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Review: New "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" is a better, but not perfect, adaptation

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Photos courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Breathe a sigh of relief! We can all forget the irredeemable 2013 "Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters" now, because the Disney+ adaptation of Rick Riordan's best-selling series "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" was renewed for a second season. 

Going into the first season, which ended on Jan. 30, my expectations were low. I grew up loving the books, but watching the original movie adaptations made me think they were better left unadapted. 

However, this first season pleasantly surprised me in a couple of key ways and stuck close enough to the first book to fill my friends and I with pre-teen nostalgia as we watched.

First of all, the three main actors — who are actually kids this time around — do a great job with the material they are given, and the show adheres to the most important plot points of the book. The casting all around was great, and certain new scenes — like an engaging, manipulative conversation between Grover and Ares — added intrigue for book lovers. 

The locations and set design were exactly what I hoped for, in Camp Half-Blood and beyond. The scene where Percy is claimed by his father, Poseidon, particularly fulfilled my 11-year-old imagination.

Despite its detailed world building, the writing was lacking. This show had a unique challenge of appealing to viewers like me who had grown up reading the books, and to people who just turned it on and knew nothing about Greek mythology or Percy's journey to return Zeus' stolen lightning bolt. The showrunners also only had eight episodes to cover an entire book. 

I knew some parts were going to be awkwardly written to provide exposition or catch people up — but this happened so often it took away from the story.

In the books, everyone Percy, Annabeth and Grover met was a potential ally or enemy, and they had to figure out how to kill them if they were a monster. This added small twists every chapter and kept a steady pace.

In the adaptation, however, these middle schoolers know right away who is who — they might as well teach a college-level Greek mythology class!

This makes sense for Annabeth’s character, but the show insists that each of them is equally knowledgeable about everything they face. Percy, Annabeth and Grover are supposed to be three distinct people with different skill sets, but their personalities in the show melded together so much that Annabeth leaves the Underworld early, and it affects nothing.

The show quickly adopted an unimaginative formula — they say who each character is and what they can do, and then they either kill or manipulate them, usually fairly quickly.

I appreciated this sometimes.

When Annabeth immediately recognized Medusa  in the third episode, "We Visit the Garden Gnome Emporium," it felt subversive, but it just. kept. happening. In the seventh episode, "We Find Out the Truth, Sort Of," Percy automatically tells the audience he found a vicious monster in a water bed store, and all the feeling of suspense that was present in the book was lost.

The exposition slog also changed the tone. The first book really felt like the perspective of a kid, but I could never imagine the characters in this adaptation popping laced lotus flowers and dancing to "Poker Face" (maybe the one redeeming quality of 2010's "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief"), because they already knew they were drugged as soon they entered the Lotus Hotel and Casino

New, more serious, scenes adding dimension to Percy's mom, his childhood and Camp Half-Blood's past also took away from the enjoyment. It felt like the book had a joke every four sentences, but the show missed lots of comedic opportunities. The lighter scenes even felt jarring after so much character trauma and epic music. 

With a second season on the horizon, here is hoping that Riordan and the writers' room can take more lighthearted comedy from the books than just the chapter titles used to name each episode. 

@hamsinisiva3

@dthlifestyle | lifestyle@dailytarheel.com

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