Saturday, March 6, 2010

Ye Gods!

I saw the first Percy Jackson movie with my daughter today (she's a big fan, and we've been reading the books together, having completed the Harry Potter series last year). For those who haven't heard of it, the conceit behind the Percy Jackson series is that the gods of Olympus are very much alive and well; they've settled in America (for some reason having to do with their affinity for freedom or world dominance or something like that); and they've continued to parent half-blood children like young Percy, son of Poseidon and a mortal woman. In the first book, The Lightning Thief, Percy discovers his lineage and embarks on a quest to find the lightning bolt Zeus believes he's stolen. If he doesn't return it to Zeus by the summer solstice, immortal warfare will ensue and the world as we know it will probably cease to exist.

The book isn't bad, rather hip and arch and American, very unlike the stolidly British HP series. The author, Rick Riordan, is a somewhat better stylist than J. K. Rowling; he says more with less. And Percy, though he's essentially a demigod version of Harry--an abandoned, lonely child who discovers he's actually the most important person in an alternative world he hadn't known existed--is an appealing character, his pre-teen angst convincingly drawn and his quest to find his godly father and vanished mother emotionally resonant.

The movie wasn't half bad either--my daughter scored it a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10, and that's about where I'd have put it too--though of course it weeded out much of the interesting plot and character development in favor of strangely unconvincing CG monsters and frenetic car chases. Its deepest problem was that there was no real sense of urgency to Percy's quest; though we were told that divine warfare would decimate the planet, the most the movie could muster to suggest this threat was a bizarre storm cloud that slowly expanded till it covered most of North America. Maybe it's just me, but big dark computer-generated clouds don't exactly give me the heebie-jeebies.

Watching that cloud, though, I did wonder why the Olympian gods are back this year--not only in The Lightning Thief but in the soon-to-be-released remake of the 1981 Ray Harryhausen classic Clash of the Titans. Maybe it's no more than the perpetual fascination of these timeless myths, which I devoured as hungrily as any child from age 7 to 14. Or maybe it's our equally perpetual need for otherworldly explanations to the troubles of our own time; maybe that looming stormcloud signifies our anxieties concerning such god-sized problems as the economic crash, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the collapse of our planet's climate.

Fantasy, as I've argued in other posts, points both toward and away from the cultural crises of its time; it tells us what we're worried about while simultaneously telling us there's no need to worry. So instead of global warming we get warring godheads. Instead of war in this world we get the war of the worlds. Instead of corporate thieves we get lightning thieves. It's a handy trick; it may even be a necessary one. Who can face the realities of life without a little fantasy? Who can resist calling on the gods, beseeching their aid, cursing them for our fate?

In the myth of Perseus, the hero defeats Medusa by watching her reflection in his shield, thus avoiding direct contact with her petrifying gaze. Fantasy is like that: it shows us the horrors of the real world as if in a mirror, and in so doing places us at a safe distance from them. But in doing so, of course, it also gets them backward.

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