by Gary Westfahl
Fans of James Dashner’s young-adult Maze Runner novels will be very surprised by the film adaptation of its second novel; for while the film version of the first novel, The Maze Runner (2014) (review here), was generally faithful to Dashner’s text, this sequel, while it borrows some characters and incidents from the novel, is essentially telling an entirely different story. And it is interesting to explore why director Wes Ball and screenwriter T. S. Nowlin lacked confidence in Dashner’s vision, and why their purportedly superior creation, to me, seems badly miscalculated.
In the novel, the coldly manipulative leaders of WICKED (World In Catastrophe: Killzone Experiment Department), having previously tormented some selected young people by placing them in an enclosure surrounded by a maze filled with lethal cyborgs, have decided to subject the survivors to another ordeal, a forced trek across a barren wilderness termed the “Scorch Trials.” While they are officially on their own as they search for food and water and strive to avoid the insane, homicidal victims of the global plague afflicting humanity, they are being observed by WICKED at all times; they are sometimes provided with helpful hints in the form of suddenly appearing signs; and at one point, when protagonist Thomas is threatened by an infection, WICKED even intervenes to provide him with medical treatment, unwilling to lose this valuable specimen. In sum, as in the first novel and film, the novel’s young people are participating in an elaborate, expensive game, though they are repeatedly told that all their travails represent a vitally important method for transforming them into the saviors of a human race.
In the film, however, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and other veterans of the Maze, joined by new friend Aris (Jacob Lofland), immediately manage to escape from WICKED’s clutches, and their journey across a desert towards the mountains is now their spontaneous effort to track down and join rumored rebels resisting WICKED’s sinister control. Knowing Dashner’s habits, readers will watch the film suspecting that, at some point, all these events will be revealed as yet another of WICKED’s machinations, that Thomas and the others were deliberately allowed to escape and face apparent pursuit as another telling test of their abilities. But nothing in the film supports such an interpretation; instead, it seems that their evil captor, Mr. Janson (Aiden Gillen), was genuinely surprised when some of his subjects eluded his grasp, and genuinely frustrated whenever his efforts to recapture them proved unsuccessful.
To be sure, not all of these changes are Ball and Nowlin’s inventions, because both Janson and the rebel group called the Right Arm appear in Dashner’s third novel, The Death Cure (2011), which also involves Thomas and his friends escaping from and fighting against WICKED. Yet the manner in which these elements are prematurely introduced here reveals a great deal about the proclivities of filmmakers and, I believe, their fundamental misunderstanding of what made Dashner’s novels so popular.
While there is nothing especially impressive about James Dashner’s writing skills, his trilogy is first of all distinctive because of its dogged ambiguity regarding the true nature of WICKED. Yes, members of the organization do some awful things, but they do not otherwise act like villains: at times, they treat their young charges kindly, and their repeated protestations about their virtuous motives seem sincere. Whenever readers are tempted to despise WICKED, one of Dashner’s characters will insist, yet again, that “WICKED is good” (the final comment in The Scorch Trials). But Hollywood despises ambiguity, and Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials establishes beyond any doubt that WICKED is, in fact, very, very wicked. The new character of Dr. Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson) was expressly introduced to provide the series with a presiding villain recalling President Snow from the Hunger Games novels and films; her associate Janson is manifestly a dirty rotten so-and-so; and their actions in the final scenes will make it absolutely impossible to later rehabilitate them as misunderstood heroes. Indeed, we can already anticipate that the final Maze Runner film will conclude with these characters being viciously slaughtered, to the imagined delight of audiences everywhere.
Yet all of this is so, so tiresomely familiar. Most of the people watching Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials have literally seen hundreds of films in which egregiously reprehensible figures like Paige and Janson have been paraded before them for their disapproval. They might have found it refreshing to be confronted, as in Dashner’s novels, with authority figures that cannot be easily identified as either villains or heroes, characters that seem complicated and conflicted as they hesitantly make questionable decisions, and I think the film would have been just as entertaining if Paige and Janson had been presented as potentially sympathetic figures. Yet all too often, filmmakers insist upon treating audiences like children who never want to be confused, and so they pick up their crayons and draw haloes around some characters and draw moustaches on other characters, so you always know who to like and who to dislike.
Dashner also keeps his young characters under WICKED’s control for a long period of time, as they only get away from its oversight in the final novel, and this must have struck Ball and Nowlin as unwise: teenagers don’t want to be under the thumb of nasty adults, they want to be free, so instead of having Thomas and company journey to the mountains under adult supervision, they should be traveling as unfettered free agents, able to do whatever they please. However, as someone who regularly interacts with young people as a college professor, and someone who has watched several films avowedly designed to appeal to young people, I think this represents the attitudes of the younger generation of the 1960s, not the younger generation of today. Yes, my students loathe adults and all the devious ways they contrive to make young people’s lives miserable; yet paradoxically, they also enjoy having them around and knowing that, if anything troubling occurs, they can rely on adults to handle the situation. They responded enthusiastically to Suzanne Collins’s first Hunger Games novel, and Dashner’s first Maze Runner novel, because they involved virtuous youth overcoming challenges and achieving small triumphs while enduring adult control, and significantly, when Collins’s Katniss Everdeen finally escaped from Snow’s repressive regime, she promptly joined an organization governed by good adults who were opposing the bad adults, as observed in the film version of the third novel’s first part, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (review here).
As it happens, despite its apparent effort to liberate its young protagonists from adults, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials ultimately follows the same pattern. In the novel, Thomas and his cohorts team up with the leader of a group of plague victims named Jorge, who is described as a “young Hispanic man.” However, the actor hired to play Jorge, Giancarlo Esposito, is in his fifties, and with his gray hair and ragged white beard, that is exactly how old he looks, providing the film with a new adult character. And while the novel’s Jorge is initially quite unpleasant, even insisting upon killing Thomas’ s friend Minho because he offended him, the film’s Jorge never does anything that objectionable, and he is even given an enhanced heroic role, as he guides Thomas and the others to safety and twice takes action to rescue the group from WICKED’s evil minions. So, although Thomas doesn’t want to be controlled by Janson, he is happy to be controlled by the equally aged Jorge.
The film diverges from Dashner’s novel in another fashion that reflects Hollywood’s attachment to tried-and-true clichés. The novel relates that, as an aftereffect of the solar flares that devastated the Earth, a horrible disease emerged, called the Flare, which eventually tends to transform its victims into violent maniacs; Thomas and his friends are attacked at one point by a group of these deranged individuals, and they constantly fear similar assaults as they travel towards the mountains. However, this is only a minor element in a story that focuses more on the journey as a test of survival skills, as the young people must search for food and water and endure extreme weather conditions. Further, in the novel, the Flare’s effects are neither immediate nor inevitable: both Jorge and his associate Brenda are “Cranks,” victims of the disease, but they remain rational and trustworthy, and another articulate, intelligent Crank explains to Thomas that “Not all Cranks are gone …. Not all of them are past the Gone …. Different ones at different levels.”
However, reading Dashner’s description of a crazed Crank as “covered” with “Sores and scars” and “diseased splotches of what looked like greenish moss,” any screenwriter would immediately think, “Aha – the Zombie Apocalypse! That’s much more exciting than searching for water.” So it is that, except for a moment when Minho (Ki Hong Lee) disgustedly throws away an empty water bottle, and a retained incident in which Minho is struck by lightning, the film projects absolutely no sense that its characters are in conflict with a hostile natural world. Instead, they are constantly preoccupied with battles against violent villains and insane monsters, as the film monotonously provides alternating incidents of these sorts: first, Thomas and his friends elude the gun-wielding soldiers of WICKED; then, they encounter a group of grotesque zombies; then, the soldiers launch another assault; then, some more zombies appear on the scene; and so on until the film gets to the two-hour mark and concludes with a final confrontation with WICKED. In addition, in the film there is nothing ambiguous (that word again!) about the effects of the disease, as it almost immediately turns its victims into mindless murderers; thus, one day after being infected, one of Thomas’s friends starts developing the impulse to slaughter everyone around him and accordingly requests a gun so he can commit suicide.
If audiences are not yet bored by cardboard villains to hiss at, they will surely be yawning as they watch, for at least the hundredth time, a horde of ghastly, deformed humans chaotically hurtling themselves toward beleaguered heroes. Moreover, due to the innumerable films and television programs depicting future diseases that transform people into zombies, we may be raising a generation of people who actually believe this might happen someday. Thus, when I assigned students to write a research paper about a potential future disaster, two of them proposed to examine the Zombie Apocalypse, evidently believing that there exists a vast body of scientific literature describing the possible emergence of such a virulent disease and investigating workable countermeasures. I gently informed them that no disease of this sort has ever existed, and it is extraordinarily unlikely that such a disease will ever appear, due to either natural events or sinister experiments.
In yet another way, the film staggers into well-traveled territory by, unlike the novel, emphasizing physicians as its villains, a device employed in countless films like 2015’s The Lazarus Effect (review here) and Self/less (review here). While initially confined by WICKED, Thomas is distressed because Teresa is being singled out for special treatment, overseen by a suspicious-looking Dr. Crawford (Kathryn Smith-McFlynn) (Teresa later says, “they did something to me”); to convey that their prison is also a hospital, Thomas passes by a sign that reads “Cell Culture Labs”; needles – injected into a dubious Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and carried on a tray to the imprisoned Thomas and his friends – are the film’s symbols of evil; the sinister Dr. Paige identifies herself as a “medical doctor” and always wears a white coat; and in a scene that comes not from the novel but from Robin Cook’s Coma (1977) and its 1978 film adaptation, Thomas and Aris discover that WICKED has filled a room with the hanging, anesthetized bodies of Maze veterans being drained of the fluid in their bodies that counteracts the Flare. This added wrinkle undermines the logic of Dashner’s story: it may not sound especially plausible, but the novels do explain that the Maze and the Scorch Trials were designed to alter the brains of the young Immunes along particular lines that will help scientists develop a cure for the Flare. However, if the Immunes already have a substance in their brains that temporarily suppresses (but does not cure) the Flare, the Maze would appear to have no real purpose, which may explain why the film rarely mentions it.
Perhaps inevitably, there are other aspects of Dashner’s novels that the film neglects. In the first two novels, Dashner describes the strange and ever-changing relationships between Thomas, Teresa, and Aris – who, like Thomas, has been able to telepathically communicate with Teresa. But the filmmakers apparently believed that the whole business of telepathy was too complicated for filmgoers, and while Aris initially functions as Thomas’s helpful ally, he is otherwise given nothing to do. As for Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), except for a final plot twist, all she contributes to the film is to stand around and look distraught, which evidently represents Scodelario’s strength as an actress. The film is more focused on developing Brenda (Rosa Salazar) as Thomas’s potential romantic interest, following standard patterns (again!) in characterizing her as the alluring bad girl to contrast with Teresa, the standoffish good girl. In addition, focused on Thomas as their hero, the film does little with the other survivors of the Maze: Newt only offers an occasional discouraging word; all Frypan (Dexter Darden) does is to steal a naughty glance at a changing Teresa; and the marginalization of Minho is particularly noteworthy, since he is almost as important as Thomas in the novels. But here, when Thomas at one point declares that he must take action to rescue Minho from WICKED, audiences unfamiliar with the novels will wonder why he cares, since the film’s Minho has done nothing to merit his attention or affection.
In short, the makers of Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials have taken a reasonably inventive and innovative novel and transformed it into a less inventive and less innovative film, one insufficiently entertaining to pass the Westfahl Watch Test. (I kept looking at my watch during the film.) Perhaps this is what always will happen when filmmakers, who always know best about what filmgoers like, pick up a text that does not gibe with their proven formulas for success. But they might profitably recall that science fiction novels often become popular precisely because they are offering their audiences something different. It is not a comment that one can make about this science fiction film.