The other night, I had the dubious pleasure of watching _Percy Jackson and the Olympians the Lightning Thief_, and what I got out of it is that it showed why the _Harry Potter_ series is both artistically and morally laudable.
1. While both J.K. Rowling and C. S. Lewis have been criticized for the “derivative” nature of their work, and the matter can be debated in both their cases whether they’re hacks or geniuses, it is clear from the movie, at least, that _Jackson_ author Rick Riordan falls under the category of hack, since on the surface this is _Harry Potter_ with the names changed and “god” substituted for “wizard.” The term “half-blood” is even used. The movie doesn’t mention Triton, but apparently the overall theme of the series is that the Percy and his “half blood” friends (including a much less friendly counterpart of Hermione and a much more competent but more lascivious equivalent of Ron) must save the Olympians from the return of the Titan Triton.
2. To his credit, Riordan has done his homework. Even the film was *mostly* accurate with its adaptations of Greek mythology, which is unusual even for films directly concerning Greek mythology. My only gripe there is that if we’re supposed to believe the Greek myths were real, Medusa died, killed by the original Perseus, and there’s no explanation given why or how she was resurrected. I’ve never understood when fantasy stories refer to “a Medusa” (or “a Pegasus” for that matter), and I’ve also never understood why stories that try to use Greek mythology don’t just use one of the other Gorgons. Also, Medusa was supposed to be ugly to look at, even without the snakes, and while I personally think Uma Thurman fits that category, I don’t think a lot of people agree.
3. Maybe the books do, but the film doesn’t explain why the “Olympians” are so Ancient Greece-centric (for example, the “half bloods” are wired to read ancient Greek; see below), but most of them have emigrated to the US.
4. Apparently, Barack Obama is a demi-god, at least according to the film. When “Grover” the Satyr is explaining to Percy about the existence of demi-gods, and showing him around Hogwarts-I mean, the summer camp for half-bloods–he says that there are literally hundreds of demi-gods (children of gods and humans) alive today, some who live completely normal lives and others who achieve great fame, “I’m talking White House famous” (film came out in 2010; I’m sure they wouldn’t have made that suggestion of the president in 2007). So, is this supposed to indicate that Barack Obama, Sr., was actually a Greek god? Or perhaps to suggest that BHO isn’t actually a natural-born citizen, after all?
5. All good stories, particularly children’s stories, and particularly fantasies, include some level of wish-fulfillment. It is not hard to see how the nerdy, bullied, abused, motherless children in C. S. Lewis’s books are all shadows of himself, particularly Digory Kirk (who both reflects Lewis as a child and an adult) and Eustace Clarence Scrubb (who, like his author, hated his own name).
The abused, orphaned Harry Potter also provides children a character to sympathize with: what I love about the first few Potter stories is that they remind me of myself–obviously, I was raised by loving parents and Harry was raised by an abusive aunt and uncle who locked him in the closet under the stairs–but having been a misfit in general in my childhood, as I awakened to my faith, I found a sense of belonging in the Church and in academia. When Harry found himself embraced by his teachers who saw his great potential yet unable to fit in with any but a few of his peers, that was my own experience.
Rowling gets it just right. While one of the popular arguments of the anti-Harry Potter crowd is that supposedly he is not adequately punished for the things he does “wrong” (violating relative, worldly rules for the greater good, which is something the Pharisees criticized Our Lord for doing, and which is also a basic tenet of Catholic moral teaching). However, it is also very clear that while they’re trying to shape and encourage him, Harry’s teachers want him to learn obedience and humility because they know how Tom Riddle’s great power and potential had gone to his head.
Not in _Percy Jackson_. In the first few minutes of the film, we see a discussion between Zeus (the guy from _Lord of the Rings_ who’s always popping up in “One does not simply . . . ” memes on Facebook) and Neptune, in which Zeus is accusing Neptune’s son of stealing his lightning bolt, because supposedly only a god’s son is capable of doing so. Then we’re introduced to Percy, whom we first see underwater, saying he can only think underwater–gee, no mystery who Neptune’s secret son is, now, is there?
Percy’s horrible at English Literature, and comes home and laments to his longsuffering mother that the “special school” she sends him to isn’t working, and his ADHD and dyslexia are much too severe. Then we are introduced to his very stereotyped oafish, abusive stepfather.
Shortly thereafter, Percy’s English teacher turns out to be a Fury who has been sent to get the lightning bolt back from him, but she’s chased off by his mentorly and wheelchair-bound Classics teacher (played by Pierce Brosnan) who later turns out to be a Centaur. His best friend, who hobbles around on crutches turns out to be a Satyr. I’m not going to summarize the whole film, but just establishing the characters here for this purpose. The message here is:
a) people with physical disabilities are OK because they may just be hiding secret superpowers
b) English teachers probably are horrible monsters
c) Percy is told his ADHD is just his godlike instincts for adventure, and his dyslexia is because he’s “hardwired” to read ancient Greek, not modern English. So, people with ADHD and dyslexia, feel good about yourselves! You’re probably like Percy, and too good for these lame-o schools.
d) Percy’s mom only stuck around with his step dad to “protect him” because his step dad stank, and the smell of his unbathed stepfather shielded the Olympians and their related monsters from recognizing his divine blood (yes, seriously, that is how it’s explained in the film). After mom orders stepdad out of the house at the end, he finds Medusa’s head in the fridge and gets turned to stone.
Oh, that reminds me. . . .
6. THIS IS NOT A CHILDREN’S MOVIE. PARENTS, DO NOT LET CHILDREN UNDER 13 VIEW THIS FILM.
I believe in striking the balance between being lenient and strict in all aspects of parenting. We try to let our kids have an informed exposure to pop culture. They know when we say not to watch something, we mean business, and they usually agree with us when we tentatively allow them to watch something we’re not comfortable with. We tried to hold off Harry Potter till our eldest was at least 13, but my father in law kind of circumvented us on that one, but she’s well formed enough that it worked out.
But this is falling under the category of the Michael Bay _Transformers_ films: NO WAY IN THE NETHERWORLD.
This is very violent. There’s something about the CGI minotaur that really freaked me out, even more than the monsters in a Potter or Narnia film. It didn’t even look like a minotaur except for the horns, and the fact that they called it that. The Minotaurs in the Narnia movies looked far more like what I’d imagine a “real” one to look like. Granted, today’s kids are really immune to CGI special effects (“It’s OK, Mom, it’s just CGI,” they often tell their mom when she’s worried some special effect is too scary for them). However, I dunno. I found the creatures and violence in this film disturbing and inappropriate for anyone under 13. I don’t even think it’s the fact that the movie’s violent so much as that it’s so casual about violence.
My dad talks of his experience trying to teach _Hamlet_ to kids in the 90s who found Hamlet’s dilemma problematic, not for the traditional reasons scholars have argued it, but for the simple fact that they saw nothing wrong with killing. “Why’s he hesitating at all? The dude killed his father. He should just off him and get it over with.”
That’s the approach of this film. Got a stepfather you hate? Stick a Gorgon’s head in the fridge & kill him.
7. “All lives end in tragedy and despair,” says the boatman on the River Styx in _Lightning Thief_. Interestingly, the Netherworld in this film is depicted as the Christian Hell more than the Greek Hades, and it is referred to as Hell while its ruler is referred to as Hades. Much as in _Buffy: the Vampire Slayer_, where Hell is depicted as the ultimate reality, and “the jury’s still out” on God or Heaven, _Lightning Thief_ suggests that all souls end up in Hell, except for the select few who make it to Olympus (and presumably they have to be demi-gods to start with). I shouldn’t have to explain why this is a bad thing.
8. _Harry Potter takes place in a world where good and evil are clearly defined, in spite of those who insist that it’s morally ambiguous. This film is definitely morally ambiguous. Socrates was accused of impiety for complaining about the moral ambiguity of Greek mythology, and this film is true to that element. Neptune is the “good guy” among the gods, but only because we’re supposed to be cheering for Percy. Zeus and Hades are both the “bad guys,” since their minions are both coming after him.
Grover commits adultery with Persephone, which is OK because Hades doesn’t really love her.
We are assured that all the gods are selfish (though that is by the character who turns out to be the actual “lightning thief,” but his position is never debunked).
9. Thus, _Lightning Thief_ completely precludes the possibility that Christianity is true. I don’t mind fiction that suggests that pagan gods were real but that they were angels and fallen angels, or that they were aliens, or just super-powered humans, or even some other preternatural beings still lower than the true God. Christian figures from St. Augustine to John Milton to C. S. Lewis have entertained the possibility that the pagan gods might have been or been based upon “real” beings. I also have no problem with reenacting the Greek myths.
It is possible to take most fantasy or science fiction “worlds” and see the True God behind them. This is what Flannery O’Connor says is the key to “Christian” writing, and I’d say it’s also the key to Christian reading and criticism: viewing the world with a Christian lens. O’Connor says that fiction doesn’t have to discuss theology to be Christian, but merely see the world as one in which Christian moral, cosmological and spiritual principles are true, and work in practice. This would be contrasted to a literature which is completely atheistic or pagan. For example, while I saw _House, MD_ through to the end, I was dismayed at the middle of the second season when House hits rock bottom after breaking up with Cuddy, and he really starts to go crazy. When I saw House jump the shark–I mean, jump out of the hotel room–I said that there was no way he could return from that low a pit of despair without a proverbial “higher power” in his life. No real person could descend so deep without committing suicide or going deeper into drug use unless he had God in his life.
However, this movie holds that Greek mythology was completely *true*. Zeus *is* the current ruler of the universe, though the Titans Again, all people go to Hades, and Hades is the Roman Tartarus or the Christian Hell, where the “real” Hades in Greek mythology was more like the Christian limbo or the Hebrew Sheol.
Again, this shows what Harry Potter does right: the _Harry Potter_ books are filled with at least cultural Christianity. There are churches, there are Christian cemeteries, Christian holidays, and citations of Bible verses. It’s not clear that the characters are Christian in anything more than a cultural sense, but it’s *perfectly* clear that “Christianity” exists, and the overall providence and moral fabric of the stories holds true to Christian principles.
While Rowling is not as overt as C.S. Lewis at showing the Christian God at work in her fantasies (and apparently, according to some people, even Lewis isn’t that overt, between those who insist Aslan is merely allegorical or those who insist that Aslan is a representative of “any great religious figure,” as opposed to being very clearly the Divine Word incarnate in a different way on a different world), it is still *possible* that had God chosen to give some people magical powers, and to create some kind of magical parallel world within our own where magical people could exist with fantasy creatures and practice magic freely, all that happens in _Harry Potter_ could happen in a world where Christianity is true. Nothing explicitly violates Christian theology other than what violates known science, anyway.
That is not the case for _Percy Jackson_. If Greek mythology was completely true, if all souls go to Hell, if Zeus is the ruler of the cosmos (and got there by force), and if beings who are part god and part human walk the earth in the hundreds or thousands, then Christianity is false.
So that is the message that Rick Riordan and the producers of this film want to send to your children: Christianity is false, and you’re doomed to Hell, so “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.”