For one reason or another, not every attempt at a film franchise is successful, but there is a story behind every failure.
After Harry Potter had become a worldwide smash hit for Warner Brothers, all the other major studios went in search of a major family franchise of their own. 20th Century Fox seemed to think the key to unlocking the mega-money lay somewhere in the sub-genre of young people’s fantasy, leading to their green-lighting The Seeker and Eragon. Both failed to find Potter-sized audiences, but the studio, undeterred, then set their sights on a book series similar to the one they were trying to emulate – Percy Jackson and the Olympians.
Rick Riordan’s books are a delightful set of tales of the young son of Poseidon, set in a hybrid of modern-day America and ancient Greece. They are well-written, witty and savvy, full of high-spirited adventures while also taking the time address real-world issues like absent parents and childhood insecurities.
It should be said that the only real similarity to Harry Potter is around its central concept – of an an unknowing young boy who discovers he has supernatural powers and has adventures in a hidden fantasy world. In practice the two series are completely different from one another. It was enough of a Potter proxy for fox, though. They bought the rights in the mid-2000s, and the movie of Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (or to give its full name, Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief) premiered to the world in February 2010.
Helmed by Chris Columbus, who had previously kick-started the first of the Potter films, it featured an all-star ensemble cast including Pierce Brosnan, Rosario Dawson and a pre-Game of Thrones Sean Bean, and was buoyed by a big advertising and marketing campaign in an effort to guarantee the film would be rip-roaring global success.
Behind the sheen of The Lightning Thief is a shallow, anonymous and bland action delivery system. The film skimps on the detail that made the book series work and instead tries too hard to establish itself and appear magical and wondrous. The latter feels forced, as does its attempts to win over young audiences with its elements of pop culture. Audiences were definitely not fooled, seeing it as the attempt to mirror Harry Potter that it was, and reaction to the film was far from the phenomenon Fox was hoping for.
As a foot note, one thing The Lightning Thief serves as proof of is that its director is more suited to the role of producer. Columbus can assemble the best craftspeople and technicians in the business, and persuade an A-list cast to dress in togas, but his own storytelling abilities fall far short. Further case in point: the next film he directed after The Lightning Thief was the 2015 sci-fi actioner Pixels, considered to be one of the worst films of that year. In the same year he executive-produced the horror film The Witch, said to be one of the best of 2015.
Of the very many changes made transitioning Percy Jackson from page to screen, one of the least sensical was the decision to age the characters. In the book, lead characters Percy and Annabeth Chase are twelve years old, while in the film they are both said to be sixteen. In reality, though, the characters were respectively played by nineteen-year-old Logan Lerman and twenty-three year-old Alexandra Daddario. It begs the question who the intended audience is – the presence of young adults makes it inaccessible to children, while the film itself is too childish for young adults.
The age issue was worse in the sequel, Sea of Monsters – Brandon T. Jackson, for one, was pushing thirty when he played Grover Underwood (the Ron Weasley to Percy’s Harry) for a second time.
Released in 2013, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters is a strange curio. For a start, it’s strange it was even made given the first film barely succeeded at the box office. Another is how amateurish it looks compared to its predecessor. For all its flaws, The Lightning Thief was technically sound, while the sequel looks rough, rushed and far below the standard of general Hollywood fare.
The series continued to divorce itself from its source material, omitting large set pieces from the second novel and leaving us with a really thin screen story. In addition, they couldn’t even persuade the original cast to return: Pierce Brosnan’s part was re-cast, Brandon T. Jackson disappears for most of the running time, and those left seem uncomfortable and unenthusiastic. All of this just added to the feeling that Sea of Monsters was a throw of the dice that everyone already knew was not going to come up good.
Despite all this, the film is actually a far less cynical, more earnest and strangely watchable effort. It doesn’t feel as confined by studio interference and has more room to be itself, there are more practical effects (though there’s still plenty of CGI) that go a long way toward grounding the fantasy in reality and, crucially, it also adds much-needed depth to Percy’s world. The strangest thing about Sea of Monsters is how much fun can be had with it.
That being said, it’s still far from being ‘good’ – it’s dull at times, there are some truly jaw-dropping decisions and the climactic battle is woeful and diminishes the big villain of the series. There are moments of genuine emotion and excitement, but they are gold kernels in a large barrel of coal. The stand-out being Percy’s meeting with the Oracle of Delphi – a framing device for exposition that’s been done before, but is nonetheless well constructed and and memorable. (It’s also worth checking out test footage of this sequence from Studio ADI, the company that created the film’s practical effects.)
Ultimately, Sea of Monsters could not completely redeem itself to save the franchise. It had a quiet theatrical run, at the end of which it did not garner a big enough return to merit a third outing. The series was quietly shelved.
It’s a shame, as the Jackson books could easily and successfully translate to the big screen, so long as the right people were behind them. One person who springs to mind as the ideal steward is Guillermo del Toro. His well-established blend of fantasy and reality, as well as his insight, ability to build mythologies and knowledge of myths and legends would make him a perfect fit. If any producer’s still interested in this property, get a hold of Guillermo!
The biggest reason for the failure of the Percy Jackson series was that no one involved truly believed in it. No one wanted to make these films because they wanted to bring what they loved on the page to the big screen. Instead, an apathetic studio was just squandering this promising property in the pursuit of a quick buck – the final irony being is they didn’t make a lot of money on it. The final result was two second-rate films that did nothing to alleviate comparisons of Percy Jackson to Harry Potter (not even in this article – oops).
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