The Maze Runner by James Dashner

Now, I quite like going to the cinema. When I was growing up it was the main thing to do in our town and I remember many school holiday nights meeting up with friends to see whatever was newly released and then walking home in fervent discussion of what we’d just seen. I think the street corner where my best friend and I had to go our separate ways was the site of film discussion so impassioned it’s a wonder we both didn’t manage to figure out some way to tear apart cinematography for a living. ‘Cinematography’ – what a discovery that word was! How very grown-up we thought we sounded!

While I’m at it, I’ll admit to a partiality to popcorn blockbusters.  I watch films for lots of reasons but sometimes it’s just in search of pure escapism. I enjoy the choreography of a good fight sequence or the special effect wonders you can achieve with a big budget. If the score or soundtrack is good too, I can usually even manage to switch off my conscience and ignore the fact that so few blockbusters pass the Bechdel test or accurately represent minority cultures.

One of the ways I assuage the guilt in my guilty pleasure is by trying to combat the low-brow with the literary. If a film is an adaptation of a book, I’ll always try to read that first. If the film has a period setting or has been filmed outside of North America or the UK, I’ll try to read something set in that era or region. In extreme cases, I’ve even been known to read a movie tie-in or two. I do have my limits: even if Pacific Rim had been based on a lost work by Kafka, I’d have taken some convincing. In fact, if Pacific Rim had been penned by Kafka that would explain a lot…

The Maze Runner by James Dashner (Frome, Somerset: Chicken House, 2013)

Anyway, The Maze Runner (The Movie) will be released here next month and, most likely, I’ll go to see it soon after it opens. I started hearing about the film several months ago and picked up the book last month so I’d have some idea what to expect. It’s the first book in a YA series set in a dystopic arena which, while not identified as such at this point, is inferred as being our own world in the near future. Thomas, the novel’s protagonist, wakes up as the story starts and he and the reader find themselves deposited in a clearing at the centre of a maze. Inhabited by a group of teenage boys, no-one knows how any of them came to be in the Glade or what their purpose is. The group, a number of whom have been there for years, have established a societal order and assigned tasks and responsibilities to each arrival. Thomas, even while struggling to come to terms with his circumstances, aims to become a Runner. Each day the Runners set off to explore and map the maze with the ultimate aim of escape. Unfortunately, their task is made Sisyphean by the fact that every night the walls of the maze realign themselves. And that’s before we take into account the Grievers, the nightmarish creatures which patrol the maze once darkness falls.

So far, so familiar – yes? The Maze Runner is a variant of a story that’s been done more than a time or two before. In all honesty, there’s very little that’s fresh here and quite a lot that’s inferior to its older relations. Attempts at world-building through the use of idiosyncratic slang jar and it’s a strategy that has been deployed to much greater success elsewhere. The characterization is shallow and erratic and the pacing needs a steadier hand to control it. The editing should have been much tighter. Instead we get sentences like this: ‘Thomas had almost expected the skeletal remnant of a person – someone on the verge of death.’ I’m no forensic expert but I think there’s quite a bit of time, weather and forensic fauna between someone on the verge of death and skeletal remains. I don’t mean to be fussy but it’s frustrating when something could so easily have been caught and corrected.

I’m not the target market for The Maze Runner but it is an area in which I have a professional and academic interest. I’ve read an awful lot of dystopic literature in recent years, including some books with really admirable storytelling but perhaps lacking polish, some prioritising invention over consistency but notable for their fresh approach, others which could easily hold their own on a wider scale and some that should most definitely be put in the hands of stuffy self-assured writers everywhere with a post-it saying ‘this is how it’s done!’. I think dystopic fiction has a very important place within the YA canon but there are responsibilities that accompany that standing. And this is where The Maze Runner most disappointed me.

Patronising your intended readership is a cardinal sin in my opinion. ‘Show, don’t tell’ exists for a reason: to allow space for a reader to develop their own way into the text; to facilitate a sense of autonomy on a reader’s part; to allow them to have an active part in the reading experience rather than being relegated to being a passive object to whom the author displays his or her peacock feathers. I think an author’s greatest crime is to imagine themselves as smarter than their readers, especially those interested engaged readers which most authors must hope for. I’m afraid that I could go on at length here about the way that The Maze Runner fails its readers in this regard, but instead let me try to show and not tell.

In this scene, which takes place over one physical page, Thomas and one of his fellow Runners are discussing the beetle-like creatures found in the maze and which are assumed to be acting as spies for the maze’s creators. It’s already been flagged earlier in the text that these ‘insects’ have the word ‘wicked’ inscribed on their shells. Oh! and one of the main characters has previously dragged themselves out of unconsciousness to write the words ‘WICKED is good’ on their own skin. Totally unconnected, I’m sure! Anyway…

Then Thomas remembered what he’d seen in the Maze – so much had happened he hadn’t had the chance to mention it. “And why do they have the word wicked written on their backs?”

“Never been able to catch one.” Minho finished his meal and put his lunchbox away. “And we don’t know what that word means – probably just something to scare us.

[…]

“What’s that?” [Thomas] interrupted, heading for a dull glimmer of grey he’d just noticed behind the ivy on the wall, about head high.

“Oh, yeah, that,” Minho said, his voice completely indifferent.

Thomas reached in and pulled apart the curtains of ivy, then stared blankly at the square of metal riveted to the stone with words stamped across it in big capital letters. He put his hand out to run his fingers across them, as if he didn’t believe his eyes.

WORLD IN CATASTROPHE:

KILLZONE EXPERIMENT DEPARTMENT

He read the words aloud, then looked back at Minho. “What’s this?” It gave him a chill – it had to have something to do with the Creators.

“I don’t know, shank. They’re all over the place, like freaking labels for the nice pretty Maze they built. I quit bothering to look at ’em a long time ago.”

Thomas turned back to stare at the sign, trying to suppress the feeling of doom that had risen inside him. “Not much here that sounds very good. Catastrophe. Killzone. Experiment. Really nice.”

“Yeah, really nice, Greenie. Let’s go.”

Reluctantly, Thomas let the vines fall back into place and swung his rucksack over his shoulders. And off they went, those six words burning holes in his mind.

Really? Really?! I’m not going to say much but let me just point out that it’s 108 pages and a half-dozen references later before someone asks “What do you think WICKED stands for, anyway?” and actually gets an answer!

Though it may not seem like it at the moment, I can rant and rave about language, pacing, inconsistencies in the narrative and still love a book. I didn’t love The Maze Runner and ultimately that comes down to one key reason. In my mind, it is morally and ideologically unacceptable in this day and age to create and market a text aimed most specifically at teenage boys and have it contain only one female character. If you’re a YA author and you want to annoy me further, make yours a female character who is in a Sleeping Beauty coma for most of the text and then have her be a Damsel in Distress in a Rapunzel-like tower for much of the rest of it. Unforgivable, Mr. Dashner, unforgivable!

In conclusion then, have a peacock:

2014-06-10 13.44.34

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2 thoughts on “The Maze Runner by James Dashner

  1. love the peacock 🙂 I find it incredibly hard to establish that balance between ‘show’ and ‘tell’ in my writing as I am always tempted to ‘lay out the facts’ but facts don’t make a story interesting. I agree with your reasons as stated and I do hope in this case 🙂 the movie is better than the book.

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