Diversity in Young Adult Lit: Why You Should Go See “The Maze Runner”

Let me say this before we get started: I quite openly disliked The Maze Runner book. I found the characters boring, the excessive infodumping cumbersome, and the style somewhat lacking. The book didn’t keep me engaged, I wasn’t rooting for anyone. But the plot (which, I’d argue, works better as a screenplay) originally pulled me in.

We start with a boy riding in a freight elevator, with no memory of anything that has come before. When he reaches his destination, a large group of 12-18 year old boys stare down at him. Our hero, confused and overwhelmed, runs from the group, only to discover he won’t be running far. He’s in his new home, “The Glade:” a giant field surrounded by high cement walls. Outside the Glade is a massive maze, about five stories tall and ever-changing. Each morning the boys send out Runners to map the maze, and search for a way out. No one has any memory of what happened before the freight elevator (save their names), and they’ve been trying to find the exit to the maze for three years.

The movie takes this plot and soars with it. The story builds itself on action-packed scenes and big surprises—which translate to tight camera angles, tons of night filters, and a healthy dose of dramatic music. But none of these individual parts feel overwhelming (it doesn’t get campy or silly), they just play with already well-created, tense scenes. And the plot is pulled out neatly, if somewhat quickly, as the tension of the changing maze begins to effect the group.

Where in the book the characters often became interchangeable and forgettable, the actors bring life to these boys. Dylan O’Brien creates a brave and thoughtful Thomas, and Aml Ameen shows us a wise, but fraught Alby. And our resident villain, Gally (played by Will Poulter, sniveling Eustace in The Chronicles of Narnia movies) is fleshed out and deliberate—he is more than just the bad guy, but rather a confused, if somewhat bull-headed, young man. What’s more is that the interactions with these boys is familial, but strained—think Lord of the Flies without devolving into chaos. Each of the actors (including the smaller roles) flesh out a group of boys desperately trying to be men in this new world they’ve been tossed into.

Finally, my favorite thing about this movie: the diverse cast. In the book, James Dashner makes a point of telling the reader the race of each of the boys. It doesn’t effect their personalities much (seeing as how they have no memories), but it does say something purposeful about the society they’ve built for themselves in the Glade—they are all equal. What’s more, it gives us diverse faces in the often very white world of young adult literature.

I don’t know whether to credit Denise Chaiman (the casting director) or Wes Ball (the director), but after the disaster with The Hunger Games, it’s refreshing to see a movie adaption that hasn’t been whitewashed. Aml Ameen does an incredible job as the group’s leader (Alby), and Ki Hong Lee is charming as Minho. On top of that, a diverse cast of extras fill out the Glade—again, something not even The Hobbit can apparently pull off well. In these minority roles are mostly unknown actors, giving them a jumpstart for their careers.

Going to see this movies means speaking to Hollywood the only way they will listen: with your money. By supporting this film, we can say “Hey, I like this movie with its diverse cast and new actors. And look! There isn’t even any sexualization of anyone in this film! I want to see more movies like this!” The Maze Runner could be the start of some big changes we can effect in the movie industry, if we show them what we want. It’s not only a smart, fun action movie, but it is a platform for diversity. Now, let’s support it.

The Maze Runner opened everywhere Friday, September 19th. Check for local movie times.