Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson & the Olympians books were written for a young audience, but the movie version wants to hold its own with the badass Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises. So screenwriter Craig Titley, a Ph.D. in mythological studies, turned Riordan's modern-day take on Greek mythology into a grown-up adventure.
In the books, Percy Jackson is 12 years old and diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD. He finds out that his father is Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea. Titley thought an extra five years would make Hollywood's Percy cooler.
"It was kind of a tonal shift, which is one of the reasons we up the ages of the characters from 12 to 17, to kind of kick it from the G world of the book to a more PG movie world," Titley said in an exclusive phone interview on Feb. 12. "All the changes that occur because of that, you could make the set pieces and the battles with the monsters a little more intense than they were in the book."
Percy Jackson's first adventure requires him to return Zeus's thunderbolt to Mount Olympus. At 17, Percy is better equipped to slay mythological monsters. "I think the change [from the book] was the up in intensity where you could actually make things much scarier," Titley continued. "You can sort of design them in such a way that you can get a little more swordplay, because you're dealing with 17-year-old actors who can wield a sword. We took set pieces. They were fun, but I don't think they were as intense as they're going to be in the movie."
Also, a 17-year-old could have a whole different set of problems and interests. Titley drew on elements of Riordan's Percy Jackson and added some from Holden Caulfield, the famous literary figure of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. "That was sort of my way into the movie: Holden Caulfield dropped into a Ray Harryhausen Greek monster movie," Titley said. "The kid in the book is sort of a troubled kid, living with his mom, feels like he was abandoned by his dad, has dyslexia, ADHD and just kind of shuffled from school to school for troubled kids, a lot like Holden Caulfield. That was sort of my tonal linchpin in my own mind, like, okay, now I get it. That's my way in."
The focus of the story is on Percy Jackson and the adventure he and his friends go on. However, Titley couldn't resist beefing up the role of the gods, too. "I think we show a little more of the gods in the movie than were in the books, but they're cool," he said. "Poseidon's a real badass. He's got a great intro you'll see in the movie. They're kind of dressed with really cool battle armor, as opposed to togas. We see primarily Zeus and Poseidon in this movie. They are sort of a little more badass-y, if you will, but in other movies we'll see other gods, like Hermes, who's a bit more of a trickster. You'll get to see a wider variety of personalities when the other gods are introduced."
Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief opens Feb. 12.