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I don’t know about you, but I am over being over YA film adaptations. If you’ve never heard of the phenomenon (if so, I’m very honored that you are reading this, but why are you, exactly?), “YA” is the brisk terminology for Young Adult literature, and more and more known for the sleekly produced movie adaptations of these novels. A bit of a blanket term, too, as everything from the squeaky clean opening novels of the Harry Potter saga to the gore-soaked pages of Charlie Higson’s The Enemy series is all considered to be for young adults. Our basic human need to compartmentalize every aspect of our culture is a discussion for another day, however.
Today, we’re talking The Maze Runner, the latest movie adaptation from a popular series of novels aimed at the teen sect. Most people are probably priming their groans at that last sentence, but I am here to turn that groan into a vague head nod of tangential approval (I’ll also take shrugs, eyebrow raises, and, at the very least, a very determined head scratch of interest).
Because, see, I love movies that are made from books. It’s highly serendipitous for me, because all the books I was falling in love with during my big book binge of the late high school/early college years are being made into great, faithful movies. The Hunger Games, The Perks of Being A Wallflower, I don’t even detest the Percy Jackson flicks, though they could be better, I thought the final act of I Am Number Four was ridiculously entertaining, hell I even dug that City of Ember adaptation no one talks about anymore. “What about City Of Bones”, you ask? Ehh, not so much. But I enjoy them for what they are: living, moving personifications of a story I could only act out in my head. So I’m the perfect guy to explain to you why you should not only go see The Maze Runner, but take the time out of your week and devour the book beforehand.
First off, let me get one thing out of the way: I haven’t seen the movie. I’ll be doing the review when it opens, so check back this weekend for that. This article isn’t for me to hype a movie that isn’t out yet with nothing to back it up but a two minute trailer. I’m here to explain why I think the novel could lead to a really interesting and fascinating addition to the YA film adaptation landscape. Which brings me to my first point: this is not The Hunger Games. I think the best measurement of success in any medium is for someone to use your work as a control group: “Well, you see, it’s like The Hunger Games, but…” (I guess being a game mode in Minecraft works, too).
It’s too easy to sweep the recent influx of vaguely survival driven stories about young people in the future into that category. Fight it; resist the urge. Some things are too special to be labeled. The Maze Runner is a story about a group of young kids who find themselves trapped inside the eponymous maze, can’t remember their previous lives, have no clue who put them there, and don’t know how to get out. “Young people die tragically” is about the only portion on the Venn diagram that the two franchises would intersect.
Second: it’s less about who the kids are, and more about why they are there. In a lot of ways, reading the book actually reminded me of Lost, but it’s also the complete antithesis to that show. It’s about all these disparate and conflicting personalities finding themselves stranded in an alien place, watching them clash, come together, and clash again, whilst also slowly stringing along an overarching mystery dealing with themes and problems more far reaching than you initially come to expect. Which is great since the characters, besides a few standouts, are really only there to point out all the insanity brewing around them.
Then you get to the end and James Dashner (the author) actually explains pretty much everything that is questioned in the first book, easily diverging from Lost‘s unspoken pledge to be as vague as possible as much of the time. There’s very slim room left for the imagination here. Leaving little to no answers worked for Lost (in my opinion) because that show had six years to earn its vagueness. A three-hundred page book had damn well better knock down all the story threads it set up a few hundred pages ago. And this one does.
I’ll try to write this with as little hyperbole as possible: that first book in the trilogy is one of the singularly greatest self-contained story arcs I’ve encountered in any medium. It’s fun, it’s scary, it’s exciting, it’s sad, it’s literally impossible to know where it’s going next, and it’s got that rough-around-the-edges endearment going for it. If the movie can infuse the same sense of ever-present dread and buoyant curiosity it could really stand out amongst the crowded imitators of the genre.
Speaking of genre, my third point concerns the premise’s sheer originality. Sure it’s YA and a mystery and an action story. But I’d be hard pressed for anyone to describe a movie where a group of teenagers are trapped in a gigantic maze and are forced to solve its secrets whilst fighting off hideous flesh-and-machine creatures that come out at night.
The sheer WTF factor in the novel’s opening chapters is an endearing black hole that pulls you in and distracts you from things like its made up language (Klunk, Dong, Shuck, any hard consonant sound your five-year-old cousin may say) and massively uninteresting protagonists. Both of which could have caused waning interest in a lesser novel. (Movie wish list: hopefully the film’s three credited screenwriters played pretty fast and loose with adapting Dashner’s Glader slang for the screen).
Point four: If the film makes enough money, there’s a chance the novel’s sequels will be made and, I think, they could work far better on screen than on the page. There are two sequels to The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials and The Death Cure, respectively, both acting as the continuing journey of Thomas and the gang. They’re terrible. That’s my opinion, and I’ve just written nearly a dozen paragraphs on why The Maze Runner is one of my favorite things ever, so this is coming from a super-fan.
No spoilers here, but the events that happen at the end of book one pretty much leave the plot of the rest of the series spinning its wheels. There are new monsters, but they’re crazier! New enemies, but meaner! New locations, but more dangerous! The character motivations are all over the place, the plotting becomes more muddled as the pages flip by laboriously, and the sense of wonderment is just, well, gone.
Thing is, I think a movie could fix most of this. Dashner isn’t writing the first movie (which is both a good and bad thing; I love the guy’s imagination, I like his writing), so having a new set of eyes on the screenplays for Scorch Trials and Death Cure could really trim the fat from those stories if done right. The two final books also suffer form that utterly rare reading phenomenon where by one point in each, I just couldn’t visualize what I was reading anymore. Dashner gets too out-there, he sees the bold line in the sand and freakin’ kartwheels over it, laughing gleefully. It’s a good problem to have: too much imagination. He just couldn’t filter it all out of his head and onto the page coherently. A movie adaptation (maybe, hopefully) could. Because coherence, turns out, is kind of important.
I racked my brain for the last point for a while before I realized how obvious it was, and how the best point for seeing the movie, for reading the book, encapsulates everything I’ve already said: The Maze Runner is just straight up weird. I fear for the sake of its weirdness in the movie. I love those trailers, but there’s an awfully serious tone there that just isn’t jiving with the genre-hopping insanity the novel was in my memory.
You’ve got a community of young boys and one girl who call each other ‘Slintheads’ and have a functioning community of doctors, builders, and butchers. You’ve got a setting of imposing grandiosity that is always shifting (the reason of which is both clever and utterly incongruous) and whose ultimate purpose is simultaneously dreadful and hilarious. And you’ve got characters and villains so stock they may as all well be wearing name-tags saying “I’m the hero!”, “We’re the bad guys!”, “I’m the asshole frenemy that will always do the opposite of the protagonist!”, all doing excitingly strange things I can’t really tell you about. Hell, the evil entity here is even known by the acronym W.I.C.K.E.D. There’s subtext, then there’s text, then there’s whatever the hell that is. (Fun fact: it’s been changed to W.C.K.D. by the screenwriters for the movie. Because of all the things wrong with it, vowels were the major issue).
Individually these problems sound movie-ruining. They very well could be. But, as a reader, all of its little problems felt purposeful. Like a bunch of tiny issues building to a fascinating, endlessly readable whole. It’s a story of misfits, rejects, after all, coming to terms with themselves and each other in a dilapidated landscape. Being taught by professors in fancy sweaters was never in this novel’s grasp, and you get the feeling Dashner was well aware of that fact. It helps it has one of the most absolutely bonkers final act twists ever that I pray was kept intact for the film.
But you know how your favorite book is, or your favorite movie. You can watch them and read them over and over and totally be able to pick up on its faults and love them anyway. I’m not saying everyone who experiences this book, who goes to see the movie, will get that. I’m saying that as a book, a story, (and hopefully a movie), this is excitingly unexplored territory. It’s not as steeped in overbearing metaphors like The Hunger Games, but also not as air-headed and light like City of Bones or Twilight. It could totally bungle the whole enterprise and miss the tone, focus too much on Thomas and Teresa’s boring romance, or fundamentally alter story beats. But if the movie can hit that sweet spot between heady sci-fi and dunderheaded kookiness, an intriguing new franchise could be born this weekend. I know one thing: I’ll be first in line to find out.