In our continuing tradition of slopping over themes to the following week, I wanted to weigh in one more time on our book/movie emphasis. Partly because John Kwasny’s excellent post from last Monday inspired me to click on over to Netflix and queue up a few DVDs I’d been intending to watch. What came first was The Lightning Thief, which is a fairly recent release and has the further advantage of being reviewed in this blog. With a deliberate intention of answering some of the questions posed by Dr. Kwasny, here’s my take.
How does the book differ from the movie? The book is a lot funnier. That’s the main thing that attracted me about Percy Jackson and the Olympians: the slam-bang action (which can get a little wearying) is relieved by hysterical laughter (which can also get wearying, I guess)—such as when Percy leaps into a taxicab driven by the three Fates, a scene that had to be left out of the movie. I understand why, when you can’t go beyond two hours of running time without petrifying your audience, many of those little gems have to be cut. It just makes me glad novels are not measured in running time. Visual humor can be just as funny as verbal, but communicating one through the other can be a challenge. Much of the humor in The Lightning Thief is conveyed by Grover mugging for the camera, which gets old fast.
What are we missing [in the movie version] about the characters? In the case of Mr. Dee–a bored, laid-back Dionysius, sentenced by the gods to a tutoring job Camp Half-Blood—I missed all of him. Percy’s sense of displacement and Annabeth’s chip on the shoulder are portrayed pretty well, but Grover and Luke are deficient in what I call the mainspring of their characters: the central animating idea of each. In the books Grover desires above all things to pursue his mission to search for the missing god Pan, while Luke is motivated not merely by petty resentment, but by an alliance with Kronos that develops throughout the series. The movie is intended to stand alone in case box-office receipts don’t justify a Part II, so it wouldn’t be a good idea to hint at future developments. But it necessarily reduces some characters to types (e.g. loyal friend, surprise turncoat) that viewers recognize as necessary cogs in the story, not rounded individuals.
What message does the book communicate that the movie doesn’t, and vice-versa? Interesting question. I actually found more “message” in the movie than the book, though I doubt it was intentional. Both media were attempting the same thing: an entertaining story that would hook a young audience. But what I took away from the movie had a lot to do with what I brought to it. Two things:
One, from my reading of Homer and C.S. Lewis and Mary Renault and others, I’ve caught a sense of the grandeur of pre-Christian paganism that had nothing to do with its admirableness. There was something in it that profoundly stirred the ancients, even though the gods in their stories often behaved no better than men. Lewis linked the idea, if not the character, of Jupiter, Mercury, Mars, Venus, and Saturn with angelic spirits (eldila) in his Space Trilogy, and in Chapter 15 of That Hideous Strength he tries to communicate a sense of what their actual presence would be like. It’s beyond words—but especially beyond pictures. In the movie version of The Lightning Thief they are portrayed merely as big, in a scene that reminded me of Jason and the Argonauts. The message there is that the true realm of the spirit can’t be pictured. “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor heart imagined what God has prepared for those who love him” (I Cor. 2: 9).
Two, I’m reminded of how we commonly understand “glory.” It’s a heroic musical theme, prowess in swordplay, mysterious power over the elements, ultimate victory. It’s not deliberately choosing a humble life with its ordinary joys. One thing common to all pagan systems: the gods despise humanity, though they may have their favorites. For a god to fall in love with a human and father a child is understood as a lapse that usually carries its own judgment. The only way Percy can become a true son of Poseidon (and in the books, Poseidon’s attitude toward the boy is much more conflicted) is by ascending to his full status as a demigod.
Who is the God who looks down with compassion instead of contempt, who identifies so completely with humans that He becomes one of them? I’m reminded again of how good He is, and how glad I am that he’s mine. Especially since I’d never be much good at swordplay.
Categories: Movies, Beyond Books, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Rick Riordan, the Lightning Thief