Writer Joe Tracz on Percy Jackson Season 1, Being a Fan, and Adapting the Same Story Twice (2024)

Writer Joe Tracz on Percy Jackson Season 1, Being a Fan, and Adapting the Same Story Twice (1)

Following years of development and demand from readers, a new adaptation of the first book of Percy Jackson and the Olympians is now available in its entirety. Across eight episodes, the first season of the Disney+ show has adapted The Lightning Thief for television, with full involvement and participation from author Rick Riordan. A second season, an adaptation of the book The Sea of Monsters, is now on its way as well.

Joe Tracz is a writer who is no stranger to the world of Percy Jackson. Not only did he write the book for The Lightning Thief musical (which played on Broadway in late 2019), he was also part of the writers room for the show, penning episodes 104 and 106. Previously, he worked as a writer for the Netflix adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Following the finale of Season 1, Paste talked with Tracz about his background, different approaches to this material, and being involved with fandom.

Note: The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Writer Joe Tracz on Percy Jackson Season 1, Being a Fan, and Adapting the Same Story Twice (2)

Paste Magazine: Before you wrote the musical or wrote on the TV series, what was your initial introduction to Percy Jackson and the fan base?

Joe Tracz: I was a fan of the books in the same way that I was a fan of Lemony Snicket. I worked in the middle grade section of a bookstore after I graduated from college and I fell in love with them both because I’m always drawn towards stories of young people finding a place in the world. For someone in their early 20s looking at “How do I find my way in the world?”, that felt like a really potent metaphor.

Paste: What is it like to make something that people are watching but also be a fan at the same time?

Tracz: It is hard because with both Lemony Snicket and Percy Jackson, I went on fan forums and Tumblr long before I was working on the shows. When you love a book series, you want to see what other people are saying about it. It was always hard to make sure you’re drawing that line. You’re a fan, but you’re also a writer, and you have to sort of figure out how to juggle those two things. But I do think that, because my writing does come from a place of fandom, I feel like I have an understanding of why people respond so passionately to these series, because I respond that way, too.

Paste: The musicals you have worked on, The Lightning Thief and Be More Chill, were both in development around the same time. What was it like to juggle these two big musicals at the same time?

Tracz: Neither of them started off as big musicals. For The Lightning Thief, we did it as an hour-long show for TheatreWorks, USA, who has the mission of bringing Broadway-quality theater to places that aren’t normally getting exposed. The head of TheatreWorks had managed to finagle just the rights for a one-hour educational stage show version and I, who loved the book so much, jumped at the chance to adapt it. But I also never thought that I was writing something that would be done anywhere, except maybe some schools across the country. The idea of going to Off-Broadway and Broadway was so far from my mind when I started writing the show.

Paste: There is such a big fan base for The Lightning Thief so the fact that it got the attention of the fans and then went to Broadway is such a great story.

Tracz: Both Be More Chill and Lightning Thief really got to Broadway from the strength of the fans. When we originally were doing the one-hour version of The Lighting Thief, we didn’t even have permission to do the show in New York, much less as a professional, two-hour production. It really was the fact that when the show started touring, fans responded to it. The fans really rallied behind the show to the point where we were able to get permission from Rick [Riordan] and Disney to be able to do the show in New York, and then expand it to be a two-hour long, two-act show that we ended up getting to do on Broadway.

Paste: How did you approach adapting a single book that is meant to be one installment in a series to a complete story as a musical?

Tracz: It was not just a challenge of how to adapt this book, but how to give it an ending. Look, at the end of The Lightning Thief, spoiler alert: the bad guy gets away. So it really was about finding an emotional place to end that story. One of the changes we made for the musical, we ended up doing in the TV show as well. Instead of Percy being the only one who hears Luke’s plan and finds out that he is the Lightning Thief, Annabeth hears it too and, in the show, the entire camp shows up and ends up hearing it. Hearing somebody voice these unspoken thoughts that maybe they’ve all had: “Maybe our parents aren’t so great. Maybe we do need to rise up and claim our own place in the world.” So we tweaked the ending of the book a little bit to feel like, even though there’s not a real narrative ending, there’s an emotional one.

Paste: Did working on the same source material previously make it easy or more difficult to then adapt it in a different medium?

Tracz: I will say, the mediums are so different. I probably went into the room thinking “I’ve adapted this before, I have some sense of how things work and how they don’t.” In the musical, Rob Rokicki (the composer), and I were the driving creative forces. In the show, I was a part of the writers room, and so I was there to honor the vision of Jon Steinberg and Dan Shotz, who were our amazing showrunners. I remember my first meeting with them when they talked about some of the things they’d been thinking of doing for the series. They talked about the parallels between Medusa and Sally, how they’re both women who have a history with Poseidon. I heard that and I was like “Wow, I’ve been adapting this book for 10 years now and that was an insight that never occurred to me.”

Paste: Speaking of the writers room, what did that look like?

Tracz: Jon and Rick wrote the first two episodes, and that first one actually was written before the writers room was assembled. So we were able to enter the room and look at that first episode as our template for our TV adaptation. The journey itself is so episodic and the breakdown of plot came pretty naturally. I think what the room was really looking to do is [figure out] how to make those things feel like a unit of emotion as well, so that each episode doesn’t just feel like you’re checking off a box for a chapter in the book, but also giving a unique emotional journey that develops a different part of Percy and his world. The Medusa episode, for example, is our teamwork episode. It’s the first time when Grover and Percy and Annabeth are forced to work together. And of course they don’t trust each other yet, but then there’s this villain who can only be defeated by the three of them working together. So that was an episode where they fight Medusa, but we’re also telling the story of how Percy, Grover, and Annabeth became the trio.

Paste: The dialogue is a highlight of the series. How do you approach balancing the humor and authenticity, while also relaying exposition and background about this complicated world?

Tracz: I gotta say, we got so lucky with casting. With a musical, we didn’t have to think about writing for kids because we knew that (because of child labor laws), it would always be adult actors playing. But the thrill of the TV show was getting the cast kids who could play the ages of those characters. Jon and Dan made the brave choice to not cut away to adults having their separate scenes. So even when we do leave Percy’s point of view, like we do in [Episode 5], we’re following Grover with Aries. It’s still driven by a 12 year old actor. The show would not have worked if we hadn’t found kids as good as Walker [Scobell], Leah [Sava Jeffries], and Aryan [Simhadri].

Paste: Can you talk about the decision to make Percy afraid of water in the flashback in Episode 4?

Tracz: We knew we wanted to end the episode with the moment he discovered he could breathe underwater. We also were always looking for ways to keep Sally present in the story because she’s taken by the Minotaur in the first episode, and yet saving her is Percy’s primary motivation. The idea of a flashback was one that we had early on and then the stroke of inspiration was the idea that the flashback would be her teaching him to swim and we could bracket the episode with two times where Percy is telling his mom “just breathe,” and then in the end is Nereid, who speaks in a voice that reminds him of his own mother telling him that same advice.

I will say that Rick pitched something that we thought was really fun that didn’t end up in the show itself. At one point in the script, that flashback also folded in how Sally met [Percy’s stepfather] Gabe. We had this idea that Gabe might be the kind of guy who would hang out around community pools to hit on the moms. So Gabe is there and Sally is listening to him doing his pickup spiel to some poor, unsuspecting single lady, and kind of rolling her eyes. I think in the spirit of the emotion of flashback, Gabe got cut from that. But in my head, because Rick said it, it’s canon [Laughs].

Paste: Another big change in Episode 6 was that they stayed too long at the Casino and the Summer Solstice passed. What was the motivation for that change?

Tracz: Percy Jackson is, as he says himself in my favorite line from the books, that he’s impertinent. He doesn’t do what he’s told. So Percy doesn’t finish the quest because he’s told to. In fact, he does it despite being told not to because he has a sense of what needs to be done that flies in the face of what the authority figures around him want him to do.

Paste: How does your experience on Percy Jackson compare with other literary adaptations you have worked on such as A Series of Unfortunate Events?

Tracz: For Lemony Snicket, we had the benefit of it being in the pre-COVID world. That writers room took place around Daniel Handler’s dining room in San Francisco. In this, our room was a Zoom Room because it was post-COVID. That said, the benefit of having Rick be a part of the room was incredible. When I was writing the musical, he was not a part of that process. He had been pretty clear, at that point while he was still writing the Percy Jackson books, that it’s hard to write that character when you have an actor’s voice in your head. But for the TV show, this is him and Becky and they were in the writers room every day pitching ideas much like with Daniel Handler.

Paste: Now that the whole season has been released, do you have a favorite moment from Season 1 you want to talk about?

Tracz: I love the final episode so much. One of my favorite parts of The Lightning Thief is to play the parallels between Percy and Luke. What’s so cool about this series is you have the protagonist and antagonist who, on paper, believe a lot of the same things. They both feel that the system is unfair and that their parents have broken the world and it’s time for a new generation to come in. It’s just they’re going about them in entirely different ways. Percy will never hurt people to achieve that goal whereas Luke is so damaged that he doesn’t care who he hurts. I think that the performances between Walker and Charlie [Bushnell] in that final scene is one of my favorite moments in the series. These two broken boys having it out in the dark woods away from camp, having this sword fight that’s also a philosophical battle. That, to me, is where the series shows how special and smart it is.

Paste: It sounds like the writers room is making some progress on scripts for Sea of Monsters. Is there anything you can tell us about Season 2?

Tracz: In the long wait time, I actually joined another show, which I can’t talk about yet. But I know they’ve been working! Since I’m not on the second season, I will continue to be the person who adapts not the Percy Jackson series, but The Lightning Thief [Laughs].

Josh Sharpe is the current TV intern at Paste. His other bylines include TheaterMania, Collider, and The DisInsider. To hear about his thoughts about film, TV, and musical theatre, follow him @josh_sharpe22 on all socials.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow@Paste_TV.

Writer Joe Tracz on Percy Jackson Season 1, Being a Fan, and Adapting the Same Story Twice (2024)
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