This review originally appeared in the Classical Association of the Middle West and S oth (CAMWS) Newsletter, Spring 2010; I’m re-posting it in light of Rebecca Mead’s recent New Yorker article, “The Percy Jackson Problem,” of October 22, 2014
It was a blustery February day, but we were all a-buzz as we drove to theRegal Cinema 8 in Tullahoma (TN) to see the premiere of “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.” My boys are huge fans of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books and, judging from how full the theater was for an afternoon screening, so were many of the kids in the region. In fact, gradeschoolers all over the country love Percy Jackson, and the series has now been on the New York Times Bestseller List for Children’s Literature for 147 weeks.I had been reading the books aloud to my sons since Thanksgiving, and neverhad I come to the end of a chapter without their begging me to go on. So it was with high expectations that we made our way to the theater to see “The Lightning Thief,” the movie version of the first book of the series.
The plot of “The Lightning Thief” begins with the premise that the Greek gods are real and still alive today, living in their headquarters, which has moved from Mt. Olympus to the 500th floor of the Empire State Building. The story does not center on the gods, though, but on their semi-divine children, of whom Percy, i.e., Perseus, Jackson is our unwitting protagonist. The series is not without its flaws, of course: perhaps most obviously, it’s pretty closely patterned after Harry Potter, complete with supernatural adventure, bosom buddies, budding romance, and of course the eponymous misfit messiah. “Percy Jackson” hovers somewhere between homage and rip-off, though this can hardly be a fatal criticism for classicists who remember Virgil’s statement, facilius esse Herculi clavam quam Homero versum subripere. And truthfully, there’s more of Homer and Hercules than of Harry in Riordan’s books.
Like other “half-bloods,” Percy is troubled. He has never met his divine parent and has been bounced from one school to another due to ADHD-related problems, although, as it’s explained to him later when he arrives to Camp Half-Blood, his impulsiveness is connected to “his battlefield reflexes,” and his dyslexia comes from the fact that his “mind is hard-wired for ancient Greek.” It’s eventually revealed to him that he is the child of Poseidon, that his friend Grover is a satyr and that another, Annabeth, is Athena’s daughter, that his teacher is none other than Chiron, that Zeus’ lightning bolt has been stolen, that Percy himself is the prime suspect, that the theft is in fact a cover-up for a much larger plot to unseat the gods and place Kronos in charge of the universe again, and that, of course, it’s all up to Percy to stop it. Along the way, Percy and his friends encounter the Minotaur, the Laestrygonians, Furies, Cerberus, etc., as well as three old ladies who (as one of the chapters is entitled) “knit the socks of death.”
My bald summary hardly does justice to the genuinely engaging, witty, and even learned tone of the series, and alas, neither does Chris Columbus’ film. Not that “The Lightning Thief” is without its charms. For those of us in middle Tennessee, there was the frisson of local interest in seeing the Nashville Parthenon used as set (a few cheers went up in the Tullahoma Regal), although the decision to replace Alan Lequire’s enormous painted Athena Parthenos with a more “traditional” white statue rankled at least one classicist in the audience. To my mind, however, the movie’s true highlight was seeing Uma Thurman as the Medusa. (And why not Uma? Hadn’t Ovid praised Medusa’s clarissima forma, Met. 4.794?) As I watched Uma as Medusa (Umedusa?) I couldn’t help thinking of her in Terry Gilliam’s “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” where she played Venus to Oliver Reed’s Vulcan; her dea ex machina arrival, via an enormous ascending clamshell, still strikes me as one of the finest entrances in film. In this update of the legend, Umedusa runs a garden gnome emporium that sells amazingly life-like yard statuary, and she is undone in a suitably 21st century manner, with Percy looking not into a mirrored shield but rather the silvery flipside of his Ipod.
But, all in all, the movie was a disappointment, and my 7-year old son Daniel grumbled throughout it. “Her hair’s supposed to be blonde,” he complained of Annabeth. “Where’s his scar?” he objected of another character, not so sotto voce. And with deep frustration he groaned when Percy’s mother instead of his best friend Grover was left behind in the Underworld. “That’s not what happened in the book,” he kept saying. Yeah, I wanted to reply, now you know how I felt when Briseis killed Agamemnon in Wolfgang Pedersen’s “Troy.” But I held my tongue. It’s a wearisome fact of life that even good movies stray from the books on which they’re based, and the frustration is worst when it happens with books we love.
What’s frustrating about this movie is that, where it follows the book, it’s very good. So, for instance, the movie’s depiction of the Lotus Casino (a clever adaptation of the Homeric way-station) is deftly handled: Percy is deep into an absorbing video game when he realizes that the hippie-ish guy beside him is at a very retro-looking pinball machine. “What year is it?” he asks him, and the response–“1974”–jolts Percy out of his stupor. It’s a pleasing visual sequence, as is the sight of Grover, Percy’s satyr friend, stomping away on the dance-floor to Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” So, so far so good. But where in the book Annabeth had spent her time at the Lotus engrossed in “this huge 3-D sim game where you build your own city and you could actually see the holographic buildings rise on the display board,” in the movie she is simply playing the same old video game everybody else is, hardly a fitting activity for the daughter of Athena.
It’s this flattening of the characters, ultimately, that is what’s wrong with “The Lightning Thief.” To begin with, the actors are all just a little too old for the parts, and they seem to have been cast less for how they might portray Riordan’s characters than how they might look in Tiger Beat magazine. Again and again, the tendency is to pitch the film not to the books’ grade-school fans, who want swashbuckling heroes, but rather to a teen and ‘tween’ audience, who seem to prefer emo vampires. As a friend joked on the drive home from Tullahoma, “Lightning Thief” perhaps should have been called “Twilight of the Gods.” But still more fundamentally, the movie utterly fails with Percy. Riordan’s books, it must be pointed out, are all told in the first person, by Percy. He is not just a hero, but also a twelve-year old boy, one who has grown up without a father, who is just coming to some self-awareness and finds himself giving voice to complicated interests that he barely understands, especially when he is the object of them. It is not too much to say that the demons he is fighting throughout the books are not those just drawn from Greek mythology, but none of this is really captured in the film.
So, the summer is now upon us, and if you are looking for some beach reading, you could do worse than to pick up a few of the Percy Jackson books. Better still, read them aloud to your kids, grandkids, nieces, nephews, or neighbors of elementary school age. They will have many questions about the mythology which readers of the CAMWS newsletter are uniquely qualified to answer. You may find yourself breaking out images of monsters and heroes from classical vases, and working through the complexities of mythological genealogies. But be forewarned: if you later decide to show these kids the movie (the DVD will be released June 29th ), be prepared for the muttering.