If you think you received scathing feedback in your tutorials, you should check out Rick Riordan’s emails to Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief’s producers: “the script as a whole is terrible… fans of the books will be angry and disappointed. They will leave the theatre in droves and generate horrible word of mouth.” He’s certainly not the Oracle of Delphi but this prophecy came true. Two films were released, both directed by Chris Columbus (who notably also directed the first two films of the Harry Potter franchise), and both panned by fans. Ten years after the first film’s release, fans were still clamouring for a faithful adaptation. On 14 May, their prayers (and burnt offerings to the gods) were answered.
“Hey Percy Jackson fans, for the past decade you’ve worked hard to champion a faithful on-screen adaption of Percy Jackson’s world,” Riordan said on Twitter. “Some of you have even suggested it would be a great series for Disney+. We couldn’t agree more! We can’t say much more at this stage but we are very excited about the idea of a live-action series of the highest quality, following the storyline of the original ‘Percy Jackson’ five-book series, starting with ‘The Lightning Thief’ in Season 1. Rest assured that Becky and I will be involved in-person in every aspect of the show. There will be much more news in the future, but for now, we have a lot of work to do! Buckle up, demigods. It’s going to be a fantastic, exciting ride!”
It’s a big leap from an author disowning an adaptation, damning the script as “terrible”, writing to schools to ask them not to show the film alongside their studies of the series, to proudly announcing a new adaptation in the works. So, what’s changed?
The gap between film and television adaptations may contribute to this development. The chapters seem episodic, each with their own Freytag’s Pyramid. This bizarre series of mini-plots (including fighting a chimera at the top of the St Louis Arch, meeting Procrustes in a waterbed store and getting bought burgers by the god of war) adds to the humour and personality of the series, as well as highlighting Riordan’s skill at adapting Greek mythology (and later Roman, Egyptian and Norse) to the modern world. For a two hour film, covering all that content is impossible. For one season of television per book, it’s an option. A Series of Unfortunate Events has had a rebirth in this manner – originally a bestselling series of thirteen books, then reduced to a film with three butchered books crammed in and eventually adapted by Netflix into 25 episodes, each running from half an hour to an hour. A similar structure could be employed for Percy Jackson.
Previously, a television series has been a death knoll for adaptations (after Allegiant’s box office failure, the final instalment of The Divergent Series’ adaptation was initially predicted to be a television project – nothing has ever come of it). Now, the rise of streaming services has changed this (especially with Disney+’s budget), international rights and marketing are easier to negotiate than ever. The record-breaking success, strangely enough, of Trolls World Tour (yes, I never thought I’d be writing that either) as a digital release has also set a new precedent for the potential success of streamed media.
Not knowing your target audience is always dangerous for films. The Lightning Thief’s producers aged its characters, made a romance far more explicit and included a sexualised drug-taking sequence. Riordan’s passion (the books were originally written for his dyslexic son) for the project means that he has interacted a lot with fans; in one email, he wrote that “there is nothing radical, fresh or interesting about biyotch, ass, or shit”, attacking the corniness of dialogue as well as its content. While this may contribute to a ‘better’ adaptation, it’s also helpful for profit – if you already have a fanbase, you need to exploit it for all it’s worth. That typically means sticking to the original arc and characters as much as possible. For The Lightning Thief this means keeping Percy’s age faithful to the books (his age was changed from 9-12 in the original novel to 16 in the finished film). Riordan recognised the strangeness of this change, writing that “the core readership for Percy Jackson is age 9-12…there are roughly a million kids that age, plus their families, who are dying to see this film because they want to see the pictures in their imagination brought to life… you’ve lost those kids as soon as they see the first movie trailer.”
Whether Disney+ will create a faithful (or even just successful) adaptation or another flop has fans nervously waiting – placing trust in their own minor god who has blessed this new journey for Percy Jackson.