Percy Jackson, forgive me if I sound like your maiden aunt, but what the Hades happened to you? When I closed the pages of the first of Rick Riordan's five Olympians books, you were 12 and sort of awkward, despite being the heroic half-mortal offspring of Greek deities. Suddenly, in the movie version, you're old enough to drive, being played by an actor (18-year-old Logan Lerman) who's so pretty it's almost disconcerting. If book-Percy looked this much like a young Rob Lowe, there's no way he'd have ended up in school for troubled kids in upstate New York. He'd be on the cover of Vanity Fair or something.
That's far from the only difference between Riordan's book and the new movie version, Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, directed by Chris Columbus. Percy's best friend is still a satyr named Grover (Brandon T. Jackson), but he's more of a wisecracker now, and far more tapped into the horny aspect of satyrs. And then there's Annabeth. In the book she was a tough cookie, as would befit the daughter of Athena, Goddess of wisdom and battle. But she was also 12. Now she's embodied by a strapping 24 year-old named Alexandra Daddario, whose breast plate appears molded to her curves. The book version of Annabeth had a crush on an older counselor at Camp Half-Blood, the secret summer camp for demigods at the tip of Long Island. She didn't look at Percy that way. But when Daddario's Annabeth gazes into Percy's sea blue eyes it's like Hermione and Ron times a hundred.
Oops. I feel bad bringing up the destined lovers from Harry Potter, but the franchise is kind of the elephant in the room. Rick Riordan wrote his first Percy Jackson book in the late 1990s, when his son was struggling with learning issues like Percy, who in both movie and book was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia. On his website, Riordan, a former middle school teacher, describes observing his students go crazy for J.K. Rowling's series and seeing an "unfulfilled need for more children's literature that impacted kids the way Harry Potter did." He decided to do something about it, and The Lightning Thief was the result.
Indeed, Percy's path parallels Harry's. He's an outsider, a "half blood" who arrives at camp not knowing anything about who his father is (it's Poseidon). Demigod kids are assigned to cabins by a system not unlike the Sorting Hat at Hogwarts. To get to Mount Olympus, you walk through a wall in the Empire State Building, a lot like that train platform to Hogwarts at London's King's Cross. There are Gods and Goddesses instead of witches and wizards, and the series has its own witty American sensibility, but they are both multi-volume epics revolving around similar prophecies (Percy is referred to as "The One").
Maybe it was all too close to home for Columbus, given that he had already helmed the first two Harry Potter movies. The screenplay by Craig Titley diverges from Riordan's story in startlingly radical ways, with new events, locations and motivations. Teenaged Percy isn't sent on a quest by his mentor, the centaur Chiron (Pierce Brosnan, trying very hard to look dignified in a horse's hindquarters) to retrieve Zeus' stolen lightning bolt. Instead he's on a rogue mission to rescue his mother (Catherine Keener); the lightning bolt, confusingly, is incidental. A number of characters have been written out, while others, like Medusa (Uma Thurman, who wears snakes well) have been repurposed.
This is a big, often quite scary action movie, with tons of creepy computer-generated imagery that's right up there with Voldemort in terms of physical nastiness, although less powerful emotionally. The Gods have been swollen to gigantic size, but it is hard to be intimidated by Zeus (Sean Bean) and Poseidon (Kevin McKidd) in miniskirt gladiator outfits. (Paul Newman famously groused about the short toga costumes he had to wear in his 1954 debut The Silver Chalice, but he sold the look much better.) I wonder what the 10 year-old fan who recommended Riordan's series to me as "the best" will make of the big screen version. Will she groove on what's sizzling between Persephone (Rosario Dawson) and Grover? Or, like me, be disappointed with how weirdly fast these characters grew up? Perhaps it's worth noting that with all the changes made to Riordan's book, Hades is still located in Los Angeles, under the Hollywood sign probably somewhere near where one producer said to another, "Can we make these kids older, hotter, sexier?"