(aka: Percy Jackson: The Story Thief)
“Percy Jackson and The Olympians: The Lightning Thief” – a review about mismanaging story
*** NOTE: Spoilers galore. ***
I am not one of those “the movie is never as good as the book” guys. Ever read Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (the source material for Blade Runner)? You couldn’t help but make a better movie than book, as the book is laughably bad. And Blade Runner is one of my all time favorite films.
And I’m not in love with Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief as a book. It’s engaging enough, and full of big ideas, but somewhat lacking in story structure.
So why am I so struck by the failure of Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief the movie?
I think, the more I ruminate on it, it’s because the mistakes seem so rooted in fundamental story issues, and seem to favor the weaknesses of the book over its strengths.
IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE BOOK *** spoilers ***
Percy Jackson is a demi-god — child of Poseiden and a mortal. His mother has kept this a secret — as far as Percy is concerned, his father is just absentee. When Percy’s true lineage is revealed, all the monsters swoop in to kill him (children of the big three Gods – Poseiden, Hades and Zeus – are especially dangerous), and his mother is killed by a Minotaur.
It turns out the big three, who by the way are brothers who killed their dad Kronos thousands of years ago, are on the verge of a global war, because someone’s stolen Zeus’ master thunder bolt. Percy could care less who stole the bolt, but is convinced his mother may still be alive, held captive by Hades in The Underworld. So he agrees to travel to The Underworld to retrieve the bolt, and must make a cross country trip with his two companions, Annabeth and Grover, to get there (Hades is in Hollywood).
It turns out Hades does have Percy’s mother, but he didn’t take the bolt. He wouldn’t want it, because he’s got enough to do managing The Underworld without millions of new souls coming in as the result of global devastation. Someone has, however, stolen his magic helmet that lets him be invisible… probably the same person who stole the bolt. If Percy can retrieve the helmet, he can have his mother back.
So who has the bolt? Why, it’s been in Percy’s backpack all along. The backpack was a gift from Ares, God of War… it’s looking like maybe he set Percy up from the beginning, with the help of Luke, son of Hermes — a friend of Percy’s and Annabeth’s love interest.
Percy agrees to leave his mother behind, retrieves the helmet from Ares in an epic battle – yup, turns out he wanted to start a War because, well, he’s the God of War – and returns the bolt to Zeus.
But wait, it’s not that simple. See, the real meta-plot is that the father of the big three — Kronos — is gathering his strength, preparing to leave Tartarus (the lower depths of The Underworld) and take out his three sons who slew him and chopped him to pieces and sent him to Tartarus in the first place millennia ago. He’s manipulating other lesser Gods and demi-gods, Ares and Luke among them, into doing terrible things, not the least of which are stealing Zeus’ bolt and trying to kill Percy. All this in an effort to rise from Tartarus and bring an end to the Age of the Gods, likely destroying all of mankind at the same time.
So although Percy’s returned the master bolt and avoided this war, Kronos is just getting started. There are bigger powers at work in this universe than the simple jealousies of three brother Gods and their illegitimate kids.
The weakness of the book is that Percy’s adventures on the road have no kinetic causality… the kids move from one isolated mini-adventure to another, with no real driving plot motivations. They happen to get attacked by harpies on the bus and escape, then stumble across Medusa’s lair and escape, then get attacked in the St. Louis Arch and escape, then into an enchanted Vegas hotel and escape, and so on. The plot points are disconnected, they don’t lead one to another, and the monsters seem to have no individual motivation other than simply wanting Percy dead because it’s their job. After a while it feels redundant and predictable.
The only thing tying them together is that in the end, it’s revealed that Kronos must have been manipulating the trip to make things hard on the kids as part of his master plan… but his motivation for that is questionable. If he wants the master bolt, he’d give Percy a pass… and if he wanted him dead, seems like he could be a little more efficient about it.
Why the big set up? Because…
None of this is in the film.
Well, almost none of it. There are so many changes, so many characters missing or rolled into one another, so many massive, fundamental plot elements utterly ignored, that one almost wonders why it was even called Percy Jackson. It’s almost as if they co-opted the title and the main character, and wrote a whole new story.
Now that’s nothing new, happens with book-to-script all the time, and often with good reason (see my Blade Runner comment above). But here are the core issues I have and why I think they were poor decisions.
In the book, Percy doesn’t know if his mother is with Hades. He hopes she is, and takes on the quest with no real intention of finding the bolt or ending the war, but for the secret motive of releasing her. This adds complexity to his motivations, as he’s manipulating his friends and the circumstances for selfish reasons, pinned on a hope.
In the film, Percy learns right away that his mother is alive with Hades, and so his whole motivation for taking on the quest is unfortunately simple and utterly without subtext.
In the book, Kronos is the meta plot that makes this a “bigger than all of us” story. It’s Kronos that appears unnamed in Percy’s dreams while on the road, and it’s his grand machinations that are finally revealed to be manipulating the Gods and the demi-gods, and indeed humanity, like chess pieces. Kronos is the Matrix, the mystery, the malevolent power that promises to drive the whole series. And it’s Kronos’ manipulations that leave hope that evil Luke, Percy’s ex-friend and Annabeth’s ex-crush, might be redeemed if in fact the evils he’s perpetrated were not truly his choice.
In the movie, Kronos is not a factor. He’s simply never addressed. Doesn’t exist. The only antagonist turns out to be Luke, who stole the bolt to start the war because (to paraphrase) “The Gods are old. They’ve had their chance. It’s time for the young ones to have their turn.”
Really? That’s it? The whole thing hinges on one angry teen with an attitude? What a shame that the one meta-plot that gave the story a “bigger than all of us” quality is simply ignored. And, as a consequence, the series of events on their quest might lack any motivating causality.
Percy Jackson not having Kronos is like Harry Potter not having Lord Voldemort. It’s a cute string of adventures, but lacks the arching meta-plot that drives the series and gives it depth.
Except that conveniently, Percy’s got:
The pearl map
In the book, Percy arrives on the West Coast and receives three magic pearls with which he and his two friends can escape The Underworld.
In the movie, Percy learns about the pearls before his quest, and is given a magic map leading the trio from one hidden pearl to the next across the country. As each pearl is retrieved, the map reveals their next destination… turning the road trip into an episode of “The Amazing Race”. It’s a clumsy and unsatisfying mechanism, but at least it’s an attempt to create some structure for the road trip, some causal connection that moves the story forward that had been lacking in the book.
However, in the book, the pearls set up the major reversal in the plot, and Percy’s ultimate character arc, as the kids must:
Escape from The Underworld
In the book, Hades has no desire to keep the bolt. But he won’t just give up mom. He wants his helmet back, and wants Percy to get it for him. Having only three pearls means Percy can’t just magically escape without leaving someone behind. Both his friends volunteer, but Percy realizes that they have a better chance using their powers as a team to not only save mom, but stop the war and save all of mankind.
Percy has to trust both Hades and himself to secure his mom’s freedom. Hades is a complicated guy, and theirs is a complicated relationship (Hades is Percy’s uncle, after all). So Percy has to leave his mom behind, and trust in he and his friend’s ability to succeed in their quest to save her. That’s a big deal, and demonstrates Percy’s growth and newfound sense of responsibility and selflessness. It’s one of the highlights of the book.
In the movie, Hades wants the bolt all right. And once he’s got it, he plans on killing the kids. Nothing complicated about that. They’d be dead if not for Hades’ wife, Persephone, who enjoys her visit to the surface every year and would be bummed if a war among the Gods interfered with those plans.
As he did in the book, Grover volunteers to stay in The Underworld, but unlike the book, Percy agrees. There is no difficult decision, no reversal forcing Percy to leave his mom behind after working so hard to save her. Grover wants to stay (he’s randy, and Persephone is lonely) so Percy simply leaves with his mom and Annabeth. We lose the opportunity for Percy to choose a difficult reversal, and to demonstrate his growth as a character.
The story, and its protagonist, are robbed of any real arc or growth.
Why do I care?
Okay, so it’s a reasonably good kid’s book, and a pretty bad kid’s movie. What difference does it all make? Why am I writing so much on it?
Because it’s an opportunity to think about story.
I find it interesting that the movie chose to focus its energies on fixing the book’s weak plotting by plugging in the map mechanism, but chose to remove the best parts of the book and replace them with nothing. We end up with a hamfisted plot device to move the story points, a protagonist who has no subtext, and ultimately suffers no reversal and completes no arc.
Imagine if (for instance) we’d kept Kronos, refined his motivation for manipulating Percy along with everyone else, used that motivation to fix the story structure and drive the micro-plot points with causality, and retained Percy’s opportunity to meet his difficult reversal with newfound responsibility and selflessness. Imagine if Hades had remained layered and complex, illustrating that even evil needs to be negotiated with from time to time because we actually share some common goals… because we’re related.
How much more interesting could this film have been? How might it have built on the promise of the book, resulting in something even greater?
But someone, somewhere, looked at the book and thought it was just about monsters and road trips and single-minded one dimensional characters, wrapped in an opportunity to CG a bunch of monsters that have action-figure possibilities.
Who made these decisions? I dunno… I’m not going to point fingers at the writer, or at the director, or at the studio. It’s a collective effort, and sometimes the reasons behind doing things get lost on the way to doing them. And clearly, it’s working just fine for a lot of people.
But someone, somewhere, should think a little harder about story.
Or maybe I’m asking too much.