When it premiered in late December, new Disney+ show Percy Jackson and the Olympians was most notable for its fidelity to its source material. Many critics commented on how closely the show’s first two episodes followed the Lightning Thief book, the first in the Percy series, whose young hero discovers that Greek myths are real and that he’s the son of Poseidon, god of the sea. The show is set on “recreating the plotline of the book,” one sample review read, “almost beat by beat.”
This vein of analysis was only natural, considering that the book series’ author, Rick Riordan, was involved in the show’s creation, and that Chris Columbus’s movie adaptation in 2010 deviated so far from the text that Riordan himself disavowed the film.
Yet as the season continued, up to and including its eighth and final episode, which aired Tuesday, it took on new qualities and matured into a show worth watching in its own right, not just as a nostalgic reminder for fans of the books. Percy did not turn out to be a direct page-to-screen adaptation throughout; rather, it excelled in making use of a different medium to add emotional depth to its tale, while still maintaining the story’s core adventurous appeal.
The deviations start in the celebrated third episode, when Percy and friends Annabeth and Grover begin the quest that will last for the rest of the season. This chapter in the book follows a simple “monster of the week” style, as the heroes wander into the lair of the snake-haired Medusa, only to discover their error and mount a harried escape. (It involves beheading her with a sword, as do all good Greek myths.)
The show, however, complicates the narrative, exploring Medusa not merely as a monster, but also as a canonical victim, cursed for her relationship with Poseidon despite a power imbalance and possible assault. The result is a richer, more sophisticated scene.
This notion of adding layers to the monsters’ myths offers further potential in a possible Season 2 and beyond, as more characters from Greek mythology—like Circe on her enchanted island—appear throughout Riordan’s texts.
The Disney+ adaptation also adds the opportunity for more perspectives and scenes that don’t involve Percy, who is the sole point-of-view character in the books. “There’s a beauty in adapting a book that was in close first-person narrative, that you know the inside of one character’s head really, really well, and now you get to develop the inside of everyone’s heads,” Daphne Olive, one of the show’s writers, told The Ringer’s Joanna Robinson on the House of R podcast this week. “And it was so much fun because we only ever met all of these other characters, including Sally [Percy’s mom], including Poseidon, from the perspective of a boy between the ages of 12 and 16.”
The books frame Sally through young Percy’s eyes. But the show uses flashbacks to flesh out her character, culminating in a conversation between her and Poseidon to end the penultimate episode. Percy doesn’t witness this interaction, which was written solely for the show, yet it serves as the emotional high point of the entire season and thus as a testament to Percy’s adaptive possibilities.
Another standout addition comes in the delightful fifth episode, “A God Buys Us Cheeseburgers,” in which the trio meets Ares. While Percy and Annabeth depart on a miniature quest-within-a-quest, Grover flatters Ares by referencing the lesser-known conflicts instigated by the god of war. (“What are you, like a casual World War II buff?” Ares asks. “You’ve seen Saving Private Ryan, have you?”)
That’s not to say that all the adaptive changes work. In the back half of the season especially, the tone often veers too far in the emotional direction, losing the humor that characterizes so much of Percy’s character in the novels. Riordan’s books offer a deft balance of Chosen One turmoil with zany adventures, yet some of the adaptation’s choices—like interrupting the kids’ trip to Las Vegas with a poignant backstory about their ostensible friend Luke and his dad, Hermes—get in the way of the latter.
Just about the only thing the movie adaptation got right was making the Vegas excursion fun, complete with a Lady Gaga needle drop. But by that point in the story, the show was weighed down by too much sentimental heft to let loose in the same tone-shifting way.
Here’s one idea to tweak this issue in future seasons: Make the kids dumber. Seriously, make them dumber. The Disney+ versions of the protagonists catch on much quicker to their fantastical surroundings than the book versions do, starting all the way back in the second episode, when Annabeth determines Percy’s godly parentage before anyone else. Numerous times in the first season—when they encounter Medusa, when they visit the lotus-eaters’ hotel in Vegas, when they enter Procrustes’s mattress store—they figure out who and what they’re dealing with beforehand, whereas in the book they must realize their mistake and then improvise an escape after already entering each monster’s den.
The protagonists are also smarter in the bigger picture, in addition to those individual scenes. Show-Percy deciphers the plot masterminded by the vengeful Titan Kronos rather quickly, and he unravels Luke’s betrayal on his own, whereas in the book he is taken by surprise and learns of the betrayal only after Luke attacks him with a poisonous scorpion.
While rendering the kids more smart and capable on the screen than they are on the page, this narrative choice simultaneously offers less room for their wit and ingenuity to shine. In the book, when Percy enters the Underworld, he has to think on his feet to trick Procrustes, then banter and bargain with the ferryman Charon to help him cross the River Styx. In the show, however, Percy quickly dispatches “Crusty” without much cleverness involved, then runs away from Charon and ends up finding Hades’s palace anyway.
Yet even with these tonal incongruities, the show checks off all the important boxes for a proper Percy adaptation—unlike the movie, which made such decisions as aging the characters way up and cutting the main villains out of the story. In her House of R interview, Olive talked about the figurative “guardrails” that Riordan installed in the writers’ room to ensure that they remained on the right track even as they took adaptive chances.
That effort pays off, as other text-to-screen changes reinforce themes that aren’t explored quite so thoroughly in The Lightning Thief. More of Olympus’s flawed yet forceful gods appear in the show, and their depiction furthers the idea that the deities are just as messed up as any of our favorite fictional families, like the Targaryens and Roys.
A feature like that warrants further exploration in Percy seasons to come. Season 1 didn’t end with an explicit “to be continued,” nor has Disney announced that it’s green-lit a second season—but the show offers some obvious teases, like the growing threat posed by Kronos and Grover’s declaration that he will soon embark on an expedition at sea. (The series’ second book is titled The Sea of Monsters.)
Riordan and his fellow creators should receive the opportunity to tell those stories, even if the show is fairly expensive, with a reported Season 1 cost of $12-15 million per episode. Some of that Mandalorian-level budget went to good use in a CGI-heavy show; other mythical visuals could use some more work going forward (see, for instance, the Fury Alecto, or perhaps don’t see her, because she doesn’t look great). Some action scenes (capture the flag in Episode 2) looked a lot better than others. (The clash with Ares in the finale was abrupt and looked somewhat anticlimactic.)
But Percy received both warm reviews and—perhaps more importantly—ample viewership, as best we can tell. Available ratings suggest the show was a “hit,” according to the Entertainment Strategy Guy, who writes about streaming data on Substack. Before Percy’s premiere, the ESG warned that previous young adult shows on Disney+ had foundered, but after the initial release, he wrote that Percy was the network’s “first genuine non-Marvel, non-Star Wars hit, which is a big deal,” with more viewing hours than even a number of recent MCU shows.
Weighed down by years and years of shows and movies and IP crossovers, MCU properties are no longer all must-watch events, as they were once upon a time. By comparison, opening the Disney+ app each Tuesday to watch a new half-hour about Percy and his adventures was a breath of fresh air.