Mythologizing Identity: The Lightning Thief

by David Ryan

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief is based on Rick Riordan’s first Percy Jackson novel, one of my ten-year old son’s favorites. Because this series is aimed primarily at boys (Perseus is 12 years old in the first book), Riordan places aspects of classical mythology rather than philosophy at the thematic center. This context for approaching classicism allows young readers to expand their mythological references and strengthen their literary footing in their climb toward the more complicated (and bloodier) primary sources.

As the film opens, a teenage Percy (Logan Lerman) lives an ordinary life fret with personal problems, and his awakening to his true identity begins with a false accusation: someone has stolen Zeus’s lightning bolt, and Zeus (Sean Bean) accuses Percy, an offspring of Poseidon. To compel Percy to return the weapon, Hades, Zeus’s brother, kidnaps Percy’s mortal mom and imprisons her in his House of Hades, so the innocent yet angry Percy strikes out to save her. Though there are plenty of conflicts along the way, his quest is really a search for cognition, one in which he discovers his talents, his purpose, his identity.

In Chris Columbus and Craig Titley’s adaptation, the story focuses on Percy’s growing awareness about the nature of his true identity, for, in the first part of the film, Percy’s familial relations are limited and his social imagination is stunted because, in Jose Ortega y Gasset’s famous phrase, he has been emptied of his history. These incongruities, however, begin to cohere as he labors to understand the gravity of his inheritance.

Overall, the film creates enough interesting situations involving some antiquated villains, and there is one mesmerizing scene when Percy and his friends travel to the underworld, but the film’s most interesting argument contends that society undermines the young because they lack a good understanding of history; this problem isn’t their fault, however, for adults have formulated history as a subject fit for mass consumption (class lectures, museums, etc.) rather than developing it as organic matter for individual learning.

Thankfully, the film’s attitude toward historical relevance veers from the more recent youth-targeted films that argue that the importance of history is best understood when one interacts with artifacts and replicas (the Night at the Museum films). Rather, the Lightning Thief’s tenor is more inspired because it views history as material essential for the development of the self. This argument is not based on democratic beliefs, however, for Percy and his demi-god relatives are the only ones who understand this concept. Nevertheless, Percy’s apotheosis can inspire young minds to explore older narratives to understand their inherited cultures and, perhaps, help them realize that they, too, have an organic rather than an artificial relationship with history.

What is valuable about a mythologizer like Riordan is that his preoccupation with history can help young minds contextualize older narratives–particularly narratives that teach argument. Here, he argues that young people can find personal connections to heroic stories because these narratives contain fundamental ideas about identity. For the Lightning Thief, heroic identities are important because they help form the moral basis of courage, and the film underscores the relationship between individual revelation and public values as a means of improving personal relationships, sustaining stronger societies, and, just as important, helping younger audiences render judgments about right and wrong.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief
20th Century Fox
Rated PG
Directed by Chris Columbus
Screenplay by Craig Titley
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