Recently I asked you guys what kind of team you’d like to see in charge if a Disney-led Percy Jackson reboot were to happen. Again, I have to warn you this is completely HYPOTHETICAL, just wishful thinking, not based on any concrete plans in the pipeline. Even if some reboot happened someday, I would have ZERO control over it, because those rights were signed away before the first PJO book was even published and, like most authors, my contract was very standard in that Hollywood controls all things and all decisions about the movie. The author may or may not be consulted, but the movie folks have final say on everything. There is a widespread myth (ha!) that authors have much more control over movie decisions than we actually do. Even the most powerful authors (yes, the ones you are thinking of right now) have WAY less influence and control than you think they do. Nobody talks about that though, because when a movie is just coming out it is in the studio’s interest for it to SOUND like everybody was very involved and pleased with the final product. In reality, the best we authors can hope for is a good team effort, where everyone gets along, has the same vision, and works together well. Sometimes, that happens . . .
Thinking about reboots even hypothetically made me remember the process I went through with those Percy Jackson movies. I was indeed consulted at some points, about some things. I did my best to give feedback that would help. At the time, obviously, I couldn’t really share any behind-the-scenes information with you guys, the readers, but since these conversations are now almost ten years old (yikes!), I thought you might like to take a look at some of the correspondence and suggestions I sent to the producers while they were planning THE LIGHTNING THIEF movie. I hope this will give you a sense of what I was trying to do behind the scenes. Whether/how much the producers listened to my ideas, I will let you be the judge. As I’ve said many times, once I saw the final script and saw what they were doing on the set, I realized I had to step away for my own peace of mind. I never saw either of the movies in their final form. What I know of them, and how I judge them, is based entirely on my experiences with the producers and on the final scripts. The SEA OF MONSTERS movie is a whole ‘nother story, but it followed basically the same process.
Below are extracts from two emails I sent the producers in 2009. I have XXXed out some names to keep them private, but otherwise these are word-for-word what I sent.
Should a reboot happen some day, in some fashion, I would hope, like you, that it would be a great adaptation that is faithful to the books and fun to watch. The fact that Disney has now acquired the rights from Fox may be hopeful news, but it doesn’t change my contractual powers (which are zilch). Still, I’ve let it be known that I would be happy to consult and advise IF they want me and IF the new project was undertaken by a completely different team than the one which made the movies. I think that would be important. Fresh eyes. Fresh ideas. Hopefully people who know and are passionate about the books. I have no desire to go through my first experience again and see the same results. If I felt like that was going to be the case, I would have to stay away from the project completely. In the future, if some project actually does get underway, I may not be able to comment on it for contractual reasons, but you can tell how I’m feeling about it by what I do or don’t say. Am I talking about it? Promoting it? Sharing cool things? I am probably happy. Am I completely ignoring it and never mentioning it on social media? Yeah . . . that’s probably not a good sign. For instance, check out my website, rickriordan.com. Do you see any indication there that the Percy Jackson movies ever existed? No. No, you do not.
I will also say again, for the record, that I have been very blessed and am eternally grateful that the movies brought so many people to the books. That is a wonderful thing movies can do for books, and all authors dream about getting that opportunity. Very few actually get to experience it. I just wish, well . . . You can read below, and see exactly what I was wishing and worrying about, back in 2009!
From January 2009 note to producers
I understand that a decision has been made to age the main characters in the film to seventeen. As no one wants to see this film succeed more than I do, I hope you’ll let me share a couple of reasons why this is a bad idea from a money-making point of view.
First, it kills any possibility of a movie franchise. I don’t know if you or your staff have had the chance to read farther than The Lightning Thief in the Percy Jackson series, but there are four other volumes. The series is grounded on the premise that Percy must progress from age twelve to age sixteen, when according to a prophecy he must make a decision that saves or destroys the world. I assume that XXXX would at least like to keep open the option of sequels assuming the first movie does well. Starting Percy at seventeen makes this undoable. I’m also sure that XXXXX (for) the first Harry Potter movie, some in the studio argued for making the characters older to appeal to a teen audience. Fortunately, they took the long view and stayed true to the source material, which allowed them to grow a lucrative franchise. This would’ve been impossible if they’d started Harry at seventeen. The same principle applies here.
Second, it alienates the core audience. I’m guessing those book sale numbers are important to XXXX because you’re hoping all those kids show up at the theater. The core readership for Percy Jackson is age 9-12. There are roughly a million kids that age, plus their families, who are dying to see this film because they want to see the pictures in their imagination brought to life. Many of these kids have read the books multiple times and know every detail. They are keenly aware that Percy is twelve in the first book. By making the characters seventeen, you’ve lost those kids as soon as they see the first movie trailer. You signal that this is a teen film, when the core audience is families. I understand that you want to appeal to teens because they are a powerful demographic, and conventional wisdom says that teens will not see movies about kids younger than themselves. Harry Potter proved this wrong, but aside from that, deviating so significantly from the source material risks pleasing no one – teens, who know the books are meant for younger kids, and the younger kids, who will be angry and disappointed that the books they love have been distorted into a teen movie. I haven’t even seen the script yet, so I don’t know how much the story has changed, but I fear the movie will be dead on arrival with a seventeen-year-old lead. (At this time I had no idea who might be cast)
I’ve spent the last four years touring the country, talking about the movie. I’ve seen hundreds of thousands of kids. They are all excited about the movie, but they are also anxious. Most of these kids have no idea which studio produces which film, but everywhere I go, they say the same thing: Please don’t let them do to the Lightning Thief what they did to XXXX (another movie from the same producers) Don’t let them change the story. These kids are the seed audience for the movie. They are the ones who will show up first with their families, then tell their friends to go, or not go, depending on how they liked it. They are looking for one thing: How faithful was the movie to the book? Make Percy seventeen, and that battle is lost before filming even begins.
Thanks for letting me say my piece. I care too much about the project to see it fail.
From March 2009, notes to producers on the Lightning Thief movie script
Thank you for letting me look at the script. It’s very important for me that the movie does well. I also take my role seriously as an advocate for fans of the book, who have been pleading with me for four years, “Please don’t let them change the story!” In my view, the two go together. When I look at the children’s books that have been made into movies over the past few years, I see a direct correlation between how faithful an adaptation is and how well it does at the box office. I’m not sure the movie industry sees this connection, as they keep making the same mistakes over and over again, but it’s pretty clear to me and to the young readers I talk to every day.
There are things I like about this adaptation. The beginning works well. The opening scenes do a good job getting into the story quickly and setting up the characters. The first part of story has been made more economical, but it is still more or less faithful to the spirit of the book.
The scene with the Minotaur is nicely crafted. I liked the Minotaur appearing out of the field of cows. The gate with words that rearrange themselves as “Camp Half-Blood” was a nice touch.
Annabeth’s first appearance was good. I like how’s she been made a more physically challenging rival for Percy.
The scene in Las Vegas is mostly good. I have a few suggestions on that, but they are easy changes.
I like the entrance to the Underworld being at the Hollywood sign.
The way Gabe is petrified at the end makes sense, and the idea of the heroes toting XXXX’s head across country makes me chuckle.
Having said that, here’s the bad news: The script as a whole is terrible. I don’t simply mean that it deviates from the book, though certainly it does that to point of being almost unrecognizable as the same story. Fans of the books will be angry and disappointed. They will leave the theater in droves and generate horrible word of mouth. That is an absolute given if the script goes forward as it stands now. But the bigger problem is that even if you pretend the book doesn’t exist, this script doesn’t work as a story in its own right.
The good news: It is eminently fixable. When I first read the script I’ll admit I was plunged into despair at just how bad it was. If I were intentionally trying to sabotage this project, I doubt I could have done a better job than this script. But as I began to make notes and look specifically at what was bothering me, I realized that the script could be made palatable to fans and the general movie-going audience without really changing its present scene structure, lengthening the script, or adding new sets that would increase the budget. I am choosing to take heart in your assurance that this script is not finished. That is one thing we can agree on: It needs help.
So if you’re still with me, here are my specific thoughts and suggestions for a fix. My concerns fall into three basic categories: age appropriateness, structure, and the writing. I’ll address these in general first, then follow with specific suggestions in page-by-page notes.
This is the easiest fix, but an important one. The Percy books are family-oriented. They are read primarily by children age 9-12. You will have (I hope) a large number of parents bringing their 9-12 year-old children to this movie, expecting to see something appropriate for that age range XXXXXXXX. As one of those parents, I would walk my kids right out of the cinema if the movie included some of the language and content presently in the script. In the page-by-page comments below, I’ve listed the words and scenes I’m concerned about.
I don’t mind being a little subversive and pushing boundaries, but there is nothing radical, fresh or interesting about biyotch, ass, or shit. It’s a lazy attempt to make the script seem hip to teens, but such language has been overused to the point that it doesn’t even rate a cheap laugh anymore. If you go this route, you lose the entire demographic of families with younger children. School groups, who otherwise would take field trips to see this movie, will stay away en masse. Neither do I believe you have to have cliché crude language and gutter humor to engage a teen audience if you have a script that is funny, fresh, and original. As it is, the script will offend the parents of younger children and alienate what should be its core audience while gaining nothing.
I’m talking with fourth and fifth graders all the time about this upcoming movie. I would be horrified if I steered them into a movie with this kind of content. I wouldn’t see it. I wouldn’t let my kids see it. I wouldn’t recommend anyone else see it, and I certainly wouldn’t want my name associated with it. Please do not “sex up” my children’s story. If you take out all the lines I’ve flagged and put in something funnier and fresher but not blatantly crude, you will have a stronger script with a wider appeal.
I have no problem with changes for the sake of streamlining. I also understand the need to limit the number of sets to stay within budget. The script does this well in many places. You’ve cut the Oracle at Delphi, Dionysus, the search for Pan, Clarisse – I could go on and on – but those changes don’t upset me because they don’t affect the story’s core.
I’m not so understanding of adding scenes and plot lines that are completely foreign to the book and make the story read like an illogical hatchet job. The most prominent examples:
Persephone’s pearls. A truly bad plot device. In the original, Percy must go across country because he cannot fly, as Zeus would zap him out of the sky. He’s got a timer – the summer solstice. He’s got double motivation – find his mother, and find Hades, who supposedly has the lightning bolt. He’s got a goal: Los Angeles. This gives him plenty of reason to go to the Underworld without tagging on some superficial quest for pearls that don’t have any basis in Greek mythology. This is the point where the script takes a hard left turn into weird. The story ceases to be the Lightning Thief, and it will have fans squirming in their seats and demanding a refund.
Nashville, the hydra, battle bugs. This entire scene is awful and completely alien to the story. I’m guessing it was added because the set is easier to make than, say, the St. Louis Arch, or you’re thinking the hydra is more recognizable than the Chimera. Again, this is a place where you will lose the readers of the books in droves for no good reason, but I think it could easily be fixed. It could also be a place to insert Ares, as you mentioned you’re interested in that. I’ve given my ideas for this below in the page-by-page critique.
Luke: In the original, Luke is a rival for Annabeth’s affections. He’s older, good-looking, cool and suave, with an important backstory. In the script, Luke has become a sniveling little slimeball. This a) takes away a great source of romantic tension, b) makes it much too obvious that Luke is the villain, c) destroys the series storyline, in which Luke becomes Percy’s archenemy and eventually morphs into Kronos, and d) makes the script ending anticlimactic. I don’t think it’s a bad idea to have a fight with Luke at the end (though I still think it’s not nearly as exciting as a fight with Ares). But if you have a fight with Luke, he should be an attractive, powerful enemy. Who wants to see our hero fight a little creep? Why is that exciting?
Persephone: Talk about deus ex machina. She had no part in the original and has been added to patch up a storyline that no longer makes sense. The ending now, with Grover getting out of the Underworld off-stage, has no tension and no believability. I would strongly encourage you to restore the mystery of the original plot – Percy believes Hades has the lightning bolt, and he discovers along the way this cannot be true, which leads them to the realization that they’ve all been played by Ares. Again, I’ve put my specific suggestions below.
Kronos: This is rather important if you want to preserve the possibility of a franchise, as Kronos is the master villain in the series. Having said that, I can see making a script that works with only a passing mention of Kronos, but at the very least, it should be Ares manipulating Luke, and there should be some question at the end of the book: Why would Ares do this? Was he working alone? This would at least leave some opening to introduce Kronos later.
The fight with Ares: Honestly, this is the best, most cinematic scene in the book. It’s a crime to exclude it from the movie, and Ares is the best adult role in the story.
You mentioned that the script is still being revised for logic and motivation, and I can understand why. The plot has been chopped up so thoroughly that it no longer holds together. As I said, I think this could be fixed without radically changing the scene structure that you’ve developed, but it would take better writing by someone who understands the story, which brings me to the last point:
The dialogue needs to sparkle. I’d like to see it be fresh and original and funny. Right now there are some good areas, but mostly it is flat, tired, and uninspired. It’s certainly not funny. I’m not expecting lines to be lifted from the book verbatim, but it would be nice if they resembled the source material at least in tone and spirit. One of the things that defines Percy is his sense of humor. He doesn’t have one in the script. When XXXX first acquired the book, I was told one of the main selling points was the humor. Why then do we want to settle for a script that is completely devoid of the story’s trademark humor?
There is no heart or soul to the story. The only motivator seems to be sex – will Annabeth and Percy get together? That’s a) not enough, and b) not done very well.
Percy: Percy should doubt himself. He’s conflicted about his father. He shows resentment toward the gods and his dad, but finally has reconciliation and realizes that he is different than Luke – He can rise above his anger and become a hero, accept his parents even if they are not perfect. There needs to be a message here about what it takes to become a hero. There is only the tiniest hint of this in the script, and it’s not nearly powerful enough. On the romantic front, Percy is attracted to Annabeth, but she also intimidates and annoys him at times. He’s not completely driven by hormones to get the girl, as he is in the script. Their relationship needs to be more nuanced.
Annabeth: She is meant to have a backstory with Luke. She is conflicted about her feelings toward Percy because of this. Their romance in the script is too obvious, too quick, and not nearly interesting enough. Where is the tension, the doubt, the conflict? And in terms of the series arc, getting them together in the first installment throws out four more books worth of character development. It would be much better if they kiss at the end, but it is still very unclear whether they are actually together. It should be more of a tease.
Grover: Grover has become a cipher in the script. All he cares about is sex. There’s a passing reference to his need to ‘earn his stripes’ but it never feels real, and Grover never seems worried about it. If you take out the entire subplot about Pan, okay, but Grover needs to have something more serious on the line. For instance, his reputation and his backstory, having failed once before as Luke and Annabeth’s protector. Percy’s quest is his shot at redemption. This would only take a few lines to develop, but it would make the character more than simply comic relief.
Below is my critique by page.
If you find my comments have merit, I’d be happy to revise the script myself, which you could then take or leave as you please. I could do this without changing the number of scenes or the length of the script, and if necessary I will set everything aside to turn this around quickly. My main focus would be freshening up the dialogue, adding Percy-brand humor, and trying to tighten up the logic of the plot while keeping it simple. Note that my rough suggestions for substitute lines below are just that – rough. I would take care to make the wording punchier and more economical. At the very least, please address my concerns and get another writer who has actually read the book and can make the necessary changes, but at this point, I really don’t trust anyone but myself to do it correctly. If the script goes forward in its present form, I don’t need to be the Oracle of Delphi to foresee what will happen. You will lose the fans of the series 100%, but more importantly the script will fail to impress even regular moviegoers who haven’t read the book. The movie will become another statistic in a long line of failed movies badly adapted from children’s books. No one wants that, and a year from now I really would prefer not to be saying: “I told you so.”
(This was followed by twelve pages of notes, going through the script line by line. They did not accept my offer to rework the script.)