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The Lightning Thief: Is a bad adaptation always wrong?

Percy Jackson surrounded by lightning in Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Though its infamy may be overblown, Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief is still an unimpressive film that more than justifies the book fans’ outcry for a better adaptation.

If I had a nickel for every time I reviewed a movie based on Greek mythology that also starred Sean Bean, I’d have two nickels. Which isn’t much, but it’s weird that it happened twice.

Directed by Chris Columbus, Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief stars Logan Lerman as the titular Percy Jackson. One day, after a series of strange incidents including a teacher suddenly turning into a demon and attacking him, Percy discovers that gods and monsters from Green mythology are real, he’s related to a god, and that he is framed of stealing the one and only Zeus’s lightning bolt. Not wanting to take his chances with the Olympian judicial system – that being, Zeus will electrify anyone he suspects is guilty – Percy decides to try and clear his name.

The Lightning Thief is also the film adaptation of the “Percy Jackson” novel series by author Rick Riordan, which over many years has amassed a massive fandom all hungry for a good adaptation. And they had their hopes high when the movie was helmed by the director who successfully brought the first two Harry Potter books to the big screen. Unfortunately, this film was received by its fans as gracefully as Hera was to Zeus’s countless cases of infidelity.

Fans detest The Lightning Thief as an unfaithful, borderline blasphemous adaptation of its source material, criticizing how it changes so many things from the books, butchering the lore, the characters, the designs, and all that. And there is a high chance those people may have clicked on this review to see another delicious beatdown of the film picking apart how this is an insult to the original Percy Jackson series.

I am sorry to say, however, that I find that argument – a movie being “an insult to the original” – to be rather dangerous when it comes to film criticism. Now, before you decide to make me into a burnt offering, I should note that I enjoy the books. I am not an avid fan, but I read them all and I had good fun with them. And yes, I would have been interested in seeing the books adapted faithfully onto the big screen. But at the same time, I must ask: is faithfulness an absolute necessity when it comes to adaptations?

I realize the most obvious answer is “YES” in all caps, but I find this to be a rather nebulous area. Firstly, as it often is the case with book to movie adaptations, it’s near impossible to transfer everything over from the source material into a feature length film. Unless you decide to make your movie over six hours long, you are going to have to cut some things out, shorten it, or change things to fit into the speedier progression of a film.

But then, you may ask, shouldn’t an adaptation still strive to stick to the core essence of the source material even while cutting some superfluous elements out? Well, that once again depends. Look at comic book adaptations. Some of them, like 2019’s Joker, might as well be a comic book movie only by technicality. It borrows some aesthetics, a few themes, but then repurposes them into its own vision. It doesn’t have to be comics either. Think of the 2014 film Edge of Tomorrow. Did you know that was based on a Japanese novel that may as well have nothing to do with the movie except the general premise? And yet, most just had a fun time with both movies.

Medusa and Percy Jackson in Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief
Percy Jackson & the Olympians The Lightning Thief: Is a bad adaptation always wrong? – a still from the movie (20th Century)

The most common comments I’ve seen when people bash The Lightning Thief are “the characters are too aged up!” “This character is not blonde and grey-eyed like the books!” “This character wasn’t supposed to fight the other at this point!” Again, I can understand being let down you’re not seeing the books come directly to life, but the stigma The Lightning Thief has built up over the years seems to go beyond just disappointment and into outright hatred, and I don’t find that healthy in the slightest.

Plus, I find it just a little bit odd that the same people who lamented the movies having differences like characters looking different to the books are singing praises about the Disney+ TV show. Take just a cursory glance at the cast and I think you will find more than just a few differences in design from the original books.

The point I am trying to make is this. While I understand the passion for a faithful adaptation, it can often be blinding. Sometimes you will have people who are so adamant that nothing be changed at all for an adaptation that the criticisms they levy at an adaptation can seem like nitpicks more than anything else. Being open to seeing whether a film stands on its own in spite of its differences I think is just as important as wanting a faithful adaptation. I won’t be so arrogant as to claim one approach as the definitive one, just that we need to exercise caution not to stray too far into only one side.

With that said however, even when viewed on its own merits, The Lightning Thief doesn’t impress much. Not much stood out as particularly awful. The characters are acted well, the CGI for the most part hold up, and I think, while different from the books, the film still presents an interesting world with elements of Greek mythology melded into a modern setting. But there’s not much here that is memorable either.

Most of the characters and story beats are pretty generic. You have your reluctant hero, the best friend sidekick, the cool badass heroine, and a plot consisting of a series of mini-quests. Now, I can handle some generic parts if there is something to keep my attention, but The Lightning Thief sadly presents no elements that I can say allow the film to have its own identity.

Although there is one element that did get rather grating even when viewed apart from the books, and that is the visual appeal. There were several locations or shots that just looked so drab and greyed out. For instance, Olympus, the homeland of the gods, is completely black and grey. So many scenes feel like their need either a splash of color or better contrast to just pop out. When The Plaza hotel looks more appealing than the home of the gods, I think you’re doing something wrong.

In the end, The Lightning Thief isn’t some indictment on humanity as some discussions may claim, it’s just indistinguishable. As an action-adventure time killer, it works fine enough, but there are countless others that are interchangeable. With all this, while I will always stand by trying to look at an adaptation on its own merits, I can also understand why fans wanted another attempt at a Percy Jackson adaptation for so long. I hear the Disney+ series is currently going strong, so let’s hope that can satiate the fans’ thirst at long last.

Get it on Apple TV

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief is now available to watch on digital and on demand.

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