16 year-old Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) wakes with no memories in ‘The Glade’, surrounded by boys hardened by years fighting for survival in their little community. Fighting what? Surrounding them sits the maze, a huge intricate stone construction that stretches for miles in every direction. Only a few ‘runners’ are permitted to scout the maze for their own safety from the noises that come in the night. Once the huge stone gates shut, no one gets through, and no one has ever been found alive in the morning.
James Dashner’s The Maze Runner has been tearing through teen book sales since 2009, and last year it was adapted to film in the wake of the Hunger Games and Divergent book series’ successful conversion. Low-tech, captivating and brutal, The Maze Runner is about claustrophobic rage and the lies that we’re told to keep us in line. Many teen films are aware that adult life is about learning to play the game; The Maze Runner knows that there are people in this world who control that game, that the higher you get the more complex they can make it for you, and, ultimately, that they’re not going to let you win.
It’s a more complex concept that its cultural counterparts in many ways. It’s not about the fight but about the layers of maturity and negotiation the characters must go through to find truth and freedom. Notably, it has less to say about the politics of our world, and more to say about community, leading with its Lord of the Flies-style look at an all-boys group forced to choose between relative safety and the truth.
It’s an age-old dilemma for a single protagonist, but rarely has it been so interesting than with this isolated and self sufficient group of teenagers; and rarely is an antagonist – the mysterious WCKD organisation – painted as so cold and cruel, even if they do have a silly name. The techno-organic construction of the Grievers (strange tarantula creatures that patrol the maze, and are revealed to contain human-made tracking devices and labels); the knowledge that they are put there; that later the memories of their names return as if left for them; the understanding that food is delivered to them from the underground lift; that someone is invested in their survival but not in their rescue – all are brilliantly placed. The very real fact that, though they are clearly inside some sort of experiment or game, their deaths are very real and very gruesome, is haunting.
In saying this, it slightly misses out on some of the elements which have made its ‘teen dystopia’ contemporaries so interesting: its protagonist, Thomas, is much less interesting than Katniss and Tris, nor could he be considered an exciting role model, feminist or otherwise. A group of boys is a less interesting watch than a mixed group as characterisation starts to fall by the wayside, and it’s not exactly untrod territory. Let’s be honest, it’s a literal boys’ club, almost as if some bright young studio exec saw the success of The Hunger Games with Katniss and still couldn’t quite believe audiences of all genders would pay to see its fierce female heroine, and was struck with the thought: “Man, just think how much more we’ll make with a proper male lead!”.
Still, Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), the female ‘problem’, is active and complex – holding more cards in the series than she suggests at first. You can also see debut director Wes Ball’s visual effects background creeping through, less in looking gorgeous and more in terms of well-realised action sequences. Having created a 3D dystopian short called Ruin as an attempt to break into Hollywood, Ball was brought on by 20th Century Fox who felt Ruin fit the tone they had been seeking from a director for The Maze Runner. The maze itself is terrifying and oppressive, suitably alien and sinister for this foreboding future, its presence fed by strong performances from its leads and a cast including Patricia Clarkson, Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Will Poulter.
As we’ve mentioned before on ORWAV, the success of teen dystopian fiction at the moment can largely be put down to the accurate metaphor they provide for the experience of being a teenager today. The Maze Runner series is largely concerned with finding your place within a group. In the Scorch Trials novel, the characters literally wake up to find themselves tattooed with their role in the group, and this causes brilliant chaos as each struggles with the branding of themselves and the ways they find it fits or does not.
Dashner asked: can a leader be a leader if he hasn’t earned the right, and what does that mean when it comes to discussing nature over nurture? The Maze Runner manages to capture this tension with who we are, who we are told we are and who we can become, as well as our understanding of ourselves compared to how others see us. In having their memories wiped the boys come to the group without an identity, a history or an understanding of themselves, and find they can only form an identity in relation to this group. Their release from the maze should shatter that, as leaving school or similar institutions might do, but instead they find themselves navigating the wider institution of the adult world. It’s frustratingly familiar.
The film suffers from a common book series adaptation problem in that the first is considerably more childish in tone than the next, and not quite as well constructed (it might as well be called His Dark Materials Syndrome). The second in the series, The Scorch Trials, is where the narrative really opens up to the actual situation outside the maze and the implications of the psychological torture inflicted upon the boys. There is a lot of promise in the second installment; there’s a lot to be said for the twists the series throws at its audience, and apart from the briefest of scenes in the climax of The Maze Runner, this is where the layers of deception start to make themselves known. It becomes clear that trust and community are one thing, but just because someone is a friend, it doesn’t mean they’ll be able to lead you down the right path.