Casting Controversy: Percy Jackson and the Olympians

Emma Colaco, Reporter

When the Disney+ adaption for the beloved middle-grade series Percy Jackson and the Olympians became official, the buzz of excitement and concern for production and casting spread like wildfire across social media. Countless teens who are now present on those platforms have grown up with this series, and many were excited to see their favorite comfort characters come to life for a new generation of viewers.

On May 5, 2022, Rick Riordan, the author, released the adaptation’s casting of the three main characters. Shortly after, this trio of actors took the spotlight when the main protagonist’s love interest, Annabeth Chase, was cast as Leah Sava Jeffries. Riordan had praised her embodiment of the snarky and intelligent character known as “wise girl” to main character Percy’s “seaweed brain.”

Fans of the series were stunned and community debates rose quickly out of both hatred, love, and general shock at the new casting, spurring rapid and aggressive controversy on online platforms. 

Why? Leah Sava Jeffries, a young Black actress, would play Annabeth, a character previously written as white and blonde. 

Although many expressed their love for seeing these characters truly come to life, there were even more troubled fans. Popular arguments arose from the belief that the casting of Annabeth as Black was for Disney’s “diversity points.” Others argued the media was unnecessarily changing vital parts of original characters because of pressure to include racial representation on screen. 

On April 27, 2021, more than a year prior to this casting, Rick Riordan had posted a ‘Preliminary Casting Call for Percy Jackson’, specifically stating that Percy, the hilarious, lovable protagonist, would not be subject to a specific ethnicity during casting. Instead, Disney would focus on finding the best embodiment of him and the rest of the cast. 

Riordan released a statement five days after the casting announcement in response to the drastic hate against actress Jeffries. To summarize, he began with a disclaimer that he speaks for only himself, and not for Disney or anyone else. Relaying how gracious the love for the casting has been, especially with having a new image and “role model” for younger girls, he continued to explain how incredibly unfair and intolerable it was to harass this minor online without any reasons other than racial basis.  

Throughout his response, he called out many of the excuses for the commotion against Leah. Refuting the frustration many felt towards a white character being portrayed by a Black actor, Riordan brought to light how many refuse to see her acting talents past judgments based on race and many had then decided diversity was the reason for her casting. The colorism that exists in our society is reflected by the undeniable harassment put onto a young Black girl for being accepted into a role she was deemed a perfect match for. 

Riordan posted, “The core message of Percy Jackson has always been that difference is strength. You should never judge someone by how well they fit your preconceived notions. That neurodivergent kid who has failed out of six schools, for instance [Percy], may well be the son of Poseidon. Anyone can be a hero.” 

As an Asian American woman severely underrepresented in the media, never seeing myself in the girls who were seen as pretty and worthy of being the protagonist was harsh, and still stings. Even now, my favorite characters tend to be South Asian women who look and behave similarly to me. Amongst people of color and other marginalized groups, seeing beauty and happiness represented through only one perspective is discouraging, especially at a young age when doubt follows these individuals later in life. 

Considering this, it is normal to feel as if change to characters in book-to-movie adaptations, like Annabeth, is unnecessary. Still, the intense prejudice and backlash from a community through social media towards a real, living young woman is unacceptable. 

“Watch the show or don’t. That’s your call. But this will be an adaptation that I am proud of, and which fully honors the spirit of Percy Jackson and the Olympians, taking the bedtime story I told my son twenty years ago to make him feel better about being neurodivergent, and improving on it so that kids all over the world can continue to see themselves as heroes at Camp Half-Blood.” — Rick Riordan