Train Wreck: Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief

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.

The book

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.

The movie

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.)

27 responses to “Train Wreck: Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief

  1. I wouldn’t be too bothered by Percy/Annabeth/Grover being very like Harry/Hermione/Ron–they are just following the classic triumvirate of Truth, Love and Courage. The Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Lion; Chuck, Sarah and Casey; Spock, Bones and Kirk; Hermione, Ron and Harry. Always three, there are…

  2. Donn, there is something in what you say; but I have trouble figuring out who is Truth, who is Love and who is Courage in most of the trios you offer. Like most successful archetypes, I think this one works best if you allow it enough play that you can claim pretty much anything fits it.

  3. I think the best books in this genre is _His Dark Materials_ by Phillip Pullman. It’s targeted at much the same audience as Harry Potter, but actually preceeded the Potter books slightly. It’s a joy to read books in this genre that’s actually original and interesting, and not just an attempt to copy the success of J.K.Rowling. Pullman has said that his main inspiration was Milton’s _Paradise Lost_, and the depth of the questions asked is staggering. It’s truly one of very few examples of books that are as enjoyable for children as they are for adults. If you haven’t read them yet, you absolutely should take a look! :)

  4. I should write about His Dark Materials some time — I’ve read and enjoyed all three, though the first one much the most. However, there is much truth in Abigail Nussbaum’s highly condensed version of the trilogy:

  5. “a summer-camp for half-bloods”. Hang on. In this world there are so many sons and daughters of gods and mortals that they can have *summer camps* for them?!

    (That’s quite a nice extrapolation, actually: if the Olympian gods behaved in reality as they did in myth, there’d be a lot of bastards around.)

    I’ve just reread Kage Baker’s Company novels, and I’m afraid the plot you describe above is colliding violently with it in my head. (Zeus’s stolen Master Lightning Bolt: ah, you mean Dr. Zeus, Inc’s Temporal Concordance? And Alec Checkerfield could very well be considered as evil as Kronos after what he did to Mars Two — certainly he’d say so, and a lot of other characters do as well — and he *does* have a devoted associate (AI and fake pirate ship captain) steal the Concordance… I hope _Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief_ avoids the not-exactly-incest aspects of both the Company novels and the myths though. Also the gruesome torture in _The Machine’s Child_ is probably not explicit enough for a children’s story.)

    At least Los Angeles, is in the right general area. But we all know that the entrance to the Underworld actually is (or rather was) in Sunnydale. So near, yet so far…

    The movie sounds like classic plot coupon stuff: collect all coupons and redeem for an ending.

    Regarding Faramir: yes yes yes. I had trouble watching the rest after what they did to him: I couldn’t trust the filmmakers not to destroy another character, so shifted into ultracritical mode, destroying my WSOD.

  6. Not that I’ve seen the movie, but it bothers the heck out of me that they couldn’t even bother to get Annabeth’s hair color right. The books only constantly refer to her as blonde, so in the movie she’s…a brunette. That and the age change are enough to make me consider that they didn’t even try to make anything like the book.

    @Nix: The book basically says “You know how the gods had lots of kids in the myths? Well, they didn’t stop”, just like you said. Though it also notes that in each god’s case, there’s somewhere from 1 (Poseiden) to 8 or 9 (Ares). Nearly all the bastard children are at the camp, under the pretense that they all need to train to survive.

  7. Thanks for this review.

    I have a little suggestion, I think that when writing a review with plot’s details, you have to point at the beginning (or at the start of the book’s iternals) something like: “Warning, This article contains spoliers about book&movie’s plot”.

  8. Keith B., you’re right that changing Annabeth’s hair-colour, trivial though it is in itself, is symptomatic of a much broader contempt for the book that was supposedly being adapted. It’s not that her pale hair is important; it’s just that it’s so, so easy to get right, and why would you choose to get it wrong? It’s like Harry not wearing glasses, or Ron being blond, or Draco having black hair. I can only hypothesize that this is an instance of the director, or one of the other “creatives”, wanting to “stamp his personality” on the film. But that doesn’t serve the film, because the book that it’s based on already has a personality, and that personality is the reason we came to see the film in the first place.

    Fabiano, you’re right about the lack of spoiler-warning. Sorry that I failed to do this. Now fixed.

  9. choosealoginname

    Hear, hear. Quite apart from the many ways in which they mangled the story, what really hurt me was not seeing Dionysus or Ares. I was looking forward to those appearances. :-( Dionysus in particular was one of my favourite characters.

    I remember watching the trailer and telling the person I was with: “Oh hey, the books are really good, this is going to be terrible, let’s go watch it!”. I’m happy to say that the movie did not disappoint— er, did disappoint— er, exceeded expectations— er, fell short— oh darn it all.

    Also, seriously, Uma Thurman?

    Re: His Dark Materials, I enjoyed the series, but I found it quite depressing overall. And I really wouldn’t tell an unsuspecting child to read that.

  10. Sigh-all too, too true. I didn’t catch all the changes since I’d already forgotten a lot of the first book, but my kids (12yo boy, 10yo girl) were sorely disappointed.

  11. Keith: one presumes these are the kids the gods had in only a few years? They’re breeding pretty fast, if they’ve been keeping it up for millennia. I wonder if the end-state would be something like Terre d’Ange from the Kushiel novels, with virtually everyone in the entire society looking half-godlike?

    Mike: it seems like the film is pre-spoiled! Warning against book spoilers is probably worth it though.

  12. I can’t help but recommend the “Mortal Engines Quartet” by Brighton-based author Philip Reeve – a fantastic, steam punk themed future that your boys are sure to love! Some of, if not the best children’s fiction I’ve ever read!

    I’ve just ordered the sequel to the prequel (yes, you read that right!) “A web of air” and cannot wait for it to arrive – neither can my wife – so I imagine a fight for ownership will quickly ensue.

  13. Thanks for the recommendation, Brian. I’ve ordered a second-hand copy of the first book.

  14. The only upside to this film coming out is that I was able to use it as a platform to explain the value of being a “movie snob” to my 9 year old, who loved the entire book series and loathed the film.

  15. I love your review of it and I couldn’t agree more. The directors barely give Percy any screen time to show his personality. But another thing that bothered me was that none of the other cabins were at Camp Half-blood. It was only Percy’s…and it had no walls! That was a major let down.
    I also noticed the changed in hair colour, and it annoyed me through out the whole movie.
    Personally, I think that they changed Percy’s age to appeal to the older crowd. If you think about it, no fifteen year old girl would swoon over a twelve year old kid, but they would over a seventeen year old.
    All in all, the movie that a major disgrace. It changed everything I like about the books.

  16. im reading this book in class an i lov it:)

  17. Nice encapsulation of what’s wrong with too many “adaptations” in which changes are made for arbitrary reasons rather than because they make cinematic/narrative sense. Percy Jackson is the flipside to the Harry Potter films; the Potters were often faithful in a sludgey way with great masses of material retained and not transformed for cinema, Percy Jackson on the other hand treats the source material with disrespect as you say, throwing those things that make it worthwhile away in favour of Teen Fantasy Genericus (Riordan obviously not having Rowling’s control over the adaptation). The Percy Jackson novels aren’t all that good but they’re clearly better pieces of storytelling than the first adaptation. Hooray for Hollywood I suppose! Of course, the entirely pointless splitting of H P and The Deathly Hallows in two thereby amplifying the problems of a decidedly flawed novel is an example of the opposite approaches own idiocies, Deathly Hallows Part 1 being one of the most tedious and tiresome experiences in modern cinema (and I don’t like much modern cinema anyway. Ha).
    Your comments on the Fauxmarir debacle are spot-on and even more so those on Ms Boyens’s explanations in the documentary. Both Jackson and Boyens annoy when they attempt to use Screenwriting 101 gabble to defend the more unnecessary and mechanical changes. There is quite a bit to like in LOTR films, they aren’t masterpieces but they are pretty good however the changes that are purely for the hard-of- thinking or for unnecessary convention are egregious (I won’t mention the treatment of Pippin, Merry, and Gimli. Ugh). Mr Rilstone’s pieces are hilarious and pretty true as well.

  18. I agree, Hal, that the Potter films can be stodgy and unimaginative in their literal-minded adaptation of Rowling’s prose. That can be particularly apparent in the adaptations of the longer and less well-edited books, and as you say the two-part Deathly Hallows really does feel like an exercise in grinding through every beat of the books. (Yet even then it manages to muff Neville’s big moment with the hat, which was pretty much my favourite part of the book.)

    And yet I really love three of the Potter films. The first just feels magical, and Daniel Radcliffe’s limited acting is rendered irrelevant by his completely appropriate sense of sheer wonder. It captures what I loved about the book, the spirit of it as much as the detail. After a second film that felt by-the-numbers, the third was a much freer adaptation, much more tightly constructed, and much the better for it, it hit all the key points of the novel and made all the key scenes work, while playing with the scaffolding to good effect. (It also has the marvellous scene where Hermione punches Malfoy). Finally, and very much contrary to my expectations, the Half-Blood Prince films works well not only for the plot work, but for its surprisingly sure-handed and sympathetic handling of the adolescent love-affairs. The last thing I expected was a light touch, but it’s there and it shows all three of the leads at their best.

    Ha, looks like I just reviewed (nearly) all eight Potter films. For the record, I thought #4 and #5 were too by-the-numbers to be deeply involving, but I did very much enjoy Imelda Staunton’s reading of Umbridge — even though it’s completely different from how I’d pictured her. (I’d like to see Umbridge played by Annette Badland, of Blon Fel-Fotch Passameer-Day Slitheen fame.)

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  20. Oh yes, Annette Badland! She would’ve done a good job. I must admit that as I am not the biggest fan of much of RTD Doctor Who (I know, “say it ain’t so!” – I may appear to be a contrarian but I just follow my tastes) and certainly not of those raxicoriwhatsit flatulent horrors, so I think of her more as Charlotte from Bergerac!
    I liked the Ministry of Magic face-off in Order of the Phoenix which was a highlight of the films for me. I agree that Philosopher’s Stone though slightly bland did well in introducing the world and, despite Colombus’s essential blandness, creating a sense of the magic of Hogwarts while telling a compelling story. I think bits and pieces of the next two worked especially in Prisoner (though they don’t work as well as the books), then with Goblet of Fire we have a film adapted from a novel that has some really good even shocking moments but also many longuers. Rowling’s acquired tendency toward bloat saw a lot of repetition and reiteration, just all together too much air pumped into a book that would have benefited from a strong editorial hand, the movie doesn’t do a bad job of adapting it and is notably sleeker but, ironically, the effective moments are usually better-achieved in the book simply because when Rowling is actualling *telling the story* and serving the characters rather than faffing around insisting on the story’s importance she’s very good at it. I found that the next two books continued in a similar vein to Goblet with less success, they got draggy and repetitive which weakened the effective parts and I think the films are harmed by this. Deathly Hallows was half-good but not entirely satisfactory, I must admit that I really sympathized with Snape she did such a good job with him that I couldn’t buy the muggle-hating nasty side, I believed in his love for Lilly though. Hallows Part 2 did a pretty good job of adaptation but couldn’t shore up the more unsatisfactory and diffuse aspects and characters given short shrift. Mmm, lots of babble there, sorry!

  21. Well, Hal, regarding RTD-era Who, you are just wrong ;-) But we’ll let that pass.

    You are very right that Goblet of Fire is where the rot set in with the books. I still greatly enjoyed them from then onwards, but couldn’t really admire them any more. As Rowling got too big to be edited, the books became increasingly inflated: more bulk, but no more substance. They could have been great given a tough eye watching them, but ended up merely as good.

    Snape is a problem in the films, simply because Alan Rickman is so good at what he does that he steals every scene he’s in. The makers were wise to reduce his role in films 6 (and far as possible) and 7a and 7b: had they not, it would have eneded up as Snape’s story.

  22. Wrong about RTD-Who? Possibly. How’s life in the Anti-Matter Universe?! (other rejected crappy “jokes” – Give my regards to the Brigade Leader; what’s it like living in Gerry Anderson’s Journey to the Far Side of the Sun?; Are you Garthe Knight?; I’ve a million of ’em, all equally *awful*) Bwahahaha! No, I quite liked a few episodes but much more of it infuriated me but let’s not argue about that ;).
    I agree with you about the Potters and, yes, Alan Rickman is pretty fantastic. Although I sympathize with Harry I empathize with Severus despite his darker doings. His relationship with Lily is heartbreaking, perhaps I can’t believe he’d do or say the hurtful he does because of that (um, possibly it’s because I wouldn’t think like that and the idea that someone would fall for Riddle’s vileness even temporarily is anathema – ah, yes I am strange and overthinking it!). You are likely correct that he’d take over the films because he’s more interesting than poor Harry. I think it was Andrew Rilstone who commented on the tiresome treatment of adults in the books, they do seem basically to be rather ineffectual if good, eventually disappointing, or evil. Dumblebore gets to be the Wise One with a Flaw of course but that’s a bit blah. I was disappointed that after Goblet Of Fire the series didn’t broaden overmuch and still, for the most part, stuck to a rigid structure. Deathly Hallows tried to do a lot more with the Horcrux quest but felt rushed (and a bit mechanical) as if Rowling’s imagination had failed her somewhat or she’d left some things too late or with too little room in a single book. Of course, this is probably so much jibber-jabber!

  23. Interesting that you’d describe Deathly Hallows as “rushed” when most people find it over-long and stretched. Oddly enough, I sort of agree with both assessments. I think the book is relatively low in incident density, but that’s because each individual incident is written up in four or five times the amount of prose that it would have required earlier in the series; but the total number of incidents that has to be crammed in is high, which makes it feel rushed. Really, it could have been so much better.

  24. Too true. A pity really, tho’ of course lots of people like it very much (for what that’s worth [intolerably sardonic wink]).

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