Archetypes: Why Wizardry Triumphed Over Mythology

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone [marketed that way everywhere but in the States and India] was released in 2001. Nine years later Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, the first film adaptation of Rick Riordan’s series of young adult novels, hit the big screen. One went on to spawn a sequel the following year, while the other is taking as long as three. One of the reasons for this, I think, lies in the studio’s portrayals of the characters in their respective works.

I’m not going to go into a great deal about the Harry Potter franchise. The first book was released in 1997, and since then the films have swept up Western culture [and others] up into a wonderful world of witchcraft and wizardry. This post is written under the assumption that you have at least some familiarity with the works.

I opted for an image of them really young, since the majority appear to be just shots of good-looking young people staring somewhat broodily at the camera.

At their foundation, Rowling’s novels are built on a trio. Harry Potter is the chosen one, the courageous hero, the primary protagonist. Second is Ron Weasley, redhead, best friend, basically a wimp [for a lot of the series]. Last, but certainly not least, is Hermione Granger, the girl, the genius, the level-headed one. Clearly this is a team with some kind of equilibrium to it and a formula that works, and this is definitely evidenced in Riordan’s pentalogy.

The Lightning Thief, the book the film was based on, stars Percy Jackson, son of Poseidon, talented swordsman, fearless warrior, and new to being a halfblood. Second is his best friend, Grover Underwood, a satyr, kind of a cowardly kid [goat jokes, everyone]. Topping this all off is Annabeth Chase, Athena’s daughter, meaning that she’s definitely got the wisdom thing going on. Clearly if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Before you go to assuming that Riordan’s books are a cheap knock-off, don’t; the series is a well-written take on both Greek mythology and the young adult genre as a whole.

From left to right: Grover, Percy, and Annabeth.

The problem isn’t that the characters appear to mirror those in the Harry Potter books. If anything, this is a strength of sorts, as they’re both familiar and effective. The issue is that the film adaptation of the novel takes these archetypes and throws them out the window. The result is this: three badasses.

In Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, Percy, Grover, and Annabeth are all depicted as being a) brave, and b) proficient at fighting, making them essentially slightly different facets of the same archetype. Yes, Annabeth is the one knows more about mythology and magic, et cetera, but she still wields a sword along with the best of them, transforming her from a cold, sharp-tongued girl to an athletic tomboy.

The irony is that Chris Columbus directed both films [as well as Academy Award winning The Help], choosing to faithfully adapt one and tailor the other for a specific audience, going so far as to significantly age the characters. Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief has all the signs of a movie meant to catch the world’s attention with action, special effects, and good-looking teenagers. Three traditionally heroic characters are three times as entertaining, or at least that’s what a certain type of logic would dictate.

The film did well regardless, pulling in $225 million and with the sequel supposedly [I reserve the right to express some doubts] dropping sometime next year. Fans of the book, however, are hoping that Sea of Monsters is a much better installment than the first. Full character rewrites are rare, so the best they can expect is a film that respects the narrative of the series, and strives to fit their characters into that.

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One response to “Archetypes: Why Wizardry Triumphed Over Mythology

  1. Pingback: Tropes, Archetypes, and Why Original Creative Writing Is Like A Game of Rock, Paper, Scissors | Culture War Reporters

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