updated and in many ways improved, while remaining faithful to the characters and the story. The leads are the right age, the uncomfortable sexual chemistry has been abandoned (farewell, Persephone) and TV is a better medium for the episodic structure. Annabeth and Grover have more agency, and there’s more depth for minor characters and their universe.

Perhaps the producers worried that the material would be too familiar to some fans, it hadn’t aged well since 2005, or Riordan has spent years wishing he’d done things differently. Whatever the reason, it’s refreshing that several episodes don’t unfold as you’d expect. However, only the trips to Hades and Olympus are significantly different, and not for the worse.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians is currently rating very well on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, with allegedly strong ratings (for a streaming show).

What’s better, book or TV show? The show feels less like an adaptation and more like the redux version of the book, so it’s a win for TV.

The Book Corner season 5, episode 4: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin vs Tales from Earthsea by Goro Miyazaki

The first part of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea chronicles has become a classic of children’s fantasy literature since it was first published in 1968. Tales From Earthsea, a 2006 animation by Goro Miyazaki that’s loosely based on the Earthsea novels, received lukewarm praise from the author and a middling critical reception.

Cover image: scenes from the graphic novel adaptation of Percy Jackson and The Lightning Thief, with art by Attila Futaki and Jose Villarrubia.

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  • Book vs film: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold | Alexander Lane
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  • Book vs film: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin | Alexander Lane

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