The year is 2010, Twitter still exists, and fans of the Percy Jackson books are reeling from the shock of seeing their beloved hero getting a Hollywood makeover. No reader has high expectations from a book-to-film adaptation, but Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief (2012) is legendary for how terrible it is as both a standalone film and as an adaptation. Conventionally, authors tend to maintain a diplomatic and polite silence, but Rick Riordan is not one for convention. This is the author who didn’t hesitate to bring conversations about homosexuality into mainstream young adult fiction. He gave us a Muslim Valkyrie who fasts during Ramadan and is welcomed into Valhalla. He’s also written, while channelling a beleaguered Apollo (god of poetry, among other things), this haiku:
“My dear Commodus
Commode was named after you
Hail, Toilet Caesar.”
I digress. My point is, Riordan’s reaction to the adaptation of his bestselling book, Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, was characteristically unconventional. “They should censor the entire thing. Just two hours of blank screen,” Riordan replied to a fan who had tweeted asking him if any scenes from the film version had been censored for streaming. Riordan also described the script as “my life’s work going through a meat grinder” and added that he had actually pleaded the film not get made. The only silver lining for Percy fans was Riordan had promised he was in talks with Disney to do a new adaptation.
Then there was (relative*) silence — *Riordan gave regular updates on his website about how things were progressing — until December 2023, when Riordan donned his Santa hat and gave us the best Christmas gift: A Percy Jackson television/ streaming series that promises to do right by the books.
Having seen the first two episodes of Percy Jackson and the Olympians, here’s what we can tell you about the new adaptation, which will begin airing from December 20, on Disney+ Hotstar.
Riordan is an active collaborator in this adaptation, with credits for both writing, showrunning and producing Percy Jackson and the Olympians. This is particularly evident in the episode titles, like “I Become Supreme Lord of the Bathroom” (episode 2), which draw from the books. However, while the show is funny in parts, the humour isn’t as pitch perfect as in the books. This may be because the early episodes have to do a lot of world-building and scene-setting, but a lot of the jokes and quips don’t land quite as one would hope, particularly for those who know the books. To the show’s credit, what it might lack on the humour front, Percy Jackson and the Olympians makes up for by establishing its main characters with neat clarity.
In sharp contrast to how the films were cast, the show hasn’t yanked Percy out of the cute-12-year-old category to be a sexy teenager. Walker Scobell — he played Ryan Reynolds’s younger avatar in The Adam Project — is excellent as a scrawny, spirited and age-appropriate Percy. At the start of the show, Percy is very much the weird kid in his school and there’s little indication of him having any special powers. It’s nice to see him steadily but slowly discover his strengths and abilities. Look out for the scene in which Percy fights off a group of Ares’s children at Camp Half Blood. He moves with sharp and deliberate intent (unlike when he’s fending off the minotaur that wants to kill him). Scobell is very good at adding little nuances — like the way he holds his body when Percy feels battle-ready — to show how Percy’s growing into his own.
Anyone who dismissed the colour-blind casting of Leah Sava Jeffries (she plays daughter of Athena, Annabeth) and Aryan Simhadri (he’s the satyr Grover) as tokenism, get ready to eat your words. Black Annabeth is fierce and fun, with Jeffries shining in the few scenes she has in the early episodes. Within the first two episodes, Simhadri has already established his Grover as distinct from the one in the book. Simhadri’s Grover is less bumbling and obviously comic, but still unsure of himself. Those who know the Percy Jackson books will be happy to know Luke Castellan, played by Charlie Bushnell, comes across as the quintessential nice guy in the early episodes.
As far as the colour-blind casting of Percy Jackson goes, we can’t wait to see the sibling rumblings between Lance Reddick as Zeus and Toby Stephens as Poseidon. The jury’s still out on Glynn Turman’s Chiron.
Sally Jackson, Percy’s mother, is one of the book’s most charming characters and in the show, she’s made magnificent by Virginia Kull. Her determination to protect her son is unshakeable and within seconds of seeing Sally with Percy, you can’t help but want this mother-son duo to have all the happiness in the world.
Among Percy Jackson and the Olympians’s inspired casting choices are Jason Mantzoukas as Dionysus, the god in Hawaiian shirts, and Megan Mulally as the fury Alecto. We hope they will have more to do in later episodes and that the script capitalises on these actors’ dramatic and comedic skills.
True to the books, the first episode of Percy Jackson and the Olympians roots Percy in New York City, with a special appearance by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and moody shots of clouds rolling over the skyscrapered city. However, it’s Camp Half Blood that’s a joy to behold. Set in a picturesque location that includes a lake and a forest, with residential halls for children of various Greek gods, and only the most subtle hints of unrest layering this idyllic retreat, Camp Half Blood is faithful to how Riordan described it in his books. It’s also an opportunity for both the show’s design and visual effects departments to flex their skills.
The one odd detail about Percy Jackson and the Olympians is that while following a chapter-like progression, scenes occasionally fade to black to signal the end of one sequence and the beginning of another. It feels like a cut inserted to make space for ad breaks and gives the show’s pacing an awkwardly jumpy quality.
It should be obvious by now that Riordan seems to have redeemed Percy with this adaptation. The series benefits from a main cast of kids who are playing their age, rather than trying to come across as glamorous movie kids. The world is lovingly brought to life and doesn’t resemble other popular franchises like Harry Potter and its spin-offs. Fingers crossed that the remaining six episodes of Percy Jackson and the Olympians live up to this promise.