Latest young adult film covers much familiar ground

The Maze Runner, the latest post-apocalyptic young adult best-selling fiction series to be transferred to a cinematic counterpart, has many of the features that seem to be required of the genre. There is the dystopian landscape, the unknown and deadly peril, and the youthful hero with the character to meet and defeat that peril… after overcoming several forbidding obstacles and violently losing some companions along the way, of course.

Our hero, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), awakes one day to find himself in a place called The Glade, joining an assemblage of boys who don’t remember their pasts and are uncertain of what they are doing here. They have learned how to survive and create a semblance of community, but they are surrounded by a forbidding maze that keeps them isolated and fearful. The maze is filled with giant and fierce creatures called greavers, and if that weren’t bad enough, the structure remakes itself every night, defying their attempts to find a route through it to safety.

The problem with this movie version of the tale is that it feels way too familiar, a mishmash of themes and characters from other, far better books and films.
Using The Maze Runner as an example, how does one construct a successful post-apocalyptic young adult book series and translate it to the silver screen?

Start with an assemblage of traumatized teenage boys under stress in an unfamiliar landscape (The Lord of the Flies, check). Sort them into groups based on their skills or personalities (Divergent, got it). Give them a life-threatening obstacle that requires them to work cooperatively and/or compete to survive (OK, The Hunger Games). Add into this stew of adolescent rivalries an individual with compelling personal traits that set him apart as special (Hello, Harry Potter). And top it all off with an adult society where the reality is deliberately manipulated with language to hide true intentions (1984—perfect).

Neophyte director Wes Ball displays the skills he has learned in a long career of film art direction. The world of The Maze Runner is visually striking, and Ball keeps the action moving. But the screenplay, by Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers, and T.S. Nowlin, does neither the director nor the appealing cast any favors. Aside from the derivative flaws described above, the script offers no compelling characters, just stereotypical teenage types (the calm leader, the order-obsessed adversary, the wise sidekick, and the valiant, rule-breaking hero), so the viewer struggles to be invested in their plight.

I appreciate the appeal of these post-apocalyptic thrillers for young adults. In a modern teenage world filled with cyberbullying, sexting, and body-shaming, it’s probably perversely reassuring to see kids facing far worse life-or-death threats. It’s even better to see them overcome those threats, using their own resourcefulness and grit, especially without the hovering ministrations of mom and dad.

But, to transcend the limitations of the genre (as The Hunger Games clearly has done), you need to bring more to the party than a box of tired conventions and characters that are little more than ciphers.

The Maze Runner stumbles when you want it to race.

** out of *****

Mark Fields
Mark Fields has reviewed films for Out & About since October 2008. In addition, he has written O&A profiles of documentarian Harry Shearer and actress Aubrey Plaza. Mark also has written on the movies for several publications in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and his home state of Indiana, where he also served as on-air movie critic for Indianapolis’s public radio station. Mark has been an adjunct instructor of film history at Rowan University since 1998. A career arts administrator, he is the executive director of Wilmington’s Grand Opera House and now lives on Market Street. Mark spent the fastest 22 minutes of his life as an unsuccessful contestant on Jeopardy…sadly, there were no movie questions.