Percy Jackson on Disney Plus: Will It Work?

For those who might have missed it, the Percy Jackson and the Olympians tv show has been officially given the green light by Disney Plus. This means that the show will definitely happen, even though fans had started doubting it would. 

The news that the series had been picked up by Disney Plus originally came out in May 2020. Rick Riordan, author of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians books — as well as several other series set in the same universe, known as Riordanverse — has been trying to get a new adaptation of his books for a long time. Therefore, fans of the series were really excited by the announcement — the hashtag was trending worldwide for days, with millions of tweets —yet news were scarce after, leaving fans wondering if the show was actually going to be produced. This confirmation is a relief to many, who can’t wait to see their childhood series be turned into a tv show.

Percy Jackson and The Olympians—  henceforth referred to as PJO —is a middle grade pentology by author Rick Riordan. The first book came out in 2005 and the fifth in 2009. The series stars Percy Jackson, a twelve year old boy with ADHD and dyslexia who finds out his father is a Greek god. The books follow a format similar to old Greek myths, with our heroes going on quests, encountering numerous monsters, gods and prophecies. It immediately gained positive reviews and it quickly became one of the biggest children book series of the decade, being dubbed as “the next Harry Potter”. 

Because of the great success the Harry Potter film adaptations were receiving at the time, 20th Century Fox acquired the movie rights to the first book before it was even released.

Directed by Chris Columbus (who, ironically also directed the first two Harry Potter movies), Percy Jackson and The Lightning Thief came out in 2010, meeting criticism by almost everyone. 

Logan Lerman as Percy Jackson, Brandon T. Jackson as Grover Underwood and Alexandra Daddario as Annabeth Chase in the Percy Jackson and Lightning Thief (2010)

Most of the plot points present in the book were changed in the film, with some characters being completely unlike their book counterparts. The biggest change made by Fox though, was the age of the characters. Percy is 12 in the first book, and so are most of his friends. As the story goes on, Percy grows and turns 16 in the last book (which, without spoiling, is a pretty important plot point). In the movie however, Percy is already 17, something that would change several parts of the series. Most PJO fans were also kids at this point in time, with Riordan’s main reader demographic being children from 9-12, and they were really upset to see the characters they related to being portrayed so differently. Riordan himself, who has often stated his dislike of the movies for which he was not consulted at all, complained to Fox about the change. In a 2018 article on his blog, he revealed several emails he sent to the movie producers throughout the production of the film, where he expressed his opinion on the decision to change the characters’ age:

“I understand that a decision has been made to age the main characters in the film to seventeen. As no one wants to see this film succeed more than I do, I hope you’ll let me share a couple of reasons why this is a bad idea from a money-making point of view. First, it kills any possibility of a movie franchise. I don’t know if you or your staff have had the chance to read farther than The Lightning Thief in the Percy Jackson series, but there are four other volumes. […] Starting Percy at seventeen makes this [sequels] undoable.”

He continues: “Second, it alienates the core audience. […] Many of these kids have read the books multiple times and know every detail. They are keenly aware that Percy is twelve in the first book. By making the characters seventeen, you’ve lost those kids as soon as they see the first movie trailer.”

Rick was right of course. The movie was hated by most fans, though it did receive some favourable reviews from people who had not read the books and ended up grossing over 200 million dollars worldwide, which was apparently enough to guarantee a sequel. Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters was released in 2013, grossing just over 200 million dollars. It opened to even lower reception than its predecessor, officially dooming the possibility of a third movie. 

The Peter Johnson movies, as they are often referred to by the fandom, based on the wrong name the camp leader often calls Percy throughout the books, have now become a joke to most PJO fans. The general consensus is that they were awful and that the 2017 Lightning Thief musical adapted the story more faithfully and was just overall better (which, by the way, is absolutely true).

Knowing what a disaster the first PJO adaptation was, many are left wondering: can this new Disney Plus show work? It is certainly a question I’ve posed myself several times, while waiting for more news about it. The easy answer is: yes, it can. The problem is everything it has to do right to actually succeed. The plot of PJO is not very complicated, logically speaking adapting it should not be that hard. Then why did the movies fail so miserably, and how can the new show avoid following the same path?

As Rick Riordan explained in his emails, I believe the biggest mistake of the movies was changing the characters’ age. Thinking back, understanding why Fox made the decision to age the characters to 17 is easy enough. The Percy Jackson movies came out during the heyday of teen movies, especially those adapted from popular book series. The Harry Potter movie franchise was thriving, Twilight (2008) was growing into a phenomenon and the first Hunger Games movie was in the middle of production. Fox obviously wanted to capitalise off the teen wave of the 2000s and 2010s. Working with older actors is also way easier than with kid actors, who require several breaks for school and rest throughout a day of filming. 

Nevertheless, Percy being 12 is important to the plot of the series and, most of all, is important to the audience. Growing up with the characters contributed a great deal to my affection towards the books and I know it’s the same for many PJO readers. Having young actors play Percy and his friends will be a great benefit to the show and will attract younger and older viewers. Of course, the problem with having kid actors is that they will quickly age, sometimes too fast for the series. We have seen this with shows like Stranger Things (2016), where the actors have aged visibly throughout the seasons. This could cause issues as the series will supposedly have at least five seasons, and Percy should look 16 by the fifth. This could still be resolved easily by shooting the different seasons as quickly as possible, instead of waiting years like many shows do. Hopefully it will be possible to do so, since Disney Plus does not have as many original shows as other streaming platforms, such as Netflix or HBO.

Rick Riordan has already announced that they plan to make Percy 12, like he’s supposed to. Open castings for Percy and his two best friends Annabeth and Grover have been announced, and the only requisite is to look 12. This definitely gives us hope that the characters will look like we imagined.

This also brings me to my second point: It is important to have Rick (and his wife Becky) be as involved as possible. This is another factor Riordan has thankfully already reassured the readers on. He and his wife are executive producers on the show, and are working on the script themselves with the rest of the writing team.  The other big mistake the movies made was completely ignoring Rick’s feedback on the script, despite him being the author of the story. Rick’s reassurance hopefully means they will be there to fight for what is really important to the series (ahem tunnel of love scene ahem) and to make sure they do not screw it up again. 

The third aspect Disney Plus has to get right are the characters. As mentioned before, the plot of PJO, the first book especially, is not that complicated and I’m not worried about them adapting it wrong. What I am worried about is how they’re going to adapt such important characters. Most of the audience of the show will be people who have read the books when they were young and who have grown up loving the series because of its characters. Getting Annabeth and Percy right especially, should be Disney’s priority. Percy and Annabeth are the main characters of PJO and Riordan’s sequel series Heroes of Olympus. I will argue that PJO works because of Annabeth and Percy.
Percy Jackson is the main character of the books. We see everything from his perspective and that’s what keeps us engaged with the story. Percy is such a nice character to follow. He is kind-hearted, brave, loyal and very funny. His sarcastic remarks sometimes make me laugh out loud while reading. This is one of the rare series where the main character will be your favourite.
Annabeth doesn’t have as big of a role as Percy in PJO, yet portraying her right is incredibly important. She is the main side character throughout the entire series and she plays a big part in most of the quests the heroes go on. 

Aside from Percy and Annabeth, I think showing more of the camp would be extremely beneficial to the show. In the books, when Percy finds out about his father, he is sent to Camp Half-Blood, a magical summer camp where demigods (children of the gods) train together. He spends a lot of time there and often calls it his home and the other campers his family. In the Lightning Thief movie however, the camp is barely shown, a disappointment they tried to rectify in the sequel, though not very well. The readers don’t see a lot of the camp during the five books, but it is still such a big part of the series and the other demigods there often end up playing a big role in different plots. Portraying both the camp and the campers right from the start could elevate the show from a normal series to a big franchise.

It is sad to think about how famous PJO could have become, if only the movies had been done right. The Percy Jackson books are just as good as other children/YA series that have become important movie franchises and should have had movies with the same amount of care and respect poured into them. Sadly, that is not what happened, and PJO still remains mostly unknown to non-readers. 

However, with this series Disney Plus could really make Percy Jackson the phenomenon it should have always been. Everyone involved seems to be a fan of the books, and they all seem to be intent on giving it the adaptation it deserves. I am still nervous about it and I will probably continue to be so until the show actually comes out. Still, I have faith it will meet and even surpass our high expectations. 

Written by Elisa Paci

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