In Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series of fantasy novels, whose eponymous young hero discovers he’s the son of a mythical Greek god, the gods’ home of Olympus isn’t a stationary city. Rather, it moves along with the center of Western civilization: from Greece to Rome, around other parts of Europe on to England, and eventually to the United States, hidden in the sky above Manhattan.
The Percy saga itself seems similarly adaptable. The franchise has followed the format du jour of popular mass entertainment: first a five-part book series, in the post–Harry Potter young adult fiction craze; then a movie, as a droplet in a wave of post-Potter big-screen adaptations; and now, a Disney+ television series, as streamers gobble as much IP as they can.
The books were a tremendous success, selling a reported 180 million copies globally and inspiring numerous spinoffs in the larger Riordanverse. The movies weren’t, yielding tepid reviews and a cancellation after just two films. As for the show, which premiered with two episodes on Wednesday, it’s off to a strong start, and hewing much closer to the corresponding book than the movie version did.
The premise of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians show, and the book that inspired it, is very similar to Harry Potter’s: A young boy learns that he’s part of a hidden magical world. He attends a magical academy (Hogwarts School for Potter, Camp Half-Blood for Percy) and befriends a comic-relief boy and super-smart girl. He learns he is the subject of a prophecy that says he could save, or ruin, the world.
But the execution of the two series’ initial adaptations couldn’t have been less alike, even though they both began with the same director, Chris Columbus. Where the Potter films sparked a sudden sensation and one of the highest-grossing franchises in Hollywood history, the Percy franchise—with 2010’s The Lightning Thief and 2013’s Sea of Monsters—stumbled, even as it tried to copy Harry’s model.
The films’ most ardent hater is Riordan himself, who was extremely vocal about his distaste for the warped adaptations of his text. Riordan called them “vapid,” “mind-numbing punishment,” and “really, really bad,” and said the first movie’s script was “terrible,” “uninspired,” and “an illogical hatchet job.” He claimed, “I would rather have my teeth pulled with no anesthesia” than watch the films. He stressed, “Please, don’t call them my movies. They are in no way mine.”
Percy Jackson reacting to his mom being crushed to death in front of him with the "aw man" energy of a guy who overslept his alarm and is a little late for work pic.twitter.com/DEqNKs8ZB2— Jenny Nicholson (@JennyENicholson) January 31, 2021
By contrast, the television show is very much his: Riordan received writer and executive producer credits and was involved in the creation and casting process from the very beginning. Thus, the story as presented on Disney+ is much more faithful to the story from the books, which captured so many fans over the past two decades. The Lightning Thief film changed major elements of the story, such as boosting the 12-year-old main character to high school age and excising key villains, but the show mirrors the book in both character and plot. (Though at least some of Percy’s adventures in the four episodes screened for critics change a bit in the transition from page to screen; the show isn’t a one-to-one recreation.)
It helps that the story of The Lightning Thief, the first book in the Percy pentalogy, naturally lends itself more to a television series than a film. In order to mimic classic Greek myths like Hercules’s 12 labors and The Odyssey, Riordan wrote his story with an episodic structure: In one chapter, Percy encounters and triumphs over one monster; in the next chapter, he does the same against another mythological beast; and so on. The same format maps neatly onto the episodes of a TV show.
With that structure in place, the Percy show accomplishes its most crucial tasks, as it properly captures the books’ tone and nails the core trio of characters. Young Walker Scobell is excellent as Percy, the titular half blood (half mortal, half god), offering the same mix of innocence, wit, and charm that characterizes the hero in the books. He’s joined by Leah Sava Jeffries as Annabeth, the determined daughter of Athena, and Aryan Simhadri, who plays the satyr Grover with good humor and nervous energy.
Moreover, lowering the characters back down to their book ages and stretching the screen time to eight half-hour-ish episodes rather than a two-hour movie allows for much greater character development. The show already feels much more like a person-driven story than the movie’s plot-driven mess—though that’s not to say the show’s action isn’t any good. In the second episode in particular, a campwide game of capture the flag shines. (The movie version of capture the flag, by contrast, has to be one of the worst-adapted scenes in recent Hollywood history.)
That contrast doesn’t mean the Disney+ show is a seamless adaptation, though. The pacing is uneven at points, as the script seems to linger too long on repetitive conversations while zooming through other important moments. Visually, Camp Half-Blood looks fantastic in some shots but like an unnatural product of the Volume in others; some of the CGI mythological creatures that Percy encounters are particularly dodgy. And looking ahead to future plot developments, the character of Luke (Charlie Bushnell) is a reason for concern; he comes across as stiff and relatively emotionless in his early scenes, even though—as book readers know—he will play a core emotional role both later this season and in future seasons, if the show continues.
To be fair to the 19-year-old Bushnell, he doesn’t have an extensive acting résumé and might improve with more experience. His early woodenness might be the result of the script rather than an acting choice, too, as some of the other writing choices are baffling. Why, for instance, would the show cast comedians like Jason Mantzoukas and Megan Mullally as side characters, only to give them dialogue with scant jokes? (Mantzoukas’s first scene includes an excellent setup and punch line, which only deepens this confusion—if the first effort worked so well, why not try more?)
At the very least, though, the show clears the movies’ low bar with ample room to spare, and the many millions of book readers enchanted by Percy’s adventures will find a better translation here. Does that mean the show is destined to become a major success, precipitating future seasons—five in total (one per book) would be a natural number—and maybe even a broader on-screen Riordanverse? It’s too early to say, despite impressive early reviews from critics.
Last month, the Entertainment Strategy Guy, a former network executive who analyzes ratings on Substack, wrote that almost every Disney show outside the Marvel and Star Wars umbrellas had “failed to gain traction, especially the vaguely YA shows … or potential new franchises like National Treasure [and] Willow.”
Given that Percy is a YA, non-Marvel, non–Star Wars Disney show attempting to start a new franchise, that precedent isn’t encouraging. “More often than not, if something is coded as ‘YA,’ it limits the audience,” the ESG says via email. “Even Netflix, who has had a few YA shows break out, like Wednesday, has had even more fail to reach the same heights.”
Yet the ESG also thinks Percy has more potential upside than Disney’s other non-hits in this arena. “I’d probably take Percy Jackson IP over Willow or National Treasure in terms of audience passion. If Disney has a big hit on their hands here it won’t surprise me,” the ESG says. Release timing might help: With the close-to-Christmas release of the first two episodes, and a one-a-week cadence thereafter, Percy could hook families who are looking for a show to watch together.
If it succeeds, Percy would be one of a few YA adaptations of recent vintage—including Amazon’s Alex Rider, Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, and HBO’s His Dark Materials—to work much better as a show than a movie. The last of those might be the best comp for Percy: A beloved children’s series with a much-changed movie that was so derided its big-screen saga was never completed, His Dark Materials reappeared years later as a show with much more fidelity to the source text. (Like Percy, it also works in Lin-Manuel Miranda in a supporting role.)
On HBO, His Dark Materials wasn’t a Potter-level phenomenon, but it was sufficiently strong, and sufficiently supported by fans, to warrant multiple seasons and a complete series. After the massive hype and disappointment of the first Percy adaptation, that would be an outstanding outcome for the streaming show.