Friday, September 26, 2014

Movie vs. Book "The Maze Runner": Action Trumps Heart

By now, I suppose most people are either on the YA train or they don’t give a shit about it. I happen to be on that train, and not only do I inundate my reading repertoire with YA fiction, but I also watch the movies that studios have been popping out to a diminishing demand. Statistics, like hips, don't lie. YA movies, with the exception of The Hunger Games and that long ago saga of glittering vamps, consistently underperform in the box office. However, The Maze Runner actually came out on top at the box office its first weekend with $32.5 million, targeting a mostly male audience.

I’m glad teenagers are reading, and it makes sense that Hollywood would want to tap into the trending dystopian and paranormal fiction that dominates the genre. I mean, we need only look back to the explosion of the Harry Potter universe to understand that there is something magical behind books coming to life on the screen. It’s this adaptation from written story to screen that I want to focus on, because I find the adaptation of works of art through several different mediums absolutely fascinating. What makes the cut in the film? What parts of the story are molded differently to fit a tighter timeline in cinema? What depth from narrative can be portrayed through a well configured scene? What tones and themes can be relayed with nothing more than cinematography and score?

When I initially saw the preview form The Maze Runner, I knew I wanted to read the book before seeing the movie. I’m one of those people. I like to have the full context to draw upon when viewing the film, but I’m also able to judge a film based on its own merits and not just how well it measured up to the book.

So I read The Maze Runner, which you can read my review of here, and now I am nearly done with James Dashner’s action trilogy. The book is dystopian YA with a Lord of the Flies vibe. I felt it suffered from a lack of depth, a bit too much “telling” of the character’s emotions, and those emotions themselves seemed erratic and at times unbelievable. And no one can argue that this is a YA thing, because John Green wrote The Fault in Our Stars with respect for the intelligence of young adult readers. The Maze Runner, doesn’t possess much depth or subtext, but it’s an action adventure set in a very unique world.

The main protagonist, Thomas, wakes up in an elevator lift with no memory of his life, and he finds himself thrust into a community of boys with an established society focused on one essential rule: order. For without order, the boys are reduced to a more primal state of fear, which the boys who
have been there longest know is dangerous to the overall survival of the group as a whole. So these boys create a system, they grow their own food, raise animals, build their own shelter – all to keep themselves from crumbling beneath the terrifying truth that they’ve had their memories swiped, they’re being watched, and their only potential way out of the glade is through solving the puzzle of a giant stone maze that harbors bio-mech monsters called “grievers.”

Per usual, there were differences between the book and the movie, but I really want to bring attention to some specific departures from the source text. Some of these changes actually hurt the film, while others enhanced the experience of the story.


Dylan O’Brien did an excellent job at portraying the film’s main protagonist.He proved that not only can he handle an action flick, but also an emotionally intense portrayal of a young man struggling to make sense of this crazy world he’s just been thrust into. O’Brien also manages to give the audience an idea that perhaps there is more happening within his character than some of the other gladers. Thomas is different, and I feel like this comes across successfully in the film.

However, the full potential of Thomas’s range of emotion is never tapped because there were too many “unknowns” left at the end of the film as well as some emotional connections that just didn’t occur for his character. His greatest emotional blow came at the end (spoiler) when Chuck dies. Thomas seriously had one conversation with Chuck in the movie. In the book, he was hot and cold with Chuck, but eventually established a brotherly bond with the younger boy, and so Thomas’s experience of Chuck’s loss made more since. In the film, Chuck’s loss is a trigger of emotions, but I didn’t feel like they were achieved specifically through the relationship these two characters had on film.


Okay, who the hell dropped the ball on this one? In the book, Teresa arrives as the catalyst for the end of the maze experiment. She even says this is her function before lapsing into a coma. After her arrival, the climate changes in the glade and everyone knows that after three years of surviving, the end is close. From the film we gather from her arrival that everything is going to change, but there really wasn’t the alarming triggering I was expecting. Teresa’s arrival is a huge event in the book, not just because of her recognition of Thomas, but also because she can communicate with him telepathically, which the movie just skipped.

I’m not okay with the decision to get rid of the telepathy. The telepathy was an indicator of the depth of the WICKED experimentation, the elevated importance of Thomas and Teresa, and it also helped them achieve a greater emotional bond which is significant in the coming books/movies. I have no idea why they eliminated this element other than to keep things more streamlined, but I really feel like the film missed a big opportunity to create depth. Without this mysterious bond between Thomas and Teresa - her character in the movie is just there. She’s just there, hanging around, being scared and not really mattering.

The Changing and Mind Control

Another area where I felt the film fell short of depicting the connection between WICKED and the gladers was “the changing.” In the film, when a griever stings a human, the human goes through some kind of not-very-well explained metamorphosis. In the book, when a glader is stung, they are given a serum that WICKED provides and that is when “the changing” takes place. During the changing one can access past memories and they are forever altered, survivors of “the changing” are like veterans with PTSD, which does a lot for character development.

Also, in the books, what happens during Alby’s “changing” is one of the first times the gladers realize that they didn’t just have their memories swiped by WICKED, they are also under active mind control. I understand the choice to simplify “the changing” process for the film’s sake, but what was lost was an even deeper understanding of how WICKED has really infiltrated every aspect their lives.

The Maze and the Griever Hole

So, the Maze was awesome. It was better than I imagined it in my mind. The film really brought the Maze to life with its mysterious grandeur, which is exactly what I was hoping for since the Maze is a character. The Maze plays a role, it changes, it holds within it secrets that must be decoded, and only an elite group of athletes have the ability to enter the Maze and navigate its depths. All of this was done really well, and the action sequence with Thomas and Minho running through the razors was excellent.

However, the Maze Runners were really undersold in the movie, and they are the inspiration for the title! They have their own order. They come back from running the maze and map it every single day on paper from memory. In the books, these maps become the key through which a code is identified. Only then do Minho and Thomas come up with the idea of going into the griever hole to enter the code to kill the Maze.

All of the participants in this WICKED experiment were chosen for specific reasons, and heightened intelligence was among them. So, decoding the map sequences not only helped distinguish Thomas in the book as a critical thinker, but it made him important on a leadership level. None of this happens in the movie. In the movie, it is brute force that allows them to retrieve a device from a griever that acts as a key to open their gate of origin.

I get it - it was a much simpler way to get these characters where they needed to be, but it just resulted in a less interesting design. It didn't take a lot of intelligence, it didn't demonstrate three years worth of meticulous record keeping by the maze runners, and it frankly didn't bring the characters together the way the solution in the book did.

Newt and Minho

I loved the Newt in the film and the book. Thomas Brodie-Sangster now has steady work post Game of Thrones, so I feel pretty good about all that. I thought he carried the right amount of heart that Newt did in the books, and you know early on that he is an important leader and will play a big role in what is to come.

Minho...what happened here? Surely, some time could have been given to develop Minho and Thomas’s friendship. Minho is a great character who really got pushed to the back burner in the film. I’m hoping they will develop his character more in the second film installment. His sarcasm alone is worth capturing to break up the ceaseless pace of unfolding conflict and action.

In Conclusion

All in all, I thought the film succeeded as an action movie and director Wes Ball got his actors to deliver the best they could with the material they had. The story moved at a pace not unlike the book, and the only real film hiccups were feelings of detachment between some of the characters and the purpose of WICKED. This is the first film in a trilogy, so I know we aren't supposed to know everything yet. But I still feel like if some of these elements from the book had been woven into the fast paced action film, then there would have been a greater sense of grounding in who these individual characters are in relations to each other and in relation to the creators of the Maze.

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