le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Lightning Thief on the big screen

**loads of spoilers, of book and film, ahead**
The first time we see Percy Jackson on screen in the film adaptation of The Lightning Thief, he is sitting underwater, mostly naked. Initially, because we only see him from mid-torso up, I was afraid he was actually naked, and that we were seeing some kind of odd dream sequence/birth memory. Instead, we were just getting a very unsubtle Poseidon/water allusion, and some teen-boy pinup cinematography.

Both of these seem to sum up the flaws with the movie: a total lack of subtlety in every way, and shameless, relentless catering to the teen-magazine set.

I like Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series; they're clever, they're fast-paced, they tell a good story with some really appealing characters (love that Nico Di Angelo). And in quite a few subtle ways, they move against the grain of your traditional hero-on-a-quest books (most especially H. Potter).

The film doesn't do these things. At all.

Instead, it relies on some very tired cliches and does the typical Hollywood move of sweetening up children's books into children's films by killing off the subtlety and anything complex or prickly. In this case, the most egregious is the sappy way Poseidon is figured as Percy's loving dad, restrained unwillingly by Zeus's unfair decree from becoming "more human" and staying with Percy and his mom. One of the strongest moments of the book is the first meeting between Poseidon and Percy, when Percy appreciates his father's honesty; they have a mutual wariness of each other, and, as Percy says, his dad doesn't try to make any "lame excuses." But the film makes the lame excuses, and makes them over and over again.

Being a hero, a demigod, is a raw deal in the world of the books. Your life is in peril, you are a guaranteed single-parent family, you have peculiar abilities and disabilities that make life very difficult (ADHD and dyslexia, and that ability to attract deadly monsters). You are either a pawn or a cast-off of the gods, and all of the demigods in the books have to wrestle with what this means for them.

Not so the film, which tries (and fails) to be clever and hip while also maintaining a family-friendly sentimentality.

Logan Lerman, aged 17, plays Percy; Lerman was clearly chosen for his looks and not his acting "ability." He seems to have studied every Zac Efron film ever made, and then patterned himself after Efron but - and I never thought I'd say it -  without Efron's talent. He poses, he crinkles his eyes, giving off an air of disbelieving confused pain, regardless of that actual emotion the scene demands. The film's Percy also has confidence to burn; he gets flashy with the sword, flourishing it around and doing a bit of hot-dogging after successful battles.  Grover gets bumped up to a lecherous satyr with mad martial arts skills with his crutches - and never a single reference to Pan or nature. It's all about "getting his horns," which - of course - he does after being stuck briefly in the Underworld with the equally lecherous Persephone.

The shift of the characters' ages allows for a bunch of tedious googly-eyes between a dark-haired Annabeth and Percy, and for vaguely disturbing and creepy sexual innuendo between Grover and a swath of females. On this same angle, the movie really drives home the inevitable omnipresence of the phallus (you can't escape this in any fantasy film). Percy's sword, obviously, but he also ends up with a trident at one point, and that lightning bolt - oh jeez.  Medusa, played pretty well by Uma Thurman (and wearing a killer outfit) slinks up to Percy, saying "I hear you have the....lightning bolt. May I see it?" in her best seductive voice. And it really does not seem like she's talking about Zeus's master bolt.  Annabeth, at the film's end, seems to be leaning in for a kiss, but instead grabs Percy's sword (no, the actual sword Riptide) away from him, in a weirdly erotic/castrating move.

There are other creepy sexualized moments, ones devoid of other kinky humor or any real erotics. Gabe slaps Sally's ass, causing Percy to object; at another scene, Percy and Grover burst in during one of the poker games, when Gabe says: "Can't you see she's servicing me and my friends?"
Persephone, in the Underworld, is about four threads short of being dressed only in lingerie, and she is most definitely a sexual predator; her first words are "I've never had a satyr. ...... as a visitor."
Annabeth comes upon Percy sitting on the bottom of a pool (thankfully wearing his boxers or some such); then follows a scene practically ripped from Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, but culminating in a very erotically charged moment when Percy transfers healing powers from the water to Annabeth's injured arm.
I'm all for throwing in desire and erotics, but in this film it felt flat-out creepy. Percy gets all excited from the first moment he sees Annabeth, and the two of them are set to duel it out with knives and swords from the outset.

The plot has been reorganized from the quest of the book to a search for "Persephone's Pearls" - magical objects that will enable the three questers to leave the Underworld. Setting aside the fact that "Persephone's Pearls" sounds - frankly - like a sex toy, having such a highly structured quest, along with a map and the ability to drive a truck they've stolen, takes away a lot of the pleasure of discovery and adventure that the book delivers.

Camp Half-Blood has been refigured from a valley on Long Island to something that looks terrifyingly like a cross between Sherwood Forest and Renaissance Faire - even Luke makes a derogatory allusion to the camp's RenFaire tone. The demigods, all clad in bronzey greek armor (all the time, except the girls, of course; they get thin dresses. Annabeth is the exception, but her armor is decidedly well-endowed), racket around with bow-and-arrows and swords like Robin Hood's Merry Men in a heavily wooded forest set among moutains (the film's credits reveal that part of the movie was shot in Vancouver, and I would bet money that Camp Half-Blood is actually in the mountains of British Columbia). The campers don't wear their orange camp shirts, and their "cabins" are more like open-air pavilions. It feels like RenFaire and not summer camp.

The adults in the movie are disappointments across the board, except Hades and Medusa. The actors playing Poseidon and Zeus aren't at their best, and what's worse, they get rendered in horrible special effects that end up making us feel like we're watching a cheap version of Gulliver's Travels or Darby O'Gill and the Little People.  The special effects were terrible in a movie that cries out for excellent effects; only the lightning at the film's beginning and end was effective. Percy is able to use the flying shoes to terrible visual effect - it felt a little like watching a low-budget community theatre production of Peter Pan. Luke and Percy battle it out at the end while wearing the winged shoes (black Chuck Taylors, of course) in a singularly poorly conceived change.

The complex relations among the gods and demigods - Ares, Hades, Poseidon, Percy, Zeus, Luke, Hermes - are almost completely erased or subordinated. Ares never appears; we see a half-second shot of Hermes, but get a fair bit of the toothy Luke's rantings about his crappy father. But Luke is a solo actor in the theft of the master bolt; no hints of Kronos rising, or anything deeper or broader.

One thing that did make me happy, in a wry sort of way, was the film's inclusion of the Lotus Hotel and Casino. My fall class almost unanimously disliked the Lotus scenes, and many of them, in an assignment proposing a film adaptation, eliminated the scene entirely. I never quite understood their dislike of the scene - I think it's actually a pretty clever device. Of course, the film turns it into real Vegas casino glitz, with all kinds of sexy girls revealing a LOT of cleavage, roulette and craps tables, Grover in a spa surrounded by giggling girls, a dance floor (and Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" song) and Percy and Annabeth leaning against the bar while Grover dances with his girls. And - in just one more instance of the tedious unsubtlety of the film, they actually eat lotus flowers that they're given by cocktail waitresses. The lotuses act as a memory-erasing quasi-aphrodesiac which also mimics acid and/or pot - Annabeth is overcome with giggles, Grover gets all kinds of pouncy, Percy goes giggly and dreamy.

I have seen worse films; last summer's Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, for example, was far more tedious and painful to watch than The Lightning Thief. It's hard to say if the movie was any good, because - and this is my critical failing here - I was so unable to separate it from the book(s). I don't think the movie retains much of the tone of the books - that subtlety or wit, or the genuine complexity of the relationships between characters. I suspect that, if I hadn't read the books, I'd have thought the movie was okay, although action/adventure is not my speed at all. The kids in the audience (and the audience was tiny when I saw the movie in mid-afternoon on a weekday) were pretty enthusiastic about it; I walked behind a couple of them from the theater to my car (by chance, not intentionally), and the kids were excited and enthused, talking about which parts they liked best and giving the movie an "A".

What bothers me the most is that Riordan's book is absolutely ripe for cinematic adaptation - there's action, there's complexity, there's mystery, discovery, peril, humor, even some romance. It's all there. Instead, Hollywood (via its screenwriter Craig Titley, who doesn't seem to have done much else worth noting), waters it down and sweetens it up, taking any unconventional or original elements and either erasing them entirely, or altering them so greatly that they become trite.  This happens all the time - books which kids LOVE, books which are undeniable best-sellers - get muddled into something far less interesting or appealing in some misguided belief that adhering to the source text will result in poor ticket sales. It's partly pandering to the adults who have to take the kids to the film - you can leave an 8-year-old alone with a novel, but you probably won't drop him at the movie theatre for two hours - and some foolish, pop-cultural idea of what children need/want/should have, but it's also just a simple flat lack of imagination and inventiveness.

This lack of inventiveness, I think, is why all the previews were for adaptations: a remake of The Karate Kid (relocated to China, starring Jackie Chan and Will Smith's son - wtf?); an adaptation of Diary of a Wimpy Kid (ugh!), and an M. Night Shyamalan-scripted adaptation of the Nickelodeon show Avatar: The Last Airbender. Not an original screenplay among them.

So The Lightning Thief disappointed as an adaptation, but provides lots and lots of fodder for thinking and talking about how adaptations work (or don't work, as the case may be).  It seems unlikely - given the way the film ends - that future installments of the Percy Jackson series will be adapted to film, which is probably a very good thing, although it would be interesting to see what a really good screenwriter and director could do with, say, Nico Di Angelo, or the Labyrinth. It would have been more interesting to see what a really good screenwriter and director could have done with The Lightning Thief.


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