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Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief – A lesson in storytelling?

19 Feb , 2010,
Chip Street
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14 comments

(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.

Mom

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.

Kronos

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.

14 Comments

  1. Donna Brodsky February 19, 2010 at 12:50 pm Reply

    I work at an independent bookstore, so know the customers well. They often share their comments about movie adaptations. You’re not the first adult to lament the poor storyline in both the movie and novel, “Percy Jackson, Lightning Thief,” although kids flock to the store for the next book!

    Another criticism to add to your blog would be that action movies for kids (and adults) are often “dumbed down” for those of us that want to walk away having experienced the best story ever told! Certain elements have been part of storytelling since the beginning of time and missing plot pieces cause us to walk away feeling unfullfilled and skeptical. Wake up big studios.

  2. crankydog February 19, 2010 at 1:23 pm Reply

    Hi, Donna – thanks for dropping by!
    Interesting to hear others have trouble w the book too. It’s clearly better than the movie, but not the Literary opus many are saying it is.
    I’m unsure the average viewer knows “why” they’re dissatisfied, but yup, we all have internalized the basics of storytelling structure on some level and can sense when it’s missing something.

  3. Rick February 19, 2010 at 3:53 pm Reply

    Chip, in the book, the bolt wasn’t in Percy’s backpack all along. He received the backpack from Ares and it’s still wasn’t yet in there. It appears magically inside when he finally reaches Hades in Tartarus. Whatever.

    As a screenwriter I was left scratching my head on many levels re: the many points you made, plus Percy in the book is a wily fox who outsmarts the villains to greater comic effect. Not so in the movie; he’s a bit of a doltish stud-muffin on film. The movie jokes are better suited to a Schwarzenegger film. And crux to the plot is a deus ex machina character not even in the book (Persephone) who leaves Percy looking less than heroic.

    I enjoyed the imaginative book mostly because it thrilled my daughter and gave us something interesting to do together. She liked the movie, but made a list longer than yours of what was wrong with it compared to the book. So, in essence, couldn’t agree more, Chip. But as a father — and a man with 15 years in Marketing — I would like to add, Why would they take a book written for children & ‘tweeners and mature the hero — and the content — by 5 years?

    twitter.com/RickRapier

    • crankydog February 19, 2010 at 4:09 pm Reply

      Hey, Rick —

      It’s been a few weeks since reading the Lightning Thief, so I could be wrong. But I thought I remembered Percy slowly feeling the backpack grow heavier as he approached Hades, and it left me with the impression that it was always there but gaining in strength as he got closer to his goal. In the end, it actually grows even larger when handed to Zeus.
      I’ll look into it when I get home, and make the correction if need be…

      No doubt there are many many more differences than I’ve touched on. I wanted to keep this blog a reasonable length ;) and focus on a few things I thought really struck at fundamental story issues of motivation, character arc and reversal… things universally story-relevant and less about specific Percy Jackson things (I’ve seen people lamenting that Annabeth is a brunette in the movie, and should have been a blonde as in the book. Those are the kinds of things I just don’t dwell on… I understand, when going from book to script, why characters get conflated, why plot points are moved around or removed and so on. ).

      Glad it struck a chord with you… appreciate the input!. I concur with your experience… it’s been great to have my 8 yr old boy so into reading with me every night!

      Have you ever adapted a book to script? I haven’t had the challenge yet. Would like to try some time though…

  4. crankydog February 20, 2010 at 6:54 pm Reply

    Some interesting discussion going on over at IMDB.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0814255/board/thread/157614359?p=1

    One reader of this blog said that my comments don’t work for him, and that “the pearls were a good subplot to throw in”. My response:

    “@ztmillers – Not sure you read the whole article. I don’t care how “alike” the film is to the book either. Anabeth is brunette instead of blonde? Don’t care. But there are certain fundamental elements of story structure (whether it’s Percy Jackson or any other film) that existed in the book that the movie removed, and didn’t replace with another element to function in that role.

    “The pearls were a great subplot to throw in.” That’s a great example. In the book, the trope of the pearls weren’t a “subplot”, they were an important structural setup to the main character’s development of arc – something any important character in any story needs. It was because of the pearls (only having three) that Percy was forced to choose to trust Hades, and to trust himself (and his friends) to complete their quest (which he originally had not been committed to) to secure his mother’s freedom. It set up the “reversal”, which is fundamental to storytelling… Percy’s whole quest (in his mind) was to reach Hades and free his mother, but when he gets there he can’t do it and in fact has to choose not to do it.

    Instead, in the movie, the “pearls were a great subplot to throw in” – they were reduced to a simple mechanism to drive the story from one plot point to the next, but lost the more elegant importance they had in the book. And, they weren’t replaced with anything – Percy simply has no reversal, and doesn’t have to either trust Hades or in himself to complete his quest.

    Different strokes… not trying to change your mind, but trying to explain that my article is not about “simple differences between book and movie” because I understand that those have to happen. I’m writing about story choices that are bad choices (in my mind) for any movie.

    But glad you went and read it. I appreciate it.

    Wish more folks were leaving comments at the blog, though! :)

    Cheers,”

  5. Mari February 20, 2010 at 8:08 pm Reply

    I had the same problems with the movie plus one more. The change from “the big three can’t have any more children” to “no gods can have physical contact with their children” seemed to serve very little purpose. It lent to Luke’s motivation (barely) in the movie but otherwise – whatever.

    My 10 year old was pretty disappointed in the movie. That’s saying something. She even asked, “Where was Kronos? It was like ‘Star Wars’ without the Emperor where Vader was just a mean guy because he could be.”

    • crankydog February 20, 2010 at 8:16 pm Reply

      “It was like ‘Star Wars’ without the Emperor where Vader was just a mean guy because he could be.”

      LOVE it!

  6. Kat February 20, 2010 at 8:19 pm Reply

    Hey,
    I love your article. It really hit on some of my major peevs about the movie. Though a response to your bit about Kronos not being included (and I hate to be defending the movie…):

    Including the Kronos meta-plot would require the studio’s to make the sequels into movies as well so that the meta-plot would be properly resolved. By leaving it out, they’re giving themselves the opportunity to just cut the franchise off if it doesn’t make the money they want it to.

    If they decide the series is worth seeing through to completion, it wouldn’t be hard to lace in and tie to gether the missing strings in the second movie:

    Kronos really WAS whispering sweet nothings in Luke’s ear and nurtured the hostility he already felt and Luke is now fully on his side. Thalia could show up as Grover’s newest half-blood find and the Oracle (who I’m assuming is no where on Camp Halfblood) has delivered a prophecy about the kiddies of the big 3 doin’ all sorts of damage when they turn 20 (because they already seem to be about 16…) and now some of the things that were missing in the first one are put back in… in a sort of slap-dash sort of fashion. Somewhere in there they’d have to create depth to the characters (like Annabeth wanting to be an architect, Grover searching for Pan, Hermes talking to Percy about Luke showing he really DOES care, etc) but it COULD maybe be done. Though I hope they don’t. They’ve already hurt me enough with this movie that I’d hate to have them squirt lemon onto the wound in 2-ish years.

    • crankydog February 20, 2010 at 9:39 pm Reply

      I think you’re right… they could slap together more of the missing stuff. But like you, I’m already wounded. And it wouldn’t be satisfying to me, either.

  7. AlexD February 20, 2010 at 9:06 pm Reply

    Just a quick note: The bolt was actually in the backpack. The backpack was actually the bolt’s sheath, as Ares explains when he confronts Percy on the beach.

    “‘Yes and no,’ Ares said, ‘It’s probably too complicated for your little mortal brain to follow, but the backpack is the master bolt’s sheath, just morphed a bit. The bolt is connected to it, sort of like that sword you got, kid. It always returns to your pockets, right?’

    “‘Anyway,’ Ares continued, ‘I tinkered with the magic a bit, so the bolt would only return to the sheath once you reached the Underworld. You get close to Hades… Bingo, you got mail. If you died along the way – no loss. I still had the weapon.'”

    And I completely agree with everything. I actually saw the movie before watching the book. It was okay, but some parts just didn’t make much sense to me. Then I read the book. Needless to say, I was very surprised.

    I’m currently on the 3rd book now. :)

    • crankydog February 20, 2010 at 9:40 pm Reply

      So Rick was right, though… the bolt wasn’t *always* in the backpack… it appeared as he approached Hades. But, it was always kind of *connected* to the backpack.

      So maybe I get a half-credit. :)

      Thanks for the clarification!

  8. Rob March 1, 2010 at 10:10 pm Reply

    in cliche terminology…seems like much ado about nothing…or a mountain from a molehill…yawn….no offense intended…

    • crankydog March 2, 2010 at 10:38 am Reply

      Hmmm… none taken I guess. If one isn’t interested in the structural nature of storytelling at large (regardless of PJ) then it’s not of interest to you, and that’s okay. If one is interested in what makes stories work, then I suspect it’s more than a molehill, and in fact a critical thing to understand for those whose careers depend on being good at storytelling.

      But “yawn”? Really? Gee whiz… I wouldn’t “yawn” at a plumber discussing the difficulty of plumbing regulations, just because I’m not personally interested in them… ;)

  9. Harrow psychotherapy counselling March 4, 2011 at 5:28 pm Reply

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