We are living in the apex of recycled media. From dark and gritty reboots like Riverdale to unwanted sequels like the upcoming Gladiator 2, most high–profile projects these days simply get greenlit with a specific audience in mind. This is probably why when Rick Riordan visited the Disney+ offices, it didn’t take long to seal the deal: Percy Jackson and the Olympians—a veteran children’s series—is getting its well–deserved adaptation this holiday season.
News traveled at the speed of light, and before long, fans were buzzing. Some took to Instagram and X (formerly known as Twitter) to express their joy, while others ... not so much. After the spectacular failure of the ill–fated films Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief and Percy Jackson: The Sea of Monsters, fans were wary of Riordan’s sudden interest in reviving the series. And after ten years, why now? Is this just one of Disney’s many attempts to fatten their cash bag, or is there something different about this series?
The novel Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief was first released in 2005. It followed the story of Perseus “Percy” Jackson, a middle schooler who discovers that his father is the Greek god Poseidon and that he must embark on a quest to protect the mortal realm. Despite its immense popularity, the first Percy Jackson live action movie was unanimously seen as a failure. From the casting of adults as 12–year–olds to the obvious interest in courting adult audiences, fans of the book came away from the first movie with a sour taste in their mouths.
With such a murky history, creators of the new Percy Jackson series have had to choose a different plan. Instead of adapting one book per movie, they’ll do one season of television per book. Actors who portray the main cast are also much closer in age to the original characters, and perhaps most excitingly, the production process now directly involves Riordan himself. The series seems to be off to a good start, but doubts persist. As of 2023, it is obvious that the YA adaptation craze has long died down. Why will people even watch the series?
The answer is simple: nostalgia.
Nostalgia is the driving force behind many of today's pop culture productions. In the case of children’s and young adult novels, they’re an ecosystem unto themselves. From merchandise to fan sites to endless Buzzfeed quizzes about your godly parents and eventually adaptations, people keep feeding into that cycle simply because they want to prolong that feeling they first got when they read the book. This is no exception for the new Percy Jackson series. As we dive into the new teaser, fans cannot help but feel like they are, finally, home again.
Even more importantly, the new series is not just a product of simple nostalgia, but a product of nostalgia aimed at Gen Z, perhaps the first of its kind. In the past few years, we have witnessed countless live actions and reboots. Yet, most of them either appeal to the nostalgia of an older audience (Mary Poppins Returns) or go on a complete transformation to target the younger audience (Chilling Adventures of Sabrina). The new Percy Jackson series feels like the very first big–budgeted series made to capture Gen Z’s nostalgia alone.
But is nostalgia in itself enough to make a good production? At this point, we might have seen enough of Disney’s live actions to deduct a pattern. Deviating too much from the original material, as in the case of 2020’s Mulan remake, will make the audience question what they came for. Sticking too close to the original material, as in the case of the 2019 remake of The Lion King, will make for an unexciting experience few are willing to put up with again. Most viewers are not mindless consumers who buy anything that has the “nostalgia” tag on it. And while it might make for good marketing initially, its aura is not enough to carry the entire production. What is needed is a solid storyline that employs creativity in the boundaries of the original materials.
Critically speaking, this places a lot of pressure on the people behind the new Percy Jackson series. Even if they manage to strike the right balance between creativity and authenticity, there is still no telling whether the adaptation will receive positive remarks from viewers. With the original novel holding such a high ranking in readers' hearts, can the adaptation ever exceed—or even reach—that expectation? Is being the first ever "Gen Z certified" reboot enough to save the series from joining the pantheon of average nostalgia–bait productions aimed at millennials?
The truth is we don’t know, but what we do know is that the new series is really trying to make that possible.
"I feel comfortable telling fans of the books who have been waiting—in some cases, decades—for this kind of faithful adaptation, that this is the one you've been waiting for. We are involved, and I think you're gonna love it,” Rick Riordan shared in an interview with Entertainment Weekly earlier this year. When compared to another big–budget Gen Z prequel in line to come out later this year, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Percy Jackson feels less like a piece of nostalgia bait than a redemption. After all, unlike its new Hunger Games counterpart, previous Percy Jackson movie adaptations hardly enjoyed the critical and commercial success needed for the series to be considered a rip–off.
Nostalgia, in the end, is neither good nor bad, and we shouldn’t be too hasty in reducing it down to its essence. The Barbie movie was basically a two–hour advertisement for Mattel, but that didn’t stop it from exploring values relevant to today’s society, so why shouldn’t we at least give Percy Jackson and the Olympians the benefit of the doubt? After all, it’s not like Hollywood is dedicating a high–profile production to Gen Z every day. Enjoying a movie for the sake of the old days is a fun experience in itself, so perhaps for now, let’s just keep the skepticism at bay.