Sunday, February 14, 2010

Percy Jackson and the Challenge of Arriving Later

I finished reading the first Percy Jackson book and then saw the movie adaptation last night.  Reviews of the latter are fairly unanimous--the movie is not as good as Harry Potter and might even be a horrible ripoff.

While I was a bit disappointed in how the movie adapted the book, I think that kind of review is profoundly unfair.  Explanations and assessments below the break.  Spoilers below.

For those who have not read the Percy Jackson series, the first book starts with a 12 year old boy who has always been picked on, including by his step-father.  Once he discovers his special nature (he is a demi-god, son of Poseidon), he ends up at a special place (summer camps!) to be trained to use his abilities.  Then, he finds out that there is a plot against him, and he needs to recover some stuff (Zeus's master lightning bolt) to clear his name and avoid a major war among the Gods.  On this quest, he takes two friends, a smart girl (Annabeth, daughter of Athena) and his protector (a Satyr) who is good for comic relief.  He encounters a variety of monsters along the way and ultimately defeats a plot against the Gods. 

The parallels to HP are striking--discovery of hidden powers, being trained at a distant locale, a boy with two friends, at least one dead/distant parent, etc.  But, if I was industrious enough, I could probably find early reviews of HP and the Philospher's/Sorceror's Stone that say that HP is derivative.  This is a classic fantasy set of tropes.  One could accuse HP of stealing from the X-Men--a special school for kids with special abilities, led by older man with amazing talents.

The real ironic connection between PJ and HP is that the first movie of both series (if PJ gets to be a franchise) were directed by the same guy--Chris Columbus.  And he basically does the opposite in PJ that he did with HP.  Perhaps JK Rowling was far more powerful than Rick Riordan (author of the PJ series).  Perhaps?  Absolutely, as we can tell from the results.  The adaptation of PJ makes huge changes in the plot, whereas HP #1 was criticized for being too faithful to the text.  In making the HP series, very few significant changes were made along the way.  Young actors were cast so that they could and did age with the roles, starting with 11-12 and moving onwards.  The major plot points of each book were kept and much of the intermediate stuff also remained.  Partly, this is because JK wrote the series as one very long story, so that changes early would have ramifications for down the road.  I am not so sure about the PJ series since I still have to read the rest.

Having said that, the movie adaptation for PJ, while quite entertaining, does a fair amount of damage to the story.  Percy is 16, not 12, apparently so that he can be romantic with Annabeth.  This means that he cannot age significantly over the series (whose length in the movies is far less inevitable than HP).  More importantly, and spoiling now, in the book, most of the discoveries take some time and play out as mysteries.  In the movie, everything is pretty much explained early and often.  Even more importantly, in the book, the events are driven by a conspiracy led by a fallen Titan (Kronos).  In the movie, the key mastermind is a petulant teenage demigod (who plays a  significant role as a dupe in the book).  This would seem to be a problem for the series if other movies get made.  Perhaps they are betting against that. 

The movie itself was entertaining.  I missed Ares, whose entire arc in the book is gone. They got rid of key sequences in St. Louis and Denver that were highly entertaining and put in a new one at the Parthenon in Tennessee.  I have no clue why they did it that way.  Indeed, they changed from a simple, yet complicated effort to get from coast to coast into a quest for magic pearls.  And, of course, they sexed up the Lotus Hotel, which would have been pretty strange had the characters remained 12 year olds.  Persephone was added to the movie, and wonderfully played by Rosario Dawson (speaking of sexed up), but I prefer the book's interaction between the heroes and Hades. 

Do I prefer Harry Potter and his universe as depicted in the books and movies than Percy Jackson and his books/movies?  Absolutely.  But will I now seek out the rest of the PJ books?  Yes, I will.  Fun comes in all flavors, and some pop more than others, but more fun is better than no fun.  And reviewers who cannot see that both HP and PJ are just the latest in a long line of adventure/quest type fantasies, well, they are no fun at all.


Mrs. Spew said...

I looked over the book series and after the first one, each book uses a major myth point -- Artemis' Hunt, the Golden Fleece and the minotaur's labryinth, and then there's a war at the end. It looks like they decided to either delay or junk Chronos and the Titan war for the movies. That means most of the mysteries that are fun in the books are probably axed in the movies, and they've decided instead to concentrate on the gods contact with their kids issue. I would suspect that there will continue to be cuts and changes in the movies to simplify the storylines, the number of locations, the number of main characters, etc., and shift the stories away from being mysteries to being quest stories. This is quite different from the Harry Potter books and movies which does one giant story with a huge cast of characters -- epic instead of quests. So the model for the Percy movies really isn't Harry Potter, but Spiderman (and X-Men) -- superheroes where the powers are interestingly different from each other and the school part is just a backdrop, not the main focus.

But you're not going to have film reviewers getting into the nuances of that because they don't care about movies like these.

Steve Greene said...

I read this book to David not all that long ago, and I was actually disappointed. Not a waste of time, but not nearly as good as I hoped it would be. I may read more of the series, but certainly don't feel particularly compelled to. Just didn't strike me as all that well written. Maybe just not enough of a sense of humor? (Rowling has a terrific sense of humor, of course).