Book to Screen: THE MAZE RUNNER Works But Can’t Compare to James Dashner’s Book

     September 23, 2014

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First off, I enjoyed Maze Runner the movie quite a bit.  It’s got a great pace, stunning visuals and strong performances all-around, but there are some significant differences between the book and the film and, simply put, the book does it better.  One of the biggest challenges of adapting a book to film is condensing it and more so than ever when you’re working with a narrative that goes down in a brand new environment like The Glade.

Not only did director Wes Ball have to develop a Glade full of multidimensional characters, but he also had to set up a brand new world and convey the rules that govern it.  The situation is actually pretty straightforward – there are kids trapped in a maze and they have to figure out how to get out – but then you’re wondering, why are they there?  Who put them there?  What’s going on in the outside world?  It isn’t easy answering those questions in less than two hours and that’s where the movie pales in comparison to the book, but there are other elements that are strong enough to make The Maze Runner one of the more successful YA adaptations we’ve got.  Hit the jump for the ups and downs of the adaptation process.  Warning: There are major spoilers for the book and the movie in this feature. 

The Gladers Are Nicer 

the-maze-runner-book-vs-filmIn Dashner’s book, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) has it pretty rough after hopping out of that elevator.  Alby (Aml Ameen), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and the other Gladers don’t welcome him to his new “home” with a bon fire party; they call him names, withhold information and do an abundance of other things to make him even more uncomfortable in this new, terrifying situation.

There is something appealing about watching Thomas buddy up with Chuck (Blake Cooper), Newt, Alby and Minho (Ki Hong Lee) in the film version because who doesn’t like seeing a likable character make friends?  However, it does take away from the gravity and suspense of the situation.  As presented in the book, the maze is terrifying in and of itself, but Thomas also struggles with the fact that, at the start, he’s essentially all alone, scared and forced to adapt to a brand new lifestyle whether he likes it or not.  Personally, it always reminded me a bit of going to sleepaway camp.  You’re young, you leave your family behind and have to make a life for yourself in a brand new place.  That was part of the reason I could connect to what Thomas was feeling so easily while reading the book.  In the film, he acclimates and gains confidence so quickly that that quality is completely lost.

Dashner’s book isn’t just about finding a way out of the maze; it’s also about Thomas becoming a Glader, earning the other boys’ respect and then doing what he must to make a difference.  There’s no build like that in the movie.  Thomas is clearly scared and uncomfortable when he first arrives, but very soon thereafter, he’s self-assured enough to start making moves and that’s largely due to the fact that in this version, The Gladers don’t make it as challenging for him to earn his place. 

Timeline Feels Too Condensed 

the-maze-runner-dylan-obrienPart of what makes the situation in The Maze Runner so different is the fact that it isn’t like The Hunger Games where kids go into the arena for X amount of days and just try to survive.  Here, in addition to completing the mission, they’ve also got to make a life for themselves in The Glade, and that life is fascinating.

These are teenagers who manage to house and feed themselves for two years (three in the film version).  And not only do they have designated areas for sleeping, livestock and crops, but they also have a highly functional society with rules and a hierarchy that every Glader respects.  There is a little bit of rule breaking and bad attitudes, but generally, everyone really does their part, and seeing that is quite remarkable, but only because the book lets you live in it long enough.

This also becomes an issue when it comes to solving the maze as well.  As presented in Ball’s film, it just feels too quick and easy.  Thomas hops out of The Box and almost immediately starts throwing himself into dangerous situations and each and every time he does it, he tends to come out on top.  In addition, quite a bit of the puzzle is already figured out for him.

In the book, Thomas and Minho have to do some serious thinking before discovering the Griever hole.  In the film, however, Minho already knows there’s something up in Section 7 and then the device they pull out of the Griever does the rest for them.

The same goes for the code as well.  In fact, the solving of the code in the movie is a pretty big narrative issue because it’s a dull process.  In the book, the Runners work tirelessly to map out the maze, figure out the movement patterns and then realize it’s actually a code.  Thanks to all that legwork, when they finally figure out the code words, it’s an exhilarating payoff.  In the movie, it’s just a series of numbers and the manner through which they decipher them doesn’t resonate at all.

No Beetle Blades 

the-maze-runner-maze-dylan-obrienThe movie could have done without the Beetle Blades.  In fact, having to explain the Beetle Blades might have been too much.  But, one of the problems with not having them is that it diminishes WICKED’s presence in the maze.  We do eventually find out that the Gladers are being watched (and can assume so long before it’s revealed), but having Beetle Blades scurrying around makes the Creators and Grievers feel inescapable.

It might have been more effective to ditch Thomas’ cheesy dreams and instead, slowly reveal WICKED’s involvement through curious and more subtle details like Dashner does with the Beetle Blades in the book.

Also, the Beetle Blades are just a fun, unique quality of the world.  A lizard-like creature with WICKED smeared across the body as though it was written in blood is a creepy visual, especially because The Gladers don’t even know their purpose nor what they’re capable of. 

Teresa is Useless 

the-maze-runner-dylan-obrien-kaya-scodelarioKaya Scodelario really got the short end of the stick with this adaptation.  Whereas Teresa is smart, likeable and capable of making a major difference in the book, in the film version, it feels like she’s there just so that the movie’s got a girl in it, too.  There was absolutely no way the whole telepathy thing would have worked – we learned that in The Host – but there’s no reason she couldn’t still have some sort of special connection with Thomas.

The Maze Runner doesn’t have romance, but Thomas and Teresa still need some chemistry and O’Brien and Scodelario don’t offer up much.  However, I’d point a finger at the script sooner than I’d blame the actors.  It is mildly amusing watching Teresa throw things at the boys from the tower, but as soon as Thomas climbs up and the two start talking, there isn’t much depth to the conversation.

And even after she comes down and joins the fight to find a way out, she doesn’t accomplish half as much as the character in the book.  It’s never made clear that she “triggers the ending,” thanks to that elaborate maze model in the Map Room, she’s not the one who figures out that the Maze is code and she doesn’t decipher that code either.  So what does she do?  As far as being the girl, I’ve got nothing.

The Ending 

the-maze-runner-dylan-obrien-will-poulterGally’s a nasty guy in the book from beginning to end.  In the film version, however, he does have a few redeeming moments.  It’s the one change I enjoyed quite a bit and in large part, it’s due to Will Poulter.  He’s a great actor with a commanding presence who delivers a character that you actually enjoy hating, so when Gally gives Thomas a pat on the back after proving himself in a fight, it leaves you thinking, this kid is tough, but he’ll be a strong ally.

However, rather than build on that, in an instant, the screenwriters turn Gally into a total tyrant.  It could have worked if the movie actually explained why Gally hates Thomas so much, but there’s no mention of Gally’s memories of Thomas prior to their time in the maze.  On top of that, the film also fails to offer a convincing case for why Gally would rather live his life out in The Glade than risk it trying to return to the real world.  In the book, these were the issues that fueled his rage.  The movie could have done without them by turning him into an anti-hero of sorts, but that’s not the route they go and his grand finale feels unjustified and forced because of it.

I was never much of a fan of the way the book ended.  It essentially renders everything that just went down in the maze meaningless and also feels like a heavy-handed attempt to set up a sequel.  The movie makes changes, but can’t seem to get it right either.  The last sequence feels even more forced and melodramatic, and also quite unclear as well.  I’d be curious to know whether someone who hasn’t read the book can figure out where the story is going next. 

Conclusion 

Clearly I prefer the book to the film, but again, The Maze Runner isn’t a bad movie by any means.  In fact, I was thoroughly entertained from beginning to end.  But, this is definitely a situation where someone who hasn’t read the book might find it rather hollow and even a bit confusing to follow.

But even then, the movie rocks a wildly engaging situation and mesmerizing visuals, and they’re all set to a swift beat that propels you from one moment to the next without a single drop of lag.  The puzzle behind the maze doesn’t come with many layers and also fails to inspire you to want to put the pieces together right along with the Gladers, but that won’t stop you from getting swept up in the exhilaration of their efforts and get a solid thrill out of the scenario.

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The Maze Runner Book vs. Film

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