Percy Jackson And The Olympians: Faithful Adaptation, Mediocre Show

Being true to the books isn't always a recipe for success.

percy jackson and the olympians

The Percy Jackson movies are often cited as examples of how not to adapt a popular book franchise. They deviated from their source material a lot, right down to aging the characters up from preteens to teenagers. It only makes sense, then, that the new reboot show Percy Jackson And The Olympians would want to prioritize faithfulness to the vastly-adored book series, even having author Rick Riordan himself be involved “in every aspect of the show”.

There’s even a Rotten Tomatoes interview where the main cast talks about how the adaptation is “staying true to the books”. It’s clear as day what Disney wants you to know about their Percy Jackson show: that it’s far more faithful than the 20th Century Fox movies ever were. Unfortunately, this exact dedication to faithfulness is also the source of how mediocre the show is, especially to viewers who’ve never read the books.

Before we proceed, we must ask: were the Percy Jackson books even any good? Well, yes and no. The core concept of Greek mythology characters existing in our world and hiding in plain sight in America, of all places, is an inherently silly one. Why would the gods and goddesses even bother hiding from the humans if they really existed, and why would they waste energy pretending to be humans with regular jobs?

However, the books were aware of this silliness. With chapter titles like ‘I Accidentally Vaporize My Pre-algebra Teacher’, and Percy’s young, vibrant, and often humorous narration, the books never took themselves too seriously — or at least, the titles in the original pentalogy, anyway. Currently, there are seventeen books in the Percy Jackson universe, but since the show is an adaptation of the original five-book series, that’s what we should be focusing on. (The books seriously deteriorate in quality after the fifth book, too.)


So while Percy’s strong and gigantic fandom may have you believing these books were as immersive and well-crafted as Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, they really weren’t. However, they were effervescent and fun, and they introduced a lot of readers to Greek mythology. It was the perfect introduction for children: have the narrator be a spunky kid just like them and make the mythological characters recognizable in a silly but real-world sense.

Unfortunately, the Disney+ show is so interested in being a good adaptation that it largely forgets to be a good introduction to this fantasy world, or even just a good show. The first episode, especially, seems only interested in getting as much exposition out through dialogue as possible, and Percy barely has any time to react appropriately to any new information being thrown at him.

Take the story’s inciting incident: Percy is attacked by his teacher, Mrs. Dodds, who turns out to be a Fury, a mythical creature who serves Hades. In the book, after the Fury is killed, everyone around Percy acts as if Mrs. Dodds never existed, and this goes on for the rest of the school year before Percy reencounters another mythological creature.

In the show, right after Mrs. Dodds is killed, Percy is suspended, goes on an impromptu road trip with his mom, gets told Greek mythology exists and that he’s a demigod, finds out his best friend Grover is a satyr, and gets chased by a Minotaur — all in the span of 35 minutes. It’s so much, and while this all does eventually happen in the books, the book at least gives Percy (and the reader) enough time to digest all of this and react to it accordingly. It takes Percy six chapters before he tours Camp Half-Blood. In the show, it’s half an hour.

Forget this being a good introduction to Greek mythology, this is a terrible introduction to just this show. Where Percy in the book’s first few chapters had plenty of personality thanks to the first-person narration, Percy in the first episode is reduced to just a bunch of questions. The young boy is confused and justifiably so, but he’s never given a chance to have any reaction bigger than furrowed eyebrows and a slightly agape mouth because that would take time away from all the info-dumping being done by Grover and Percy’s mom.

percy jackson and the olympians

The worst part is that all of this exposition is done through dialogue, so we’re treated to long shots of the characters just talking while they’re sitting, driving, or walking. This might work well in a written medium like a novel, but films are a visual medium: show, don’t tell. All of this is especially true for the show’s second episode, which takes place entirely in Camp Half-Blood, the camp where children of gods and goddesses study.

Here, Percy makes a friend named Luke, a character who, assuming the adaptation remains faithful, should be important later in the show. Considering this is our introduction to him, you would think the episode would try to solidify his personality, but Luke gets reduced to yet another walking encyclopedia for Percy, explaining how the camp runs and how demigods are found and treated. With so much talking and such empty characters, this show manages to make a camp filled with demigods something it shouldn’t be: boring.

One serious issue, too, is that Luke and another character named Annabeth are supposed to be extremely close, but we’re told that and not shown it. Luke and Annabeth interact once in the show before she, Percy, and Grover leave Camp Half-Blood to go on their quest, but throughout the second, third, and fourth episodes, there’s frequent talk about Luke and Annabeth’s relationship and history with each other.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how that’ll come into play later in the show, but had the second episode properly shown Luke and Annabeth being friends, it not only would’ve made the set-up feel less obvious, it also would’ve made both characters feel much more three-dimensional. Character personalities and relationships are largely neglected over making sure there’s adequate lip service for the lore of five books, lest the show be accused of greatly changing backstories and plot lines even if they don’t translate well to the language of television.

Luckily, the narrative does pick up by episode 3 after Percy, Grover, and Annabeth embark on their quest, but it’s still largely plot over character and none of the three main characters ever rise above being two-dimensional enablers of plot points. At the very least, though, there’s actual action being shown on screen and not just expository dialogue, but the show is still missing one key ingredient that made the books such bestsellers: humor.

percy jackson and the olympians

The episode titles, like ‘I Become Supreme Lord of the Bathroom’, are far funnier than the episodes themselves. It’s not that the show doesn’t have jokes, they’re there – though few and far between. It’s that these few jokes feel like an afterthought, like the writers were so concerned with being faithful to the fantasy-adventure aspect of the books that they only remembered at the last minute that this show was also supposed to be a comedy.

Humorous moments essentially boil down to Grover acting awkward and panicky during stressful situations or Percy clumsily messing up during training like he’s a rom-com protagonist. The show’s self-serious nature and tiny number of unfunny jokes only highlight just how ridiculous the entire Percy Jackson universe is (and not in a good way) and how flimsy the world-building is.

Questions that never entered my mind while reading the books entered my mind while watching the lifelessly serious show, like: If Camp Half-Blood is essentially Hogwarts for demigods, why is it a camp and not a boarding school? Can’t all their training still be possible in a proper school setting, and wouldn’t that make everything so much more convenient? If this is set in the 21st century, couldn’t so many problems be solved if the gods just bothered to use modern technology? And why wasn’t Percy just told he was a demigod from the minute he was born?

These are questions I shouldn’t even be thinking about because I’m having too much fun being a kid and slaying mythical creatures with Percy, Grover, and Annabeth. Unfortunately, Disney’s Percy Jackson And The Olympians is so concerned with checking off their carefully constructed checklist catering to the book’s fans that the source material feels more like an instruction manual for the show rather than genuine inspiration.

With four episodes left, the show could still turn itself around, and even if it doesn’t, book fans should still be pleased if faithfulness to the plot is all they care about. However, it’s hard to see newcomers caring at all about any of these characters, and being invested enough in what happens to them to continue tuning in every week.

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