One of the most endearing parts of motherhood for me has been reading aloud to my son. I’m grateful that my middle school child still looks forward to this ritual we started in his infancy. These days we tend toward series of books. I tried to interest him in my childhood favorites, but we only made it through two of the Little House books. Even Farmer Boy could not save the series from seeming too girlish for him. (He loved the pig-slaughter scene and don’t let him tell you he didn’t!)
Rick Riordan wrote a series we both thoroughly enjoyed: Percy Jackson and the Olympians. Through five books, Riordan creates a world inhabited by the gods and goddesses of Olympia and their half-human offspring, the demigods. The tales of the Olympians weave through the struggles of the contemporary demigods, who find themselves on unlikely quests to places like Las Vegas and Hades, which must be entered through Hollywood, CA.
Percy, one of the demigods, learns his true identity as most demigods do: by getting in trouble during puberty. When the books open, Percy is an awkward middle school boy, plagued by dyslexia, ADHD and a lousy stepfather. Mistakenly believed by Zeus to have stolen his powerful weapon, the thunderbolt, Percy must discover his hidden powers, train to be a warrior, and fight his way first to the underworld and then to Mount Olympus in order to save the world from a war between the gods and, more importantly to him, to save his mother.
Part of Riordan’s charm is his capacity to mix the awkwardness of puberty with the unfolding powers of his young characters. Now these characters have moved to the big screen with the first book, The Lightening Thief, opening in movie theaters this week. Having eagerly anticipated this event, my son and I took advantage of yet another snow day to go see the show yesterday.
My overall reaction: disappointment.
If you’ve never read the books, you may love the movie. Good special effects, tense action, snarky characters and a strong plot pull it along. But I humbly suggest you read the book instead.
The movie fails to capture what seems to me central to the stories: the difficulty of coming of age in a world where you feel like a complete misfit. In the book, even as his position as a demigod gets rudely revealed to him, Percy still struggles to know who his father is and why he was abandoned as a child. In the film, he triumphantly arrives at a beautiful cabin on a lake, built for him by his father, Poseidon. His relationship with Annabeth, another main character, begins on screen with sultry glances across a battlefield, completely unlike their encounters in writing. There, slowly over the course of the five books, they begin to understand their attraction to each other. The books are far more like real life, with the push-pull of gender relations at that age when one can hardly understand one’s own body, much less one’s emotional terrain.
The third member of the starring trio is Grover, a satyr who in Riordan’s hands is funny and sweet and a little scared of his responsibilities, but deeply sincere in all his efforts. In the movie he is a party boy, hanging out with buxom women, looking for a good time start to finish. Huh?
I realize that condensing a richly detailed book into two hours of screen time is no easy task. The Harry Potter films have done a surprisingly good job of sticking to the main idea of each book, even while occasionally leaving out entire sub-plots. But I feel the screenwriters in this case took liberties that not only missed the charm of the books, but felt cheap, going for the easy laughs.
One moment during our viewing captured this disconnect for me. After Percy arrives at Camp Half-Blood, the training camp for demigods, a game of capture the flag ensues. These games, central to the books, reveal characters’ strengths and flaws in subtle ways, building on the strengths and flaws of the gods and goddesses themselves, now showing up in their offspring. In the movie, the game immediately erupts into all-out battle. My son leaned over to me and whispered, “I thought that capture the flag was more a game of stealth.” I whispered back, “You’re right. I guess the movie makers didn’t think stealth would make for an exciting scene.”
But I think they were wrong.