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‘Percy Jackson and the Olympians’: a faithful adaptation

This might be a little cliché, but growing up the Percy Jackson books were my absolute favorites. I can’t count how many times I reread them while waiting for the sequels to come out. I was so excited as an eight year old when my parents brought us to see the movie adaptations of the first two movies, and then so disappointed when those movies ended up being just … bad. They weren’t even so-bad-it’s-good, they just weren’t fun and changed the story from the books in a way that robbed it of too much of its meaning. Besides being a fun story, and one that both of my sisters and I could have fun enjoying together, it ended up meaning more to me.

One of the later books in the series, “The House of Hades,” features a character’s coming out story, and while I’ve never been forced to admit I have a crush on one of my friends as a part of a quest to save the world (yet), I think coming out to someone for the first time always feels a little like that. I might not have actually had the weight of the world on my shoulders, but in the moment it certainly felt like it. As a kid, I reread that chapter of the book an unreasonable number of times, because for some reason it really resonated with me, even though I didn’t put two and two together for another few years. That’s a big part of why this series has kept a special place in my heart, and why I was so excited when Disney announced in May 2020 that they were going to be making a TV series adaptation of the first book, “The Lightning Thief.” It was one of the few things to get excited about during that first wave of Covid.

Along with that excitement, there was a lot of concern that this series would be as badly executed as the movies had been. I’m happy to say that while the show wasn’t perfect, and I can’t say I like all of the changes from the book, watching each episode the night it came out has been the highlight of my week this semester. The first two episodes, which were released together to kick off the season, were probably the shakiest of the whole season. They came off to me as clearly intended for nostalgic fans of the book, and while that’s exactly my demographic, I don’t think they’re a great introduction to the series for people who weren’t already fans. Important characters are introduced in passing, and there are important moments that are supposed to be emotional but the show doesn’t do enough to make the viewer care, so they risk coming across a bit flat. One of the casting choices I was most excited about–Jason Mantzoukas (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “The Good Place”) as Mr. D (Dionysus)–ended up being somehow mediocre. His character seemed to be halfway between comic relief and a callous, almost cruel presence, in a way that made him ineffective at either role. After the first two episodes, the show started to find its footing. With all of our main characters introduced and setting out on their quest, we see them start to develop into the core trio of the series, building the relationship that the next four books (and hopefully, next four seasons) depend on. I don’t want to give a blow-by-blow of the plot, so the last plot point I want to make is that one of the most intense scenes from the book, where a prophesied betrayal takes place, is somewhat changed from the book. Instead of being a total shock to Percy, he puts together what’s about to happen, and while it’s still a well-acted, emotionally intense scene, it gets at my main problem with the series: Percy is too smart.

This scene was the most obvious example, but through the show, he’s consistently made spot-on judgements of the threats he encounters, including Zeus and Hades, two of the most powerful Olympian gods. This might be because these characters underestimate him, or to establish that he’s a good judge of character, but this final betrayal shouldn’t be the same. Throughout the books, his fatal flaw–the thing that’s prophesied to get him killed–is that he’s too loyal to his friends, too willing to sacrifice himself for them and unable to accurately judge their flaws. And yet he is able to preempt a betrayal by one of the only people sympathetic to him from the start. He’s clearly hurt by it, but it’s supposed to be unthinkable, so much so that he would never even consider it.

Like in any show, it’s the cast that really makes the story work. The core trio of characters, Walker Scobell as Percy Jackson, Leah Sava Jeffries as Annabeth Chase and Aryan Simhadri as Grover Underwood are all well-cast, and their chemistry makes the show work. There are only eight episodes, but in those eight episodes we see each of them develop and grow as characters, in ways that are consistent with how they’ve been established but you can tell they’re all deeply shaped by their journey. It’s impossible to talk about this casting without addressing the elephant in the room: Leah Sava Jeffries is a Black actress playing a character who was white in the books, and has been the target of an intense campaign of harassment online after being cast. Her performance is that much more impressive knowing that she’s been getting so much hate just for taking the role. The racist attacks she’s faced are inexcusable, especially since they’ve generally been framed as “just wanting consistency with the books.” This isn’t an excuse for a harassment campaign, even ignoring that Jeffries’ portrayal is very faithful to Annabeth’s characterization in the books.

I was going to end this by asking you to watch the show so it’s renewed for another season, but as of Wednesday Disney has confirmed that there will be a second season, adapting “The Sea of Monsters,” the second book in the series! Even if it won’t help get another season, I still recommend the show.

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