4.5 out of 5 stars

As a diehard fantasy fan and avid reader of the Percy Jackson series, I wasn’t impressed by the big screen adaptation. Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010) starring Logan Lerman was a disappointment. Not only did the filmmakers alter the ages of the main characters, but they also left out any interesting themes or depth in favour of spectacle that ended up feeling more ridiculous than grand. And don’t even get me started on the film’s sequel, Sea of Monsters (2013).

All that said, when I learned that creator Rick Riordan would be executive producing a new television adaptation for Disney+, I was hopeful. There’s been a recent tradition of young adult fantasy series authors turning to streaming platforms rather than film studios to translate their work. We saw it first with Daniel Handler’s own A Series of Unfortunate Events (2017-19) on Netflix, which received a much better reception from fans than the 2004 film starring Jim Carrey.

Excited by the prospect of finally seeing justice done for my favourite demigod, I eagerly tuned in for this latest take on Percy Jackson and the Olympians. I’m happy to say that I was’t disappointed. The Disney+ series has ushered in a new chapter for Riordan’s beloved saga, offering a richer and more faithful rendition than any film could hope to provide.

The series, like its source material, follows the adventures of Percy Jackson (Walker Scobell), a sixth-grader in New York City. Through a series of mishaps, Percy learns he’s far more than just an ordinary boy; he’s the son of the mortal Sally Jackson (Virginia Kull) and a powerful Greek god, Poseidon (Toby Stephens). Joined by his satyr best friend Grover, Percy embarks on a life-changing journey to Camp Half-Blood, a haven for demigods like himself. There, he accepts a perilous quest to the underworld, tasked with retrieving Zeus’s stolen lightning bolt alongside Grover and Annabeth Chase (Leah Jeffries), the daughter of Athena.

Thankfully, this time Percy, Annabeth, and Grover are the same ages as they were in the book and will, hopefully, be permitted to grow into their roles (the 2010 movie saw the characters changed from pre-teens to actors in their twenties playing teenagers). They also more closely resemble their characters from the novel. Simhadri’s Grover, for example, is the sweet, nature-loving, awkward nerd that books readers know and love rather than the stereotypical funny black friend that Brandon T. Jackson portrayed in 2010. Likewise, Jeffrie’s Annabeth is clever but not a warrior princess, and Percy deals with more insecurity, fear, and uncertainty about this new world he has suddenly been thrust into. It all reads much more believable and relatable. 

Of course, there are some issues with the young star’s acting. Jeffries, in particular, displays a certain level of self-consciousness in the first few episodes. You can see her trying to make her portrayal perfect but she doesn’t seem sure what perfect means. There are some wooden or uncertain line deliveries from Scobell and Simhadri too. But it’s no worse than one would find in most actors under the age of 15 and all three display potential. Simhadri, in particular, has a clumsy sort of charm that comes through amusingly in his scenes with Ares (Adam Copeland), the God of War, and in the mysterious Lotus Casino. Ultimately, one can’t help but feel excited to see these new stars develop throughout the rest of the series.

The adult actors deliver consistently strong performances, with several standout portrayals. Virginia Kull, in particular, is exceptional, offering a nuanced and heartfelt performance. Her scenes, several of which deviate from the source material, are among the most emotionally impactful in the season. This strength is a direct benefit of the long-form streaming format. It allows the writers and actors to explore quieter, character-driven moments beyond the typical action-packed set pieces. In Kull’s portrayal, we see the struggles of a single mother raising a child in a world that doesn’t accept him. Her love and concern for his future are palpable, evoking genuine emotion in the viewer. While avoiding spoilers, it’s worth mentioning that one scene between Sally Jackson and Poseidon is the series’ most emotionally resonant. Admittedly, I wouldn’t have anticipated being so moved by a young adult fantasy featuring gods residing in the Empire State Building and heroes attending summer camp. However, the beautiful writing and powerful performances by Kull and Stephens in this scene deeply touched my heart.

Thankfully, several touching themes are explored in this series. The books delve realistically and interestingly into the complexities of parent-child relationships, particularly those between fathers and sons. One of the most compelling aspects is the way demigod children navigate relationships with their inherently absent god parents. While the 2010 film almost entirely ignored this dynamic, the TV series embraces it and expands upon it in a meaningful way.

Here, we see Percy’s resentment towards the father he feels has abandoned him. Annabeth endures grief and struggles to truly belong in either her mortal father’s or her goddess mother’s world. And, eventually, we see understanding of their parents begin to flower within the demigods. Themes of the difficulties inherent in parenting, doing the right thing, and discovering one’s place in the world are lovingly explored throughout the series, imbuing it with a depth of character often absent in many YA programs.

The book’s plot has undergone some changes, most of which I found agreeable. However, I felt the one crucial element missing was an explanation for the gods’ presence in America. Exploring this concept forms a core fascination of the book series, tracing the continuation of Western Civilisation through the gods’ historical relocation. While the book hints at this and continues to house the gods atop the Empire State Building, their presence in the US remains unexplained. Similarly, their past movements in tandem with the shifting centre of Western Civilisation lack detail.

That said, once we do see Olympus, the sight is breathtaking. I found myself wondering how, with $95M put into the 2010 film, everything about Jackson’s world here—from the VFX to the impressive sets—looked more fantastic and more beautiful than anything on the big screen. Perhaps the answer lies in the series’ ability to comprehensively immerse us in the Olympian milieu. Unlike the limitations of a 199-minute film, this format allows for a deeper understanding of the rules, locations, and personalities that inhabit this realm.

This adaptation offers much to love and little to dislike. It serves as definitive proof of what A Series of Unfortunate Events and Game of Thrones (2011-19) hinted at: heavy world-building in book series doesn’t translate well to rushed adaptations. Fortunately, long-form streaming allows us to savour studio-quality entertainment from the comfort of our living rooms. For something like Percy Jackson, this is a blessing beyond measure. All this delightful series needs now is a green light for season two.

USA | 2023 | 8 EPISODES | 16:9 4K | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writers: Rick Riordan, Jonathan E. Steinberg, Monica Owusu-Breen, Joe Tracz, Andrew Miller & Craig Silverstein (based on the book by Rick Riordan).
directors: James Bobin, Anders Engström & Jet Wilkinson.
starring: Walker Scobell, Leah Sava Jeffries, Aryan Simhadri, Virginia Kull, Glynn Turman, Jason Mantzoukas, Megan Mullally, Timm Sharp, Adam Copeland, Nick Boraine, Dior Goodjohn & Charlie Bushnell.