The Maze Runner Kills Many Children, But No Formulas
Every couple of days or so, some film critic – jacked up on iced chai lattes and two useless twitter facts – decides to write up an article on “the DEATH” or “the rebirth!” of YA [That’s “young adult” fiction, for you rubes. -Ed]. Last Friday, it was Forbes, who noted the genre’s middling box office returns (The Mortal Instruments came in at high poverty levels of $90 million), and this weekend it was The NY Times, who published “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” a liberal arts college thesis masquerading as actual journalism. The truth, as truth tends to be, is way more boring. The Maze Runner, YA’s latest dystopian adventure, is neither the death of YA nor the birth of YA nor the rebirth of YA: just a mediocre book turned into a mediocre movie that somehow managed to make $32.5 million opening weekend alone. From The Maze Runner to The Hunger Games to The Fault In Our Stars, one thing is for sure: Americans like to watch their teenagers die.
While The Hunger Games and Divergent both showcase ‘strong’ female protagonists (ironic quotes obviously intended for Woodley), The Maze Runner features an exclusively male cast in the most platonic gay porn ever imagined by man. Think: muscular teenage boys in muddy brown khakis tending the fields, fighting big spiders, sleeping by the fire. Over the course of five years, they’ve all been completely celibate, despite the fact that they’re all hot + sixteen + hi locked in a prison. They’re loyal teenagers, and good ones, quite the opposite of everyone in Lord of the Flies and all teenagers in real life.
At the heart of The Maze Runner is Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), the story’s lead hero and the all-time king of basic bros. Thomas wakes up to discover that he’s locked in a cage, with no memories of his name and past, imprisoned in a colony of teenage boys all suffering from the same plight. The colony is surrounded by a dangerous maze that only the most adventurous of boys – the “runners” – are allowed to explore. Thomas wants to be a runner/find a way out, but his community resists. It’s actually a pretty intriguing premise that still manages to provoke a kind of kneejerk suspense for the duration of the story. While I wasn’t exactly gripping my seat (Big spiders! Crashes of thunder! Crappy sound design!), I chose to gather all my strength and not take a nap in the bathroom – an act of heroism, and my chosen method of resistance for all standard YA fare.
There are some great examples of YA filmmaking in the past year – Hunger Games, and you know, the other one– but The Maze Runner isn’t one of them. It isn’t just that the story is tired, it’s that the central emotional crisis feels dated, pulled out of a dusty snotty library copy of some 1950’s sci-fi. Without giving too much away, The Maze Runner encourages us to be skeptical about advances in science and technology. Computers are bad, but cooperatively grown tomatoes are great! (Was this book written by lesbians?) It’s a simplistic message, and an anachronistic one, inspired by hackneyed Cold War fears about the postwar industrial age.
So there’s a reason why The Hunger Games resonates with us in a way other YA movies hasn’t: its anxieties are modern, its conflicts adult. Katniss struggles with issues of commitment, class, and family, in ways that feel big and real: “why am I the one to take care of my family?” “Will my community ever do better?” “Which loser boyfriend will I pick?” The script for the Maze Runner, by contrast, addresses issues of: “This maze is big. Can I get out of it?” and: “These spiders are scary. How can we kill them?!? “ Technically authored by Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers, and T.S. Nowlins, The Maze Runner appears to have been ghostwritten by Groot.