Riordan vs. Luhrmann

My daughter has read all (or perhaps all but the very latest) of Rick Riordan’s books that’re based loosely on various popular mythologies, and my son has by now read most of them. Among these are the books popularized in recent years in the form of movies pertaining to the central Percy Jackson character.

I’ve avoided reading more than brief snippets of the books, but my son’s 3rd-grade teacher recently asked if I’d be willing to give a Riordan mythology book a read to determine whether or not it’d be suitable to lend to 3rd-graders. Since this one — titled Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods — purports to be a more faithful retelling of the myths, she was worried that some of the content might be a little mature.

I cheerfully agreed to give it a try. It’s not a small book, and I got through about 100 pages before crying uncle. It’s about what I expected in terms of whether or not it’s appropriate for 3rd graders. There are some mature-ish topics mostly sort of danced around in a way that’s probably better for tweens than for the younger set but that I wouldn’t personally object to my son’s reading.

More troubling to me than these topics, which Riordan mostly handles in a reasonably oblique way, are instances of sexist language and attitudes. Of course, we’re reading about ancient Greek mythology here, and Zeus for example wasn’t exactly leading the march for women’s rights, so I don’t suppose I expected a feminist presentation of the old material. But Riordan has Percy as narrator use phrases like “chick magnet” and “had to get with her” and “screaming like little girls” and (with respect to women, though here inhabiting some god or another’s voice if I recall correctly) “take what you want,” and I feel like he could have offered the story in a voice like Percy’s without falling back to these sorts attitudes and language. In the summary I wrote for the teacher, I acknowledged that I was much more bothered by these slips than by Uranus jokes (which I find funny) and references to sex, murder, incest, etc.

I also just really hated the voice. The gimmick of the book is that Percy has been asked to tell what he knows about the old myths, so Riordan retells the myths in an annoying, sort of too-cool teenager voice that strikes me as not merely annoying but also inauthentic. I think it’s a condescending approach. Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote to the teacher about it:

My main objection to the book honestly is that it foregrounds Percy’s frankly sort of annoying voice and all but resorts to the use of text speak and emoji to strike a tone that ultimately deflates the richness of the stories being told. I wouldn’t forbid my kids to read this, but I’d probably give them a disclaimer that it’s a pretty low-calorie read and try to offset it with something more enriching and less condescending.

As I characterize the book in that way, I find myself thinking of Baz Luhrmann’s old Romeo and Juliet movie from the ’90s. It did something similar, providing a more modern and stylized take on the original play so that it was more thrilling and accessible than, say, the old Zeffirelli movie of the play or the text itself. And, well, I actually liked Luhrmann’s version a lot (I’m sure it had nothing to do with sort of a crush I had on Claire Danes at the time). So what’s the difference between what Luhrmann did then and what Riordan has done here? I’m not really sure. Luhrmann at least preserved most of the original text of the play, I suppose, so that the foregrounding of his stylistic choices was at least more firmly rooted in some of the original aesthetics and story structure. Maybe it’s that for all that Luhrmann modernized and stylized the play, he didn’t dumb it down, and I feel like Riordan dumbs things down a lot and sort of makes the dumbing down almost the primary focus. I’m not a fan of condescending to kids, and while I think it’s fair to help ease them into difficult things, I think there are better ways to do so than what Riordan does. Or maybe it’s that Luhrmann added actual beauty to the original whereas Riordan here adds only personality (and personality that I find annoying), so that it is strictly derivative and not meaningfully additive.

Later, I felt like my assessment had come off as kind of snobbish and had sort of missed the point, since the teacher was probably looking more for an assessment of appropriateness than for a more formal aesthetic or literary critique, so I talked to my kids about Riordan’s books and sent along another email, excerpted as follows:

As I reread my last note, I cringe at the realization of how pompous it comes off. I thought I’d back down from my snobbish attitude about it and see what my kids thought about Riordan compared to some other books like the Harry Potter series and books by Kate DiCamillo (e.g. Despereaux).

My daughter (11 years old) reports that Harry Potter is on a tier well above what Riordan writes, though she likes Riordan quite a lot because she finds him funny and finds the characters relatable (which is after all what Riordan’s going for, especially in this book).

Finn says that Riordan’s books are super mega awesome and that the Harry Potter series is super mega awesome and a half, which to him means just a little better (his grasp of fractions being apparently tenuous). Finn’s down on DiCamillo, though he forgets that he liked several of her books quite a lot when we read them to him a couple of years ago (my daughter rates DiCamillo’s books somewhat closer to Rowling’s books than to Riordan’s).

So, the children have spoken. Riordan’s aim seems to be to make mythology relatable to children, and it seems that he’s a success. I find what I’ve read of the books (bits and pieces mostly) annoying in the way, I suppose, that old people often find the younger set’s things annoying. Get off my lawn, etc.

Confronted with a child choosing between Rowling and Riordan, I would surely point the child toward Rowling, who I think writes in a less condescending and more sophisticated way, but I’d like to back away from my earlier assessment that I’d urge Riordan only to a child who otherwise wouldn’t read anything.

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