Mar 24, 2010

Percy Jackson: The Formula Thief

I know that I haven't been posting as much on this blog lately.  I apologize profusely.  Honestly, since I began my food efforts - and subsequently began the Darth Fatso blog - most of my writing efforts have been directed over there.  That just is predominant in my mind.  Many times things I want to post here end up working themselves into that site - or they seem to be frivolous compared to the "big issue" posts over there.  So, I feel as if I have neglected this blog (and, through the magic of RSS, my Facebook Notes as well.)  I will try to be more conscious of this, but I make no promises.

Last week, whilst in Orlando, I had the rare opportunity to actually attend a movie in a theater.  It has been a pretty dry season for movies in Staplesville.  I haven't been able to go as often as I would like.  (I promise this will change in May with IRON MAN 2!!!!)  For now, I wait until the movie hits DVD or InDemand - and then I might get around to watching them.  [I did get to see Up in the Air and Julie and Julia finally on DVd - my posts for those will eventually work their way onto my Rotten Tomatoes Site.]  This time, though, I actually got to go see Percy Jackson and The Olympians: The Lightning Thief.  I had read the books this year, and really wanted to catch the film.

The concept of Percy Jackson (I am shortening it, since the other title is as long as a Mexican nobleman's) is pretty cool.  Basically, the premise goes that the ancient Greek gods still exist.  They move their influence to the center of the world's culture.  At one point, that was Greece.  Then it became Rome.  Later it was Europe.  Now it is America.  And, like in olden times, the gods still can't keep their pants on.  So they have these half human/ half god kids - called demigods.  In the books, it was kind of neat to see how the gods have updated their wardrobes and everything - as well as how the ancient mythology was worked into modern society.

The stories were entertaining, for sure.  I have always been a sucker for Greek mythology.  I remember reading the entire Bullfinch's Mythology when I was in high school.  In college I took Classic Mythology as a class in my senior year.  So I knew most of the characters and stories referenced in the books.  I didn't necessarily like some of the themes and beliefs reflected in the books, but for the most part they were a fun read.

As with every movie based on a beloved book, there are going to be issues.  The film deviated pretty widely from the book.  They changed scenes, outfits, explanations, major plot points.  One of the scenes I was most looking forward to from the book (the St. Louis Arch scene) was completely changed and moved to Nashville.  Usually, I would love the addition of one of my favorite cities.  In this case, though, I was a little peeved.  Even the casting of the main characters was vastly different.  In the book, the kids are all in middle school.  In the movie, they were at least juniors.  (Not to mention the female lead didn't look anything like her novel description - and actually seemed like an amalgam of the two largest female roles.)  But, on its own, the movie was very entertaining.

There was a lot of action.  It was neat to see some of the characters brought to life.  And anything that puts Sean Bean and Kevin McKidd to work is alright in my book.  The climactic fight scene was wonderfully staged.  My friend, Tim, who went with me, at one point leaned over and said, "I hope they work a fight scene like this into the new Superman."  It was that good - some of the best aerial fighting I've seen.  I always try to give the movie a chance on its own, not weighing it down with the impossible to replicate book quality.  Over the years, I have seen a bunch of movies based on books I liked (Tom Clancy books, Stephen Coonts books, A Christmas Carol).  Some of them are big successes.  Others are huge embarrassing failures.  But I want the movie to have a shot on its own.  If I actually did that for Percy Jackson, it was an entertaining movie with some cool concepts.

But the fact is that there is something overshadowing Percy Jackson.  It isn't the books putting a shadow on the movies.  It isn't even really anything to do with Percy at all.  It is Harry Potter.

If you have read the Harry Potter books (which I finally did in December), you cannot help to compare Percy Jackson.  The Potter books came out first.  They presented a kid who had a secret he never knew about.  There was a mysterious and intriguing element of society that always had been labelled as mythology being brought to light as real.  A school existed to train the children with the secrets.  There was a big time bad guy that slowly was brought to life to wreck havoc.  And the books progressing from whimsical children's tales to dark good vs evil epics.  That formula plays out almost identically in Percy Jackson.  When I was reading the first book, I kept on thinking, "Man, it is like they switched magicians for mythology."  As I went on, the Percy books developed their own voice, but the spectre of the Potter works always was hanging over.

The problem was that Potter is so stinking good.  They are simply amazing books.  The worst book (in my opinion, that would be Chamber of Secrets or Prisoner of Azkaban) is better than most books out there - the literary equivalent of "worst Pixar movie."  So, when any series is compared to Potter, it is going to fail.  If Percy had come out first, it would have been great.  And then Potter would have been seen as the ripoff - only that it improved the formula.  Instead, Jackson is the inferior copy.  The same thing went for the movies.  The Potter films have been great across the board.  The worst one (again, Chamber or Azkaban) was supremely entertaining.  So the Percy movie had a built in handicap.  It wasn't just competing with its own books, it was competing with the highest grossing movie series in the world.  (Yes, you read that right.)  I remember after I watched the first Narnia movie, I said that if it had come out before Lord of the Rings, it would have been amazing.  Instead, it was still very good, but it seemed dated and grossly inferior to the LOTR trilogy.  It was kind of the same thing for Percy, due to the Potter films/books.

If The Lightning Thief had really delivered on its source material, it could have at least been in the vicinity of HP2 or HP3.  But it whiffed on several fronts.  The things they pulled out weakened the story.  The "Big Bad" of the books never was even introduced.  A lot of backstory between characters was erased.  Even the rules for the gods were changed.  And that is what was so hard to understand.  The director was none other that Chris Columbus - the very same person who brought Harry Potter to the big screen in the first two movies.  I remember after I finally read the first Potter book, I thought to myself, "Man, that book was almost a screenplay."  There wasn't a whole lot from the book left out in the movie.  Columbus had a daunting task in that first film - and he did an excellent job.  But when it came to Percy Jackson, he took some basic frameworks from the book and ditched the rest.  I can see where some of the story would be confusing.  It just seemed like it missed out on a great opportunity.

They were good books, and worth reading.  (Read them before Potter, if you haven't read those yet.)  The movie was fun and had some really good moments.  I hope they make the sequels, because I would like to see the other stories played out.  And there is going to need to be something to fill the void once the last Potter films are through next summer.  The big difference between those two series, though, will be that I will do my best to see the next Percy film - and there is no way I will miss the last Potters.

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