By Ben Konuch
“Hold fast, Percy. Brave the storm.”
(The following review will contain spoilers for “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” as well as the novel The Lightning Thief)
To say that Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” book series holds a special place in my heart would be an understatement. I never read “Harry Potter”, but I did give “Percy Jackson” a try from the recommendation of my older brother. The stories Riordan told of Greek mythology mixed with modern-day settings captivated my imagination, sparking a love of ancient history and mythology that I still possess to this day. I shared this experience with millions of children around the world as we fell in love with Riordan’s stories and the characters in them that stole our hearts.
20th Century Fox attempted to capitalize on this fanbase with two movie adaptations that ultimately failed to do justice to both the intricate worldbuilding and nuanced characters. The potential for an on-screen adaptation of Percy Jackson went unrealized for another decade before Disney announced a television series that promised to finally bring the books alive in an accurate and respectful way.
Disney’s “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” is adapting the first book, “The Lightning Thief,” into an eight-episode series starring Walker Scobell as Percy Jackson. Only 12 years old, Percy has trouble fitting in with those around him, and while he’s gone through life convinced that something must be wrong with him, he witnesses a horrifying event at school that suddenly changes everything. His mother, Sally – portrayed here by Virginia Kull – shocks him by telling him the truth: Percy is a demigod, the son of an ancient Greek god, and monsters are trying to kill him.
There is a lot to love here with “Percy Jackson and the Olympians,” as it is clear that the creators poured a lot of love and appreciation for the source material into the production. Rick Riordan serves as executive producer of the series, meaning the author’s insight and opinions guided the show at every step. This is most obvious when looking at the worldbuilding and character work, which is what “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” gets most right. Eight episodes is a lot more time than the two hours that “The Lightning Thief” film had to work with, meaning the pacing is slowed down a bit, allowing time to breathe. The entirety of the first episode is dedicated to Percy discovering the truth and arriving at Camp Half-Blood, whereas the film showed these in the space of fifteen minutes.
This slower pacing allows the characters to become clear to the viewers instead of just serving as loose character archetypes. The first episode makes audiences truly care about Sally, in part due to the wonderful chemistry Kull and Scobell have, meaning that Percy’s later brash decision to embark on the quest rings true. If you can’t sell the love between mother and son, “Percy Jackson” won’t have its emotional core.
This emphasis on story and character work also helps do justice to Walker Scobell’s portrayal of Percy, which in my opinion, is the best casting of the entire show. While still a young actor, Scobell captures the wide range of emotions Percy struggles through in perfect detail, all framed by a signature underlying sarcasm and sass that shows that Percy takes this new world seriously, but never loses his heart and what makes him special.
Side characters and co-protagonists are all significantly more fleshed out in this adaptation as well, with Luke Castellan being one of my favorite characters in the first two episodes. Charlie Bushnell plays the perfect older brother character to Percy, mixing in just enough sternness into his kindness that you never doubt his capability or his concern.
Clarice La Rue, everyone’s favorite Ares kid and bully, is brought to life on screen by Dior Goodjohn, who grounds this annoying and downright mean child soldier with an element of realism that the previous film adaptations could only dream of. While Clarice could easily be a caricature of a character or an exaggerated “bad guy,” “Percy Jackon” instead shows a valuable side of Camp Half-Blood through her that contributes to our understanding of this world: some children care so much for their godly parents’ approval and living up to their expectations that they will do anything to earn their glory.
Joining Percy are his new allies Grover and Annabeth, portrayed here by Aryan Simhadri and Leah Jeffries respectively. While these three make up the trio of main characters that fans fell in love with, it’s hard to be sold on these new takes of Annabeth and Grover from the brief time we have with them in the first two episodes. There are already changes that I love, such as Annabeth figuring out Percy’s parentage to showcase her intelligence, but there is also a different energy to the main three that I’m not sure if I’m sold on yet. Only future episodes and more time with our trio can tell.
But unfortunately, for all that “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” gets right, I have one central issue with it. The series, so far, has not properly sold me on its stakes. I’m still watching because I’m a fan of the books and I want to see what happens, but the series seems to sacrifice some of its tension and adventure for its worldbuilding. Perhaps it is due to Disney aiming for a younger audience, but the series seems to shy away from the violence or intensity present in the books, which can be a big problem later on. The capture the flag scene is wonderfully choreographed and feels tense, but every scene with monsters so far is such a quick encounter that they don’t give much tension and danger to Percy’s quest, and that is a problem.
For all of the inaccuracies that “The Lightning Thief” film got wrong, I have to give it credit that it at least properly raised the stakes and conveyed an underlying threat throughout Percy’s journey. I hope that this series can improve on that, because while its budget, character writing and worldbuilding are all top-notch, a “Percy Jackson” story that doesn’t feel like a dangerous adventure isn’t much of a “Percy Jackson” story.
I give the first two episodes of “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” a 7/10
“Percy Jackson and the Olympians” is now streaming on Disney+
Ben Konuch is a junior Strategic Communication student and the A&E assistant editor for Cedars. He enjoys getting sucked into good stories, playing video games and swing dancing in the rain.
Images courtesy of Disney