As an English teacher and parent of a 7th grader, I have a kind of love-hate relationship with Young Adult (YA) dystopian fiction. On the one hand, some of the books in this genre are well written and tell engaging stories. Some of these stories lend themselves well to cinematic adaptation (e.g., The Hunger Games and Divergent series). Since they are often also written in a contemporary, non-literary register, they generally encourage students (usually in the middle grades rather than high school, despite the YA label) to read. This is especially valuable in the case of “aliterate” students — those who are fairly good readers but choose not to read.
On the other hand, the same less-challenging prose, coupled with a not-so-felicitous plot, can result in an insipid novel. Even when their stories are good, YA novels can become the only books that “Tweens” and early teens consume. This textual diet can lead to a kind of literary malnutrition if it consists mostly of unremarkable YA texts.
The same could be said (good and bad) of the films that are made from YA novels. Given that a movie adaptation must pare down a novel to an average runtime of somewhere in the neighborhood of two hours, there is the danger that even a well-done YA story can seem somewhat thin on the screen. In addition, the characters can often seem flat, even if the story is engaging, because they were not very rounded in the source text.
At any rate, I receive this impression while watching films derived from YA novels, even those that are very successful at the box office — such as the films based on the above-noted Suzanne Collins and Veronica Roth novels. I had the same reaction while viewing “The Maze Runner” (2014), an adaptation of the popular 2009 novel by James Dashner. A dystopian science-fiction film directed by Wes Ball and written by Noah Oppenheim and Grant Pierce Myers, it stars Dylan O’Brien and Kaya Scodelario, two relatively unknown young actors, in a 20th Century Fox production. This is a movie that has a fairly interesting premise, but also one that falls victim to what are by now stereotypes and tired tropes (thanks to “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent,” and their sequels).
The film’s premise involves a group of boys who have been imprisoned in a maze. This is a plot that has a precedent in Greek mythology: at King Minos’ request, Daedalus designed and built the Labyrinth as a prison for the Minotaur. In the case of “Maze Runner,” the young prisoners do not know who has placed them there. They also do not know why they are there; indeed, they have been deprived of their past memories. A newcomer (a “Greenie”) cannot even remember his own name when he arrives in the “glade,” as the verdant center of the maze is called.
Thomas (O’Brien) is the Greenie who arrives in the glade (through a one-way elevator in its center) at the beginning of Act I. He finds that the boys there have set up a cooperative mini-society, led by Gally (Will Poulter). Thomas soon learns that the fastest boys have been assigned as runners who explore the maze, looking for a way out. However, the role of the Minotaur in this labyrinth is played by the Grievers, whom nobody has seen and lived to tell about it. Sure enough, though, we soon see a Griever, which looks like a cyborg spider (and not a particularly scary one, either).
Thomas is highly motivated to help explore the maze and escape from it, soon finding a possible way out. However, he runs into opposition from Gally, who is content with the status quo. Then Teresa (Scodelario) unexpectedly arrives; her presence disrupts Gally’s finely-tuned system and internal conflict grows. When the Grievers gain the ability to come into the glade at night (when it is normally sealed off), Thomas leads a large group into the maze in a last-ditch run for freedom. What they find is a conspiracy that opens up the plot, providing room for several sequels (based on the books that follow Maze Runner in Dashner’s series).
Unfortunately, the plot becomes less believable as Thomas and Teresa learn more about the circumstances of their imprisonment. The high production value of the cinematography, sound, and special effects cannot eventually make up for the increasingly thin story-line. Moreover, the characters are not well-developed, but apparently are quite gullible, in that they are totally taken in by a video that purports to explain their situation (which might not be far off, given the credence given to any random YouTube video these days). This explanation, which explains that a world-wide cataclysm has turned the Earth into a vast desert and a virus has turned many of its inhabitants into — you guessed it — zombie-like creatures, is by now so typical of the post-apocalyptic YA dystopian plot that it is cliched.
For an audiovisual demonstration of what I have been discussing, compare the official green-band “Maze Runner” trailer . . .
. . . with the “Honest Trailer” done by Screen Junkies: