Creators of ‘Percy Jackson,’ ‘Avatar’ and More Series Explain Why Adapting YA Books Is Uniquely Challenging: ‘The Bar is Different’    (2024)

Adapting or modernizing a beloved property can be a thrilling experience, a way to expand a world or characters while also maybe surprising and delighting audiences with a plot twist or two. That is, unless the original project is geared toward young adults who grew up with (or who are still reading or watching) the first iteration, and are so devoted to that version that they believe everything that happens there to be canon.

“When you are adapting a children’s book, I do think that the bar is different,” says Rick Riordan, who with Jonathan E. Steinberg, adapted his fantasy book series “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” for Disney+. “Children, especially young readers, love to embrace the story and see themselves in it … [As a creator] it’s wonderful to see, and it’s a great problem to have. But they do expect a level of authenticity. They want to see the story brought to life, not changed.”

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The plot of the first season of “Olympians,” which Disney+ is submitting as a contender for the Children’s & Family Emmys, is a more detailed version of what happens in Riordan’s first book of the series. Walker Scobell plays the titular tween, an awkward kid who never really fit in at school and soon discovers that he’s a demigod (his dad is Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, portrayed here by “Black Sails” alum Toby Stephens).

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It wasn’t just the “Percy Jackson” fans who were protective of the material. Riordan, a former educator, concocted this series’ world from bedtime stories he made up for his son, Haley, who has ADHD and dyslexia. Steinberg says he told the author that this collaboration was tantamount to a surgeon agreeing to operate on his own kid.

They also had to think about how the world has changed since Riordan’s books were first published, beginning in 2005. Color-blind casting was instituted to throw a wider net for talent, and story points were added to answer questions some readers have had, such as what Percy’s life was like before he learned of his divine status.

In addition, there was the delicate matter of how, and when, to show Percy’s mental disorders, like what his homework would look like or what he’d do if left to his own devices in the woods. Now an adult with a master’s degree in education with a specialty in learning differences, Haley Riordan became what his dad describes as their “personal in-house expert” for the “best practices for [presenting] learning differences.”

But how do you show a kid who happens to have a learning disability and superpowers without making his disorder itself the superhuman talent?

“It was about trying to apply a really rigorous amount of scrutiny to every moment as we were meeting, to make sure that it felt both honest to him — to the character — and also was built with an awareness of what a person whose head is wired that way would experience,” Steinberg says.

Creators of ‘Percy Jackson,’ ‘Avatar’ and More Series Explain Why Adapting YA Books Is Uniquely Challenging: ‘The Bar is Different’ (3)

Albert Kim, the showrunner for the first season of Netflix’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” had to take things a step further: create a live-action adult series from an animated series that is inspired by the mysticism surrounding Chinese martial arts. He compares it to building a new puzzle out of an old one.

“Take the original and break it all down, and then decide which pieces were the most important, which were the ones that especially the young fans were going to remember and definitely want to see and put those into the new picture that you are creating,” Kim says. “Now, that said… there are certain things that probably weren’t going to work in a live-action show. A lot of the humor, which tended to be more juvenile or more specific to the original animated medium, didn’t translate that well.”

He says fan favorites from the animated show, including a guy who foams at the mouth, “would have been more like an Easter egg rather than an essential plot point for the story” this time around. Kim says he and his team also had “a tightrope we had to walk” regarding how gruesome or evil they could show this world, so as to not scare off new audiences while also appeasing older ones. They opted to show a genocide happening because he says it “set the stakes for the whole world” versus the first show, which just alluded to it

Some dialogue, such as lines spoken by Ian Ousley’s sardonic Sokka, wasn’t intentionally meant to make this character more progressive than his animated predecessor. Rather, Kim says, it was simply that you can be “a little more direct in a 30-minute cartoon, [and] sometimes characters, basically, just said things out loud — exactly what they were feeling or what they believe.”

“For a live-action show, we wanted to play things a little more subtly,” he explains.

Creators of ‘Percy Jackson,’ ‘Avatar’ and More Series Explain Why Adapting YA Books Is Uniquely Challenging: ‘The Bar is Different’ (4)

Like “Percy Jackson’s” Riordan, “The Summer I Turned Pretty” creator Jenny Han found herself overseeing a show based on her own work. Her Prime Video series is two seasons into an adaptation of her bestselling young adult romance about the life and loves of 16-year-old Isabel “Belly” Conklin (portrayed by Lola Tung). But the series is not a verbatim retelling.

“The story’s about Belly coming of age and really being with her through these important moments in her life,” Han says. But, she adds, because the book is told in first person and the show is not, “I think it’s about all of the characters coming of age.”

These include characters like Rain Spencer’s seemingly boy-crazy Taylor Madison Jewel, a teenager who may seem shallow from just one point of view but who Han says is “complicated” and fun to write because she enjoys “characters that can rub people the wrong way.”

It also meant finding ways to up the drama, such as shifting when (and how) Belly begins to have a sexual relationship, a decision that Han says Prime Video didn’t pressure her to make.

“My first priority is always telling a story that feels really truthful and genuine and sincere and keeping to that realism,” she says. She’s also pragmatic that there’s no way she can appease all her readers. When fans ask why the series strays from the books, she tells them that “best version of this is the version you produce on your own” in your head where “you made the costumes and you cast parts.”

“This is just my version that I’m bringing to life,” she says. “But everyone still has the experience they had as they read the books, and they’ll always have that.”

Creators of ‘Percy Jackson,’ ‘Avatar’ and More Series Explain Why Adapting YA Books Is Uniquely Challenging: ‘The Bar is Different’    (2024)
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