Movies based on books are rarely as good as the source material. Some surprise us — like Lord of the Rings. Some excel over the printed page — like Shawshank Redemption. Others, however, are real stinkers — like the Percy Jackson adaptation of the Lightning Thief.
Below are five ways that the movie veered from the book, dooming it with a nonsensical story and a less-than-positive reception.
5. Percy’s background isn’t a secret.
One of the more disappointing changes from the book is how we learn about Percy’s background. In the novel, clues are sprinkled across chapters, allowing us to discover alongside Percy how different he is. We experience his mindset as he goes from believing he’s a normal mortal to a half-blood. Then from thinking he’s just another half-blood – unclaimed and part of the crowd – to being the most powerful hero on the planet.
This introduction is better because it lures us in. It plays into the idea of the mist. That Percy’s dyslexia and ADHD are real and not in fact a symptom of his true nature. It fools us into thinking that Grover and Mr. Brunner are a friend and a teacher rather than mythical creatures. Creatures who, by the way, are content to let Percy believe he’s crazy rather than give away the truth prematurely.
Sadly, the Lightning Thief movie isn’t so subtle. It rushes forward at full power, explaining away everything about Percy within the first ten minutes. While this expediency gets us to the action and main plot points faster, it does so at the expense of mystery and character building. Instead of feeling bad for Percy because he’s a loner who gets into trouble, is bullied, and at times feels dumb around other kids, movie-Percy comes across as fully formed. A perfect, powerful half-blood ready for glory.
But that’s not all. This expediency also works against the movie when it comes to Percy’s parentage. Rather than draw that answer out, building on Percy’s loneliness from the mortal world and carrying it over into Camp Half-Blood, the movie gives us the connection immediately. From the start, Poseidon speaks to Percy. From the start, Percy is identified at camp as a son of the sea god.
Because of that, the cool reveal at the end of Capture the Flag is skipped. As is the angsty conflict that’s the beating heart of the book. Without those moments, it’s not so easy for us viewers to identify with Percy or Luke. To understand what it’s like to be the forsaken child of a god. Why it is a half-blood might go against their parent and want to see the gods overthrown.
4. The Big House and Dionysus are missing from the Lighting Thief.
The movie leaves out the Big House and Dionysus. While the god of wine isn’t the greatest of losses – at least, not from the first book – not having the Big House is a pretty big deal. Not only because movie viewers miss out on some wonderful games of pinocle but because they aren’t introduced to the Oracle. And, as any book reader can attest, the Oracle is vitally important to the story.
Without the Oracle, there are no prophecies. And without the prophecies, no quests. At least, not formally. Which is why the movie bastardizes the process, giving us a misplaced appearance by Hades to jumpstart the action. In the book, it’s the Oracle who sets things into motion, prophesizing where Percy will start and how his adventure will proceed. All while freaking him out with its green, sickly mist and mummified body.
A lack of prophecy also means Annabeth loses many of her primal motivations. Movie viewers aren’t treated to her background. Why she hasn’t left the camp in so many years. Or how she even arrived there in the first place. And who with. Also, and perhaps more importantly for Percy, viewers aren’t given any context for why Annabeth resents him. Why it is she immediately dislikes the guy. Or, paradoxically, why she’s so quick to join him on his quest.
Instead, all of that is lost in the service of a dumbed down plot. One that leaves out the true villain of the series and obfuscates a far more complicated relationship between Annabeth, Luke, and Percy. In the end, by removing the Big House, the Lightning Thief movie strips away layers of character building and personality while making a mockery of the hero’s journey.
3. No map to the Underworld.
It should be stated up-front and emphatically, the book does not include an easy-to-follow map. There is no connect-the-dots trail to the bad guy. Instead, there’s a prophecy. Four lines that give vague clues about the quest to follow. That’s it. No map. No pearls. Certainly not pearls gained by killing monsters.
In place of that map and its silly itinerary of coming set pieces, the book meanders. It propels out of survival, following the heroes on an erratic track across the country. Percy, Annabeth, and Grover – despite packing and planning – are never in control. They’re constantly moving from one disaster to another, escaping each time by the skin of their teeth.
Which makes for a far more entertaining story. Especially when danger lurks around every corner. In the Lightning Thief movie, the encounter with Medusa and the stay at the Lotus hotel plays closely to their book versions. But from there things are drastically different. Instead of a fight with a hydra – a fight Percy would have no hope of winning – he goes up against a chimera doubling as a chihuahua. Percy then has a meeting – and later, a fight — with the god Ares.
As for his time spent in the Underworld? As you might expect, it’s severely truncated in the movie, leaving out many of the creepy details and setup that makes traveling to the land of the dead so enjoyable. Also, unlike the movie, the book establishes that Hades is not, in fact, the antagonist. He is, like so many other characters in the book, a stooge being set up by the true villain.
2. Kronos is left out of the Lightning Thief.
Which leads us to arguably the most impactful change from the book. In the movie, it’s revealed that Luke is the bad guy. That he masterminded theft of the lightning bolt and has been setting Percy up to take the fall. Which fits. Book Luke is also a villain. And he plays Percy false, almost to Percy’s downfall. But what the movie leaves out is that Luke doesn’t work alone. That he didn’t come up with this plan at all. He’s just been following orders.
You see, Luke is the primary antagonist in the first book, but he takes instruction from a far greater opponent. One who can make even the gods tremble in their sandals. Kronos, father to the Olympian gods, along with his Titan brethren, are completely left out of the movie. Which is probably understandable, especially with the limitations of modern movie making. But it’s a shortsighted change because without Kronos to back Luke, the gods would never be in any real danger. Sure, they might fight one another but not with the same consequences as a battle against the Titans.
Without Kronos, the Lightning Thief movie is just a one-and-done adventure. It doesn’t have an overarching sense of menace. It becomes Harry Potter without Voldemort. The Marvel movies without Thanos. Star Wars without the Emperor. Kronos is that near unbeatable foe who just gets stronger as the series unfolds until the climatic ultimate battle when he’s felled. It’s just that, in this case, Kronos can always come back. He was, after all, cut to shreds by his offspring before managing to piece himself back together.
1. Aged-up characters with little to no background.
This is most apparent with the big three characters. Percy and Annabeth are both supposed to be twelve at the start of the Lightning Thief. While actor Logan Lerman was closest to character age (being around seventeen when filming began), Annabeth actress Alexandra Daddario was six years his senior and Grover actor Brandon T. Jackson was two years above that. While it might be easy to say Grover isn’t human, that he’s a satyr, the novel makes it clear he’s a young satyr. Maybe not the perfect imitation of a twelve year old, but he shouldn’t come across as middle aged.
As for their backgrounds, it’s already been noted how the movie stripped Annabeth of her motivations in addition to her history with Luke. Also how Percy was denied his isolationist introduction into the world of half-bloods, but Grover was perhaps even more unfairly treated. Beginning with his looks. Sporting crutches when he only has a limp in the book. Then his confidence. Acting like a quarterback in the movie when he’s a shrinking violet in the books. It’s very evident to novel readers that Grover isn’t so confident or accomplished. He’s not the type of creature to take the initiative, especially around Percy.
Yet, the worst is how the Lightning Thief movie utterly ignores Grover’s search for the god Pan. Even more important than Percy’s quest, the search for Pan is what all satyr’s hope to undertake. It’s why Grover leaves the camp. He hopes of being thought worthy, to gain his searcher’s license. But the movie morphs this key characteristic, turning Grover instead into a brash, frat-party jerk without any depth or dimension. Rather than being meek and oftentimes afraid of the outside world, Grover is the one leading the group, laughing it up like the quest is some sort of a joke.
It’s an unwelcome departure and just one of many that had book readers as well as casual fans cringing at the Lightning Thief movie and hoping for something better. Thankfully, the wait may soon be over.