Halftime Leisure

Percy Jackson returns to screen, this time handled with care

January 20, 2024

Design by Rachel Zhang

Emily Dickinson said it best: “There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away.” Diving into a good novel allows you to immerse yourself in another world entirely—hopefully, one more magical than your own. For the same reason, book-to-screen adaptations are plentiful. After all, who wouldn’t want to re-experience their favorite story, cast and filmed just as they imagined it? But a live adaptation is also a double-edged sword. Even with the greatest cast and most gifted directors, a bit of that otherworldly magic often gets lost when onscreen depictions take the place of the reader’s imagination. Fortunately, expectations were met, and the magic was preserved with the premiere of Disney+’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians television series. 

The premiere season of the television series, set to run for eight episodes on Disney+, adapts The Lightning Thief (TLT), the first of five novels in Rick Riordan’s original book series. The story follows 12-year-old Percy Jackson as he discovers that he is a demigod and embarks on a quest with his friends to return Zeus’s stolen lightning bolt.

The first attempt to adapt TLT—the 2010 movie starring 18-year-old Logan Lerman and 24-year-old Alexandra Daddario—is universally regarded as a massive failure by Riordan, critics, and fans alike. Directed by Chris Columbus, the film alters so many important plot points and details from the written work that the story is barely recognizable. Likely a result of the movie’s painful disconnect from the book, Riordan and his wife Rebecca stepped up to serve as executive producers for the television adaptation, and their hands-on influence is immediately apparent. 

From the start, the project’s impeccable casting laid the foundation for its success. This time, the children are played by actual children, a choice that takes more coordination, time, and money to execute but ultimately gives the project the authenticity it deserves. Seeing young adults narrowly escape death is one thing, but watching children be repeatedly put in the path of danger by their own parents hits much harder and has strong emotional impacts. It emphasizes one of the series’s central tenets, and one of Percy’s personal mantras: the gods suck. They command their children to do their dirty work and worship at their feet, yet neglect them when they aren’t needed. The people in charge of keeping the peace prove to be incompetent and spiteful warmongers, necessitating children not only to save the world, but to change it for the better.  

Walker Scobell portrays the titular son of Poseidon with the perfect balance of maturity, audacity, and wit that forms the Percy we know and love, brazenly challenging the gods to be better. Leah Jeffries’s Annabeth Chase, daughter of Athena, is just as brilliant and brave as she is in the books. With incredible grace and expertise for an actress so young, Jeffries provides nuance to Annabeth’s characterization, planting seeds of the insecurities and vulnerabilities that will become central to her character arc. Aryan Simhadri’s Grover Underwood personifies kindness, capturing the lovable satyr’s humility, altruism, and signature humor. The main trio is the heart of this character-driven series, and the young actors carry their chemistry perfectly from the novels to the screen, filling the first few episodes with so many heartfelt, emotional, and funny moments that one never feels bogged down by the necessary world-building and exposition. As TikTok user @tessa.chb points out, it’s like Riordan shook the book, and these three incredible young actors fell out.

So far, the series has stayed mostly true to the books, but has made a few intentional changes to demonstrate narrative growth and nuanced development from Riordan and place the show in a modern setting. A great example of this trend comes with the trio’s confrontation with Medusa in the third episode. While the novel portrays Medusa strictly as a monster, the series references a particular version of the myth to expand on her characterization. Jessica Parker Kennedy’s Medusa gets to tell her story—that of a young woman who worshiped Athena, was taken advantage of by Poseidon, and is unfairly punished while he gets off scot-free. Her character exists as a foil to Annabeth and perfectly sets up Athena’s betrayal of her demigod daughter in the following episode.

Every technical aspect of the show—the score, lighting, cinematography, costuming, makeup—comes together perfectly to immerse the audience in this world and Percy’s story. The scene where Sally Jackson (Virginia Kull), Percy’s mother, first tells Percy about his father is an especially touching example. Illuminated by the soft, warm flicker of a cabin fireplace, Percy is hunched over below his mother, visually highlighting his vulnerability as he laments the recent strange happenings. As Percy realizes his mother knows something, somber strings crescendo into suspenseful horns as the story unfolds and Percy’s anxiety peaks, their heated conversation acting as the vocal melody to the instrumental accompaniment. When Percy rises to confront his mother, the shot flips as he towers over her, painting the picture of a mother who feels small and defeated by her son’s circumstances. This scene’s simplicity contrasts the intensity of the next, an anxiety-inducing car chase lit with cool tones and backed by a track similar to the main theme, centering the audience in the adventure unfolding before them.

What is the piece of magic that ties this adaptation together, immersing the audience in the story just as the book did? Care. Every cast member clearly was a fan of the books and committed themselves to their respective characters with passion and precision. Both Riordans, working alongside the rest of the creative team, took incredible care to visually recreate the story as Rick imagined it when he first told it to his son. Committing to such authenticity was an incredible undertaking—the filming process alone took seven months—but it paid off with this brilliant, magical piece of art wrapped in admiration for the source material. Personally, I cannot wait to see what the back half of this season has in store for the impertinent son of Sally Jackson and his (often exasperated) friends.

Francesca Theofilou
Francesca is a senior in the School of Nursing, and a Halftime Leisure assistant for The Voice. She has been described by friends as a "jester," and has a love for the 2005 Mousercise CD.

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