Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Maze Runner: Something WICKED This Way Comes

The Maze Runner took the YA world by storm in 2009, winning the New York State Charlotte Award, the Kentucky Bluegrass Award, the Oregon Reader’s Choice Award the New Hampshire Isinglass Teen Read Award, the Missouri Truman Readers Award, the Illinois Abraham Lincoln Award , the Tennessee Volunteer State Book Award, the Arizona Grand Canyon Reader Award, the Georgia Peach Book Award , and the New Jersey Garden State Book Award.

So, yeah, it's kind of a big deal. Dashner went on to write three more books in the series: The Scorch Trials, The Death Cure, and a prequel called The Kill Order). The previews for the upcoming film look promising, so I suspect it will be a hit as well. However, as much as I enjoyed The Maze Runner (and am looking forward to the movie), I grew increasingly frustrated as I read the remaining books. Please be aware there will be all kinds of spoilers as I offer some thoughts about the series.

The Maze Runner

A boy named Thomas wakes up in a village populated solely by other teenage boys. He doesn't know who or where he is. He learns they all live in the middle of a maze that changes every day. Runners go out every morning attempting to map the maze, then return every night before mechanical monsters kill them (or at least make them wish they were dead). Somehow the maze is important, but no one knows why.

Soon after a girl named Theresa shows up. As if the arrival of the first girls wasn't amazing enough, the monsters invade the town and begin killing kids one by one. Thomas and Theresa's evacuation plan saves most of them - but those who break free don't like what they find.

They are living in a huge building in the middle of a post-extinction event world. Sunspots have wiped out most of the earth's population, and a horrible brain virus called the Flare has been turning people violently insane. The kids are experimental subjects who have volunteered themselves for a series of trials which could theoretically result in a cure. The Maze Runner showed us the first in a series of horrible tests they are about to face without ever being sure if they being tested or are experiencing real life.

The Scorch Trials and The Death Cure

The organization behind their trials is called World in Catastrophe: Killzone Experiment Department. It is comprised of all the countries that survive the disaster. The leaders decide to release a virus called the Flare that will attack the human brain and kill a large percentage of humanity so that the earth can sustain whoever is left. Their plan backfires.  The Flare quickly morphed into a slow-acting virus that turned people into raging, hate-filled crazies.

The kids are immune to the virus, but nobody knows why. WICKED basically kidnaps and brainwashes them, subjecting them to all kinds of terrible scenarios (like the maze and steady attacks by victims of the Flare) while mapping their brains to figure out how an immune brain fights the virus.

WICKED is in a devilish dilemma: if they don't get the kids, all humanity will die. If they do get the kids, they will have to do terrible things to them so that humanity can live. The phrase WICKED IS GOOD keeps popping up, reminding us that all is not what it seems. Is WICKED good or bad? It's not entirely clear how we are supposed to view them (though Dashner has said in an interview that nothing is simply good or evil.)  They give eminently compelling reasons for even the most atrocious things they do. 

One thing is for sure: if humanity is to be rescued, it will be at a terrible price to their saviors. The kids have been tortured non-stop and forced to become merciless in order to survive. It's hard to know what to think of them. They are ruthless killers, grudge-holders, deceivers, and increasingly calloused operatives for the sake of the greater good. At one point, Thomas gets so angry that he chokes a man until his eyes pop out. Thomas sometimes forgets what he does in those moments of rage, leading him to think he has the FLARE. He doesn't.

Yet they also long for peace, love, and truth. The problem is that they been put in a situation where it seems inevitable that you will betray and hurt the ones you love the most. It's all part of the tests - maybe. Or maybe not. The longer the series goes, the more they despair of ever knowing the truth or finding the cure. 

Eventually, about two hundred teenagers escape to a beautiful wilderness bursting with life (in some ways it ends where The 100 begins). If they wait until every other human being on earth is dead, they can wander back toward a civilization that has collapsed and try to rebuild it. Brenda hints pretty boldly that she and Thomas are going to work at repopulating the earth, so at least the waiting and rebuilding won't be boring. Perhaps those who remain can put the wickedness behind them and turn this second Eden into a second chance.

I liked The Maze Runner. Though violent, it set up a pretty clever sic-fi thriller/ cautionary morality tale about and the dangers of letting the ends justify the means. Combine engaging writing with  Mr. Dashner's stated goal to have the kids become more organized, more lawful, more determined, and more hopeful as the series unfolded, and you have a solid base in place for a compelling story.

Unfortunately, it felt like the the overall series did not live up to its promise or his goals. When WICKED uses the ends to justify the means, it is shown as appropriately terrible; when the kids do it, we are often meant to root for them. The chaos at the beginning felt mild compared to the chaos in the end. And the stunning amount of horrific violence the kids must use to survive would certainly chip away at their souls far more deeply than the series suggests. (In YA fiction, I happen to like Jonathan Maberry's Rot and Ruin series or Bacigalupi's The Drowned Cities for a more realistic look at the toll violence takes on us). 

Mr. Dashner has said that he "had no message in mind" when he wrote the story. I think a more focused intent could have turned the series into a sobering story about both the corruption and potential in human nature. As it is, a good start gives way to a world that features morally ambiguous heroes and villains, a confusing mix of good and evil, a lot of graphic and what at times felt like gratuitous violence, and an ending that will leave many readers frustrated.

I suspect the movie will be good. Perhaps the overall story arc will be retold as it changes mediums (The Walking Dead and Under the Dome have done it with good success; Edge of Tomorrow at least tried). Here's hoping!

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