James Dashner – The Maze Runner

mazerunner
Did Dashner ever read a book? There is potential here, but for the most part the Maze Runner is a bad narration of a video game. It’s a bad idea at heart, but a talented author can narrate a Point-and-Click game and capture some of the energy. Dashner makes literature and video games collide, forgetting the strengths of either.

In a typical Adventure game, your character has no personality. Its purpose is to follow your command. You are the one experiencing things. Adventure games are one huge and colorful puzzle that are fun not only because we’re in the dark, but because we have to do the navigation. In Maze Runner, we’re also in the dark but we’re lead through it. We never make a choice.

Since literature robs the viewer of participation, it uses other techniques to make the story feel alive. The main one is, of course, developing characters. Give them a personality, wants, needs and other things that govern their behavior. We start to see people like us. We may not make the choices, but we still see choices being made.

Even when we’re playing Adventure games where we have a clear, singular purpose our personality still governs us. Our psychology influences how we approach the problems. So even if your story is a puzzle the characters solve, you need these characters developed enough to show us how they reach their choices. That’s why puzzle stories like Cube or some of the Saw films are exciting. Not only there is a mystery to solve, but we see its effect on people.

Dashner never comes close to developing his characters. His puzzle is cool enough. Mazes are badass by nature and the moving wall is a nice twist. Yet Dashner never builds a society around this, even though he has potential. He tries using some made-up slang, but it comes off as stupid. Why would they come up with another word for ‘shit’? Slang develops because there is a direct connection between the new word and the meaning, but the new word needs to add something. ‘Horrorshow’ tells us something about the society in Clockwork Orange and its obsession with violence. What does the word ‘klunk’ adds? It’s not even a useful reference for Klayton’s (AKA Celldweller’s) band. That one is spelled Klank.

A society trapped in such an odd situation should develop its own culture. Its main attributes are roughness. Dashner gives the society a structure and never explore their interaction. The Glade is fairly similar to a small military base. It has its leaders, the maintenance workers and the frontliners. The relationship between these are complex, since all roles are necessary but some are harder than others, and there are those who have a higher purpose. Some of the bosses get a few lines, but the focus is where the excitement’s at – with the runners. The job isn’t presented as too glorious, but half of the Glade is forgotten.

Not that the main characters get attention. The camera is on them, but they’re video game characters. They do what they do because it’s convenient. Trapped settings, contrary to popular beliefs, don’t limit character growth. Just because the characters only has one choice doesn’t mean they don’t have a personality. The people who vote for the only party in the country still have an opinion on it. In fact, it’s very interesting to explore the feelings of being trapped, of being confined and not having any choices. Isn’t it what’s commonly considered a fate worse than death?

The problem with Thomas isn’t that he’s a Gary Stu and extremely moral. The choices he makes are convenient to the plot, but there’s never another reason other than convenience for it. Some people are extremely moral and righteous, but if your character is like this you have to answer some questions. What does it feel like to be so moral? What drives a person to be so moral? Dashner touches on how society perceives heroes, but don’t superhero movies beat the ‘don’t trust the good guys’ shtick to the ground?

The rest of the cast does nothing. You have a bumbling friend, a girl who dispenses information, and two leaders, one rougher than the others. The only unique thing Dashner does is make the obligatory rival more understandable. There’s always a mystery surrounding it, as if all the hatred he holds isn’t just because he’s an asshole. It’s revealed there is more to it than that, but the answer is not satisfying.

At worst, this could’ve been a fun and weird adventure. As I’ve said, the setting is charming enough. Dashner cannot mine its coolness, though. The main technique he uses is withholding information. In fact, Dashner is so in love with this technique the characters use it, too. Pages and pages consists of people refusing to answer Thomas’ questions, and why? They admit being just as confused as he was the first time. It’s not like the setting is complex. Yet everytime Thomas asks a question, they answer with ‘shut up!’. I know they’re teenagers, but they’re teenagers who built society in a weird pseudo-dystopia.

It’s a shame, because Dashner occasionally creates a sense of mystery. Besides moving walls, there are steel plates with writing on them, an invisible hole and a carefully constructed facility. It’s obvious someone’s in control of the whole thing, and Dashner should’ve played on it. He should’ve made the Creators do more things, affect the setting more. There’s something unnerving about being trapped in a place where the people in control don’t want to kill or torture you. Dashner never plays on that.

He spends most of the time telling us things we already know. That’s a weird way of withholding information, but it’s still a bad technique. Dashner’s prose is often annoying. At worst, authors of such Young Adult books have minimalist prose without bullshit. Condie and Roth may not be great prose stylist, but they never ramble. The prose here feels unedited, with explanations accompanying every line of dialogue. Why is that?

The book only survives on its charm. The ending and the setting are imaginative enough. With Dashner’s dead prose and non-existent characterization, I doubt he will build on the potential here. Slightly better authors than him fell in the sequels. I still have hope, but that’s my demon.

2 mazes out of 5

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