When Rick Riordan, creator of the best-selling Percy Jackson novels, finally got the on-screen rights back to his books (Disney acquired the rights to the series after it bought 20th Century Fox in 2019), he wanted justice for his beloved demi-god.
After all, previous attempts to turn it into a live-action film franchise failed to take the world by storm. 2010’s Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief and 2013’s Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, to be frank, weren’t engaging or commercially successful as the source material they were based on. The result? The failure to leave a mark on the 21st century’s burgeoning fantasy movie genre, which counted Twilight and The Lord of the Rings among its mega-popular contingent.
Alongside wife and executive producing partner Rebecca Riordan, then, Rick Riordan sought to turn the opinion-laden tide by taking another crack at bringing his beloved novels to life, albeit on the small screen this time around. The end result is Percy Jackson And The Olympians, an eight-part Disney Plus series that the Riordans will hope makes amends for what came before. To that end, the couple were determined to be as heavily involved in the teen fantasy show’s as much as possible.
“There was no detail we weren’t involved in,” Riordan tells TechRadar. “We were involved for all of the last four years and every conversation, every choice from casting, artwork, scripts, all of it.”
Also at the helm of the TV adaptation are series co-creator Jonathan E. Steinberg and executive producer Dan Shotz, who were fully aware of the importance of the detailed original text they’d be adapting – and the fandom’s adoration of these stories.
“What’s really exciting about stepping into something like this is you’re starting with a really compelling, emotionally gratifying story,” Steinberg muses. “And [it’s] one that has millions of people who are already in love with it. I think from there, you start from that story, from the page, and try to figure out what the most organic version of that story looks like when brought to the screen.”
Crafting that organic world wasn’t easy, but Percy Jackson and the Olympians‘ universe-building is immense – and we’re not just talking about its Greek god-inspired plot or expansive locations. Indeed, its depiction of the book series’ iconic characters, many of whom are mythical beasts based on the original Greek myths, are as pleasingly authentic as fans would’ve hoped.
Individuals like Percy’s best friend Grover (Aryan Simhadri), a Satyr with horns and goat legs, and Percy’s favourite teacher Mr Brunner (Glynn Turman), who’s actually a centaur called Chiron, have been realized in wondrous, mythological fashion. And this is just the beginning, with Percy running into other creatures like Medusa, the Chimera, and the Furies, the demon-winged associates of Hades – aka god of the underworld – throughout the series’ first outing.
“The Furies were the hardest of the characters to get right,” Rick Riordan reveals about the demons, which include a villainous Megan Mullally as Alecto. Rebecca adds: “The Furies were the earliest characters that we talked about. What do they look like? How do we render them? They took a long time and we were doing details on them all the way to post-production.”
“It was a real challenge,” admits Steinberg. “I think you’re trying to find a way to represent creatures and characters, who have been around for thousands of years and have been realised in exponentially more iterations and do it in a way that feels new and surprising. So I think the process was to fix the first image that pops into your head, and then try to do something different than that, to try to get to the soul of each of these characters and who these creatures were, and use that to build something that felt unique to the show.”
Another key mythos-based figure – who audiences will encounter in episode 1, is the minotaur. As one of the most recognisable characters within Greek mythology (interestingly, 2023 movie Saltburn, Emerald Fennell’s unsettling drama that’s available on Prime Video, also utilizes a minotaur at a key plot-based moment), the pressure was on to deliver a realistic and terrifying figure for Percy and company to battle.
“That was the hardest scene to film,” reveals Shotz. “The fight sequence was shot at night in the rain, [and] we did a lot of it on stages with just so many different ways to do it. There was a 6’7 guy on stilts. There was a giant head that someone had coming after him [ Percy, as played by Scobell Walker] and a bucking bronco that he had to ride on like he was at a rodeo. There were so many different elements to make it work.”
For Rick Riordan, the work paid off, with the minotaur being the beast he’s happiest with – if you can ever truly be happy seeing a minotaur – in the TV adaptation. “I think the minotaur is probably the closest [to how I envisioned it],” he adds. “We did a lot of drafts and different artwork for that as well, but the idea coalesced with that.”
Unsurprisingly, the Riordans reserved praise to the series’ young stars and the hard work they put into shooting The Olympians, with special mention going to Walker, who spent days filming one particular sequence that would test even the hardiest of actors.
“Poor Walker!” Rick says of an episode 4-specific sequence. “There’s a scene where he’s underwater and, for just those couple of minutes [in the episode], were days of work where he was under the water with scuba divers giving him air. He’s a trooper, he’s excellent at it, but I felt bad for him.”
“When they were filming the scene, Walker would not want to go up and get out of the water,” Rebecca interjects. “He wanted to keep going because that’s Walker. His work ethic is amazing so he would say ‘give me the respirator and I’ll go again’ while he was still underwater. And [Annabeth actor] Lena [Sava Jeffries], in that one scene where she’s in the water, the director said ‘if you do this one take perfectly we won’t have to go again’, so Lena just nailed it.”
The producers were also aware that they wanted their show to be scary enough to appeal to adults, but not too dark so as to alienate younger viewers. “As you’re also making it for an older audience, it has to feel real,” Steinberg says. “The creatures have to look great, so it was a balancing act with every decision. The guideline for me was my seven-year-old to make sure there was never anything that was going to make him want to get up and walk away. He saw the final cut and we got a big thumbs up.”
With the series launching on December 20 (its first episode will also be on Hulu in the US), all involved hope that it’ll be a fitting fantasy watch for the whole family during the 2023 holiday season. A second season is yet to be commissioned, but there are high hopes this is just the beginning of this new era of Riordan storytelling to be reimagined.
“The goal has always been to continue this journey with these guys,” says Shotz. “Disney has put so much behind us and they’re so supportive of this, so we hope to make more of these.”
Rick Riordan, meanwhile, is currently playing around with a couple of his other series that he’d like to make the leap to the screen. Taking to X (formerly Twitter) in 2020, Riordan wrote Netflix would be developing The Kane Chronicles, his trilogy of Egyptian god-inspired novels, but the acclaimed author has since deleted the post, meaning The Kane Chronicles‘ live-action iteration is still up in the air.
Asked if he had an update on it, Rick says: “With Kane, it was in development with Netflix and I think we’re going to re-take that. The option will expire in January , so we’ll probably take that back and look at it again. I’d love to see that happen.”
There’s more news for fans of Riordan’s writing, too, with a TV show being developed around My Life As a Child Outlaw, his 2021 short story on Irish mythology. “It’s about Finn MacCumhail, the Irish national hero, which was set in the Irish middle ages so if that comes to pass, it will be a great one. We’re developing it with Element Pictures in Dublin, and we’re shopping the script to studios as soon as it’s finished, which will probably be next month.”
Whether Percy Jackson and the Olympians makes it onto our best Disney Plus shows list or not, then, the future of Riordan’s works appears bright on the small screen. Of course, even if Percy Jackson‘s latest live-action adaptation proves successful and acts as a thunderous riposte to other high-profile fantasy franchises, such as Harry Potter, there’s no guarantee thatThe Kane Chronicles or My Life As a Child Outlaw will be made. Lightning, then, may not strike in the same place twice for the Riordans.
Still, Rick Riordan is just satisfied that Percy Jackson will get a new lease of life on one of the world’s best streaming services. And hey, as well as continuing his “day job” (his words, not mine), he adds that there’ll always be more stories for him to dream up. “I’ll continue as a writer as I love it,” Rick adds. “That’s my primary focus, but I imagine we’ll continue to be very active in television and film space as well.”
Percy Jackson and the Olympians debuts on Wednesday, December 20. New episodes air weekly on Disney Plus until the finale on January 31, 2024.