When I started this blog, the idea was to have an outlet for everything I wanted to write about except sauropod vertebrae — the reason for that exception being that I already have a perfectly good blog that is entirely about sauropod vertebrae, which I encourage you to visit if you have any interest in ancient life.
But for one reason and another, I’ve blogged almost entirely about programming so far (except for one brief article on sushi). That’s not a bad thing, and it’s been fun for me to watch various themes spontaneously developing. But I do reserve the right to write about other things, and the film Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief is exercising me greatly right now. I need to take that sucker down.
WARNING: many, many spoilers ahead.
I’ve read all five of Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson” novels. They’re aimed at older kids/younger teens, and as I’m the father of 12, 10 and 7-year-old boys, they are right in our territory. Daniel, the eldest, has read them all; I recently read the first book out loud to all three of them. Jonno, the youngest, struggled a little to stay focussed, but did pretty well.
In the book, Percy is twelve years old when he discovers that he is a half-blood — half human, half god, the son of Poseidon. Events spiral out of his control, and he ends up at a summer-camp for half-bloods where he is very much the new boy: something of an outcast, not taken very seriously and bullied dangerously by other campers — especially Clarisse, a daughter of Ares, god of war. Percy’s situation becomes better when some of his water-related powers become apparent. He is then commissioned by the camp director, Dionysus, and guided by a prophecy from The Oracle, to try to obtain Zeus’s stolen Master Lightning Bolt from Hades, who is assumed to have stolen it. This is made harder because Zeus thinks that Percy himself stole the bolt in service of his father, and Hades thinks Percy stole his Helm of Darkness. The visit to Hades entails travelling across America from New York to Los Angeles (where else would the entrance to the Underworld be?). In this, Percy is accompanied by an ineffectual but faithful satyr called Grover, and also by a rather older camper, Annabeth, who is initially dismissive of him but who becomes a firm friend. Along the way they are hindered by Ares, the god of war, and it eventually becomes apparent that he was not involved in the theft: another half-blood called Luke, acting under orders from the ancient titan Kronos, father of the gods, stole both the lightning bolt and Hades’ helm of darkness, and they were recovered by Ares who did not return them because he wanted war between the gods. Percy and his friends manage to sort this out, and return both helm and bolt to their proper owners, averting the war.
I’m not claiming this is great literature, but it does have a unique and distinctive character, and a charm that is very much all its own (even if the Percy/Grover/Annabeth triumverate bears an uncomfortably close resemblance to Harry/Ron/Hermione). Charm, in fact, is the key word here: Percy makes a lot of mistakes, and repeatedly owes his life to his more experienced friends; as the story progresses, he becomes more able to contribute, but even at the end he is far from being the BMOC. Aside from the son-of-the-sea-god powers, Percy is in fact everyman, or at least everytwelveyearoldboy. He’s James (of Giant Peach fame) with superpowers. He’s Charlie (of Chocolate Factory fame) with monsters trying to kill him.
In the movie, everything is different. I mean everything of importance.
Let’s start by noticing the title change: that word “and” means that we know from the very beginning that the eponymous lightning thief can’t be Percy. OK, now on to the actual film.
Percy’s age is not given, but he looks at least seventeen. At camp half-blood he is immediately recognized as special, and has an instant crush on Annabeth, who is about his age and smoking hot. He sneaks away from the camp in the hope of getting his Mostly Dead mother back from Hades, with Grover and Annabeth insisting on coming along. Luke gives him a magic shield and a Marauder’smagic map that shows the location of three magic pearls that allow people to escape from the underworld. Before they can visit Hades, Percy and co. have to find the three pearls from various locations. Having done so, they easily make their way to Hades who finds the bolt hidden inside the shield that Luke gave Percy. Hades decides to use the bolt to conquer Zeus, but is surprised by his long-suffering wife Persephone, who uses the bolt to disable him and allow the heroes to escape with it. They materialise close to the home of the gods, but are immediately attacked by Luke: both he and Percy can fly, and a long battle ensues during which each of them in turn obtains and then loses the bolt several times. Finally Percy is triumphant, and returns the bolt to Zeus, averting the war. He then — of course — has a heart-to-heart with his father, and sulkily rejects him.
We need not detain ourselves too long with a consideration of the ways in which this version of the story is inferior to the original. Percy is a hero from the start, and has no depth to him: the plot amounts to moving tokens around a board, not least in the cringeworthy device of the three pearls. This kind of contempt for the audience is also apparent in many small details: for example, the “joke” in which, at Camp Half-Blood, Percy and Grover walk unthinkingly across a shooting range in front of the bent bows and aimed arrows of their fellow campers — not once but twice. It’s hard to imagine any more effective means of conveying that whatever dumb thing our heroes do, they are not in any actual danger — they don’t care, so why should we?
Then there is the loss of the plot structure, which is actually rather neatly put together in the book, with one big mystery (who is behind it all?), lots of little mini-mysteries along the way, and all kinds of foreshadowing. All of that is jettisoned in the film, in favour of a Ancient Greek flavoured theme-park ride — and no wonder, because the principal antagonist (the titan Kronos) is not even in the film, and neither is the secondary antagonist (Ares). Which is is why the rather boring character of Luke has to be elevated to an importance that he doesn’t merit and can’t sustain. (This is rather like taking Voldemort and Quirrell out of Philosopher’s Stone and making Draco Malfoy the main antagonist; or, if you are a patron of the classics, taking Sauron and Saruman out of Lord of the Rings and making it all about the Witch-King of Angmar.)
Kronos and Ares are dropped from the film, you say? Ah, but that is only the thin end of a very big wedge. Also not appearing are Clarisse, an important secondary antagonist; Dionysus, camp director and god of wine; The Oracle, an oracle (clue’s in the question); The Three Fates, The Three Furies, Echidna and the Chimaera, Procrustes, Cerberus (giant three-headed dog that guards the entrance to the underworld) and many more.
At this point, I was going to enumerate all the set pieces from the book that the film discarded, and the others that are pulled out of thin air in their place; but I’m not going to do that, because we all understand that you can’t judge a film by its fidelity to the book. If the director felt that battling the hydra in the Nashville parthenon was “more cinematic” than battling the chimaera on top of the St. Louis arch, I guess I have no real problem with that. (To be fair, the hydra battle was one of the movie’s highlights, with its eventual defeat being clever and appropriate to the characters.)
So what is is the key problem? Just this: the systematic eradication of everything about the book that made us interested in seeing a film adaptation in the first place. The loss of any sense of wonder at the things we’re seeing; the erasure of all Percy’s unique qualities, as he is lowest-common-denominatored down to Generic Action Hero. The removal of the Greek gods from being at large in the world and appearing in ways that are appropriate in modern times (e.g. Ares as a biker in shades). Everything about the book that made it, in a word, different from every other book. Because the film is exactly the same as every other film. It’s a sterile technical exercise, nothing more.
Before I go on to try to figure out how this happened, I must mention one other change. Percy and friends enter the underworld with three magic pearls, but they need four so that they can rescue Percy’s mother as well as getting out themselves. In the book, this is a key moment of character growth: Percy courageously recognises that other goals (i.e. the prevention of war between the gods) are more important even than his need for his mother, and leaves her behind in the underworld, hopeful that the gods will intervene on her behalf once the war is averted. In the film, it is Grover who stays behind — so that he can have sex with Persephone while her husband is comatose.
Stay classy, Fox Pictures!
How? How did it happen?
Sadly, I can imagine all too easily how this deflavouring happened — how all the goodness was boiled out of The Lightning Thief and cinematic monosodium glutamate substituted. Because I’ve seen it happen before so many times. One particularly egregious example that most of us will have seen is the treatment of Faramir in Peter Jackson’s film version of The Two Towers, the middle third of Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. (By the way, if you’ve never read Andrew Rilstone’s utterly brilliant review of this movie, go and do so immediately. And the appendices.)
For the record, I should say that I love all three LotR movies, and that although TTT is my least loved of the three, it is still full of goodness. But that doesn’t excuse its handling of Faramir, who, as Rilstone says, they eliminated and replaced with a different character of the same name. The whole point of Faramir in the book is that he is everything his brother Boromir is not — just as, say, Buffy is all that Faith is not (and could be, if she’d let herself). In short, Faramir is good — a concept that is somewhat unfashionable in a movie industry enslaved to How To Make A Good Plot Great and other such things; an industry that genuinely believes that It’s All About The Hero’s Journey and If You Have No Conflict You Have Nothing and a hundred other equally vacuous mantras. Driven by those profound inanities, Movie Faramir (or Faromir, as my buddy Matt Wedel rather cleverly refers to him) has to Generate Conflict and to be An Impediment To The Hero’s Journey. (I’ll stop with the all the mock-reverent capitals now.) So instead of releasing Frodo, with the ring, allowing him to continue his quest to destroy it, Movie Faramir captures Frodo and Sam, tortures Gollum and takes them all back to PemberleyOsgiliath where, transformed by being on home ground, he undergoes a sudden and inexplicable character reversal and frees Frodo and friends before no doubt popping off to Minas Tirith to tell Lady Catherine that he’s decided to marry Lizzie after all.
So that is bad. Watching it is pretty painful (although to be fair Faramir gets much better treatment in the final film). But what hurts much more is the interview with screenwriter Philippa Boyens on one of the bonus DVDs. (What do you mean, you didn’t buy the four-disc extended editions?). In this, Boyens carefully explains how she fixed Tolkien’s insufficiently dramatic character Faramir by making him more interesting (i.e. exactly the same as his brother). She means it: she genuinely thinks that canonicalising characters makes them better — that having too many different characters will badger it all up. They all have to be the same, because they all have to conform to the same mythic archetype or something. (Joseph Campbell has a lot to answer for.)
And this of course is what’s happened to poor Percy Jackson. He’s been turned into Generic Hero Guy. Annabeth has become Generic Warrior Chick, and Grover has become Generic Comic-Relief Sidekick with a generous side of Generic Horny Best Friend. Zeus and Poseidon have become Generic Identical Superpowered Dudes and are wholly indistinguishable. Everything has been regressed towards the mean. It’s tragic to watch.
And I feel sorry for Rick Riordan, who has had to watch his book pureed down into generic slush, and who presumably feels it incumbent on him to say how proud he is to see his vision brought to life on the screen and what a great job the filmmakers did of realising that vision. Except that he knows perfectly well that what they realised was not his vision at all, nor anything like it. It was a Dungeons and Dragons campaign with nice graphics. What a waste.
(By the way, we’re also watching the DVD of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince with the boys. I’m liking it a lot. The Potter films are by no means perfect, and some of them can feel a little phoned-in at times. But even at their least inspired, they understand what made the books appealing in the first place, and make an effort to reproduce that in a form appropriate to the medium. Half-Blood Prince is pleasantly surprising me by fulfilling that baseline and also adding a light touch in handling the various incipent romances.)