Cinematic Chat: the Percy Jackson adaptation and representation

by Elsa Ying (’23) | November 18, 2020

Art by Katherine Winton (’25)

In March 2021, author Rick Riordan announced the search for directors and a cast for a television adaptation of his beloved fantasy series Percy Jackson and the Olympians. Set to air on Disney+ in early 2024, the series was greenlit in January 2022, followed quickly by casting announcements for its main three characters—Percy Jackson, a twelve-year-old boy who discovers his father is the Greek god Poseidon; Annabeth Chase, daughter of the Greek goddess Athena; and Grover the satyr (a mythological half-goat, half-man). All three main characters were canonically White in the books, with Annabeth specifically being known for her blonde hair and gray eyes. Percy would be played by Walker Scobell, Annabeth by Leah Sava Jeffries, and Grover by Aryan Simhadri.

News of Jeffries’s casting was met with intense online criticism and backlash, due to Jeffries being Black. Despite the fact that Simhadri was South Asian and portraying a White character as well, fans focused on Jeffries because they believed her appearance erased Annabeth’s blondeness, which they perceived as an integral part of her character. One main point that was consistently brought up was a conversation in Riordan’s spinoff series, Heroes of Olympus, wherein Annabeth talks about not being taken seriously due to being perceived as a “dumb blonde.” Thus, many believed that by casting Annabeth as Black, Annabeth lost her complexity and internal struggle.

Other fans argued that Annabeth could be simultaneously blonde and Black. Furthermore, fans of color in particular emphasized how Annabeth’s journey of fighting to be heard and respected despite her physical appearance mirrored many experiences of women of color, who have also been historically ignored or dismissed. Annabeth being portrayed by a Black girl was an opportunity to bring another layer of depth to the character that Riordan, as a White man in the early 2000s, most likely could not have expressed properly.

Both Riordan and his wife publicly condemned the criticisms that Jeffries faced, even revealing that prior to confirming Jeffries for the role, they had discussed the potential reactions and warned Jeffries of the inevitable online hate, especially considering she was only twelve at the time of the announcement. Sending massive amounts of backlash to a twelve-year-old girl for a decision made by directors and producers is never acceptable, but the fact that it arose over a character’s hair color showed how racial representation in adaptations is still heavily contested.

While it is valid for fans to hope for an adaptation as true to their favorite novels as possible, especially considering the series’ unpopular movie adaptations from the early 2010s, it is also important to acknowledge what adding representation can mean for fans and actors of color. The Percy Jackson book series was initially published in 2005, a time with far less racial diversity and representation in media overall. Because the adaptation is being produced now, there can and should be a higher standard and expectation for diversity in television. An increased opportunity for actors of color to gain roles. as well as the ability for fans (old and new) of color to see themselves represented on screen, should not be passed up in favor of adhering to a text written nearly two decades ago.

Jeffries’s casting doesn’t change anything besides superficial appearances of Annabeth’s character; in fact, it adds nuance to Annabeth’s struggles because it can dive deeper into societal issues like misogyny and racism that would contribute to the same inner conflict and character development Annabeth has. Furthermore, many fans of color had already related to book Annabeth’s struggle to be respected and numerous other aspects of her character, like her determination and quick wit. It thus stands to reason that all fans can still connect with a Black Annabeth because all the other facets of her personality and her key internal conflict are unaffected by her race.

At the end of the day, the television adaptation is not intended just for book fans but also for a new generation of youth. It is important to recognize that while older fans will certainly make up a sizeable portion of the audience, the show is separate from the book and should be respected as its own piece of media with new interpretations and opportunities to draw in young fans and captivate them, just as the books did so many years ago.

Categories: Column, Entertainment

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