Rare is the movie based on a best-seller that is vastly superior to the book that inspired it. “The Maze Runner” is just such a rarity.
The first feature film from director Wes Ball, with a script credited to Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers and T.S. Nowlin, “The Maze Runner” is a smart and fast-paced rendering of James Dashner’s 2009 young adult best-seller.
It dispenses with the book’s weakest elements: its uninspired prose and, in particular, the clumsy invented slang spoken by its kid characters, along with the awkwardly constructed tentative first-love element involving Thomas, the hero, and Teresa, the only female in the story. But the essentials of Dashner’s tale are all retained.
Bearing more than a passing resemblance to William Golding’s dystopian classic “Lord of the Flies,” “The Maze Runner” posits a society in which a group of adolescent boys is confined in a mysterious walled compound. The compound’s origins are unknown to the kids whose memories have been erased by unknown forces. Isolated inside the walls, they’ve created a remarkably harmonious society (unlike the one in Golding’s novel). Everyone works together to provide food and shelter for the group. Outside the walls is the maze of the title, which might lead to a way out. One problem though: It’s inhabited by murderous monsters.
When Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) arrives on the scene and later Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), the only female in this society, infighting begins as a boy named Gally accuses the newcomers of somehow causing the society to collapse.
The young cast is one of the picture’s greatest strengths. O’Brien is a standout as Thomas. Much less angsty and irritable (and irritating) than the Thomas of the book, O’Brien brings intelligence and empathy to his portrayal. His character has a questioning sensibility, which, combined with the confidence of a natural-born leader, makes O’Brien’s Thomas the powerful centerpiece of the story as he tries to find a way out of the maze.
The other young actors are similarly effective — particularly Will Poulter in the role of Gally, whose perpetually arched eyebrows underscore the character’s skepticism about Thomas and his motives.
Gally represents acceptance of the status quo while Thomas is a rebel almost in spite of himself, breaking the society’s rigid rules that confine the boys as much as the maze walls themselves.
The movie’s other great strength is its set design. The maze is an oppressive space of towering, ever-shifting walls that confuse the boys in their efforts to escape. It’s a powerful visual symbol of the spirit-crushing circumstances of the boys’ captivity.
Like most dystopias in current YA fiction, it’s adults who are the oppressors of the young heroes. The adults’ identities and their motives for doing what they do to the kids are revealed late in a long expository section that leads to a set-up of the sequel. The book is the first installment of a three-part series, and true to the book, the movie ends in a cliffhanger.