At the beginning of 2014 I stumbled across a list of books you should read in 2014 before the movie comes out. The Maze Runner was on that list. And because it’s part of a trilogy, you can’t very well just read the first one, so I read them all. So, here are a few thoughts and observations that may prepare you for conversations before the movie comes out.
I should be honest with you up front. I didn’t really like the books. That doesn’t mean I didn’t see any thing usable in them, or that I think they should be completely avoided—I’ll tell you some of the good things in the book and how to take some of the things I didn’t like and use them for good in your discussions as well… so if you liked the books, don’t tune me out just yet. Let’s talk about it. If you had a child that wants to read them, then maybe you might want to pause and hear my concerns. Either way, let’s evaluate them and see what is good and what is bad and what is just personal preference…
The General Storyline:
Children find themselves in a maze, a moving labyrinth, with no memory of their life before the labyrinth. Survival is tough there, and not all make it, but they develop a system and a strategy, both for survival and for finding a way out. At the end of the first book, they do get out, but the price is high and many of the children die. As they escape, they learn that they are part of an experiment, and that somehow, they are supposed to be the key to surviving the post-apocalyptic world. Worse, the main character, Thomas, learns that he actually worked to design the maze. He was a part of the team that orchestrated the very circumstances, tests and creatures that killed his best friends, and he volunteered to wipe his memories and join the experiment.
When the youths escape, they find the world a scorched, ravaged, barren place. Strangers show up on the scene and offer to take them to a place of shelter. (This is the start of the second book.) Once again, the kids find themselves trapped and manipulated into another trial, another test designed to measure their responses and find cures a disease that has occurred on the earth since the sun exploded and scorched the earth—essentially it turns people in crazed zombies.
I won’t go into detail on the plot of all the books. The Maze Runner was unique—there are no zombies and you have no idea what is going on. It was engaging and mysterious—I didn’t love it, but I was hopeful for where it was going. But after the first book, the rest of the books (including the prequel which explained how the world arrived at the post-apocalyptic state) seemed to get darker and darker. In fact, I personally found it disturbing. I read the prequel while waiting for the final book to become available at the library and I found that the story was so dark and disturbing it was affecting me (whether it was that particular story or just having spent too much time in the series in general, I’m not sure). I was becoming dark, hopeless, despairing, tense and angry. I literally had to take a break and read something more uplifting. I guess some might argue that it’s the sign of a well written book—that it would so affect its reader, but I am not sure agree. I don’t think it takes a lot of skill to infect someone with dark thoughts—I am impressed with a book when it can bring hope into a dark situation, when it can inspire, uplift and encourage.
I wouldn’t have continued reading the books except for two things: 1. A desire/need to see resolution; and 2. Work—and more particularly, a desire to be able to give an informed, educated response to some of the concerns that I had from reading the first book that weren’t answered until the last book….well, I can’t say they were ever answered, but we’ll get to that. As for resolution, let me say that I don’t actually remember any resolution to the story. I have to really think back to how it ended (I read it this summer). I don’t remember any satisfactory resolution, in fact, I remember being distinctly frustrated that I went all the way through the darkness of the stories with no real conclusion or light at the end (it’s one of those endings that leaves you with questions and a lot of uncertainty, that is open to interpretation—similar to the ending in The Giver, if you read that one, but less hopeful). But what I DO remember, most clearly, is the feelings of darkness, despair, tension and anger the books stirred in me. I remember some of the horror I felt reading the books.
I am not trying to say that everyone who reads the books will feel this. Certainly, people have varying levels of sensitivity to things. I also don’t like horror movies, and I know some people do—I don’t get it, but I know they do. So maybe you’ll think I’m being overly sensitive. Maybe, for some, but I daresay that if they troubled me, there are a lot of youths out there who will be troubled as well. For perspective, let me say that I really enjoyed both the Hunger Games trilogy and the Divergent series. This felt totally different, to me. It seemed far more despairing, darker, harsher. I wasn’t disturbed reading the others like I was this one. There was still something hopeful about the other series that I didn’t feel in this series. Someone more perceptive and astute than I am could put a finer point on it than this, but the best I can do, unfortunately, is to say that this felt really different. So, if the Hunger Games or Divergent was pushing the boundaries for your or your child, then I would be wary of this one, or at least of all the books in the series besides the first one, Maze Runner—and you almost certainly can’t read just one because they kind of leave you hanging.
So, aside from the vague warning that I have to offer about the fact that this series may be a little dark, I have something more concrete that concerns me. THIS is the primary reason why I forced myself to finish the series. In the first book, Thomas runs across a saying: “WICKED is good.” It was a note he wrote to himself. Of course, wickedness is not a good thing, but he told himself that it was. So part of the storyline is trying to understand what “WICKED is good” actually means.
I have to admit, the moment I read that, my radar was on high alert. Isaiah 5:20 cautions, “Woe to them who call evil good,” so I’m immediately wary when I’m reading a book that is centered around a phrase, “WICKED is good”. It would be concerning in any book, but all the more when it’s teen fiction. These are impressionable minds the book is aiming at—not that we aren’t all susceptible and impressionable at some level, but teen minds are all the more so. I figured WICKED was probably an acronym—it is, but that doesn’t let it off the hook. It was still a choice the writer made to use THAT acronym and to make THAT statement. It was a choice to be provocative for the sake of the story, for sure, but also I dare say the choice was about more than simply entertainment. The writer could have chosen any word in the world to start that statement and he chose that one. The acronym stands for: World in Catastrophe, Killzone Experiment Department, if you’re curious.
I was curious if they would come to decide in the end that WICKED was actually bad. I didn’t really like the fact that they tease the idea of it being a good thing through 4 volumes, but maybe, if in the end they show it was really bad, it could have been done in a way as to make a powerful point. If not, I was going to have decidedly hostile feelings toward the series.
In the end, the conclusion about WICKED was about as ambiguous as the conclusion of the story. This is not a black and white world. Things aren’t clear. The world is being ravaged by a horrific disease which does things far worse than simply kill a person. There’s no clear enemy to fight (which is one of the things which set apart this series from the Hunger Games). The enemy is the disease and sun flares which created global warming (on steroids); it’s nature itself. WICKED was an organization that was hoping to find a cure by testing (often to the death) the kids who seemed to have an immunity. The world needed answers…and the lines between right and wrong were blurry. Is it right or acceptable to sacrifice a person, or a few people, for the hope that the masses might live? The things WICKED sanctioned were unthinkable, and yet, when you understand the urgency and desperation of the situation, you begin to understand how they could have begun to excuse their actions.
I didn’t like the ambiguous ending. I didn’t like not being sure if a cure was ever found or not, but perhaps that was the right ending, much as I hate to admit it. Perhaps because the situation was so morally ambiguous if they had given a conclusive ending, the author would have had to choose sides. He would have had to conclude whether or not WICKED really WAS good or bad. He left it open to interpretation—which is the right ending if you don’t want to actually say anything about the world other than life is tough and can be confusing. It’s the right ending if you want to challenge people to think, maybe…I’m trying to be generous here. But I lean more towards thinking that it’s the coward’s way out on this one. The author created an opportunity to actually say something. He had an opportunity to take a stand, to make a difference, to inspire and influence, to say that individuals matter, that the ends don’t justify the means…he could have said any number of things worth saying…but in the end, he left everything as a giant, despairing question mark.
I recognize that the author is tapping into the fact that the world isn’t always black and white, and that there are many who will resonate with that. However, (besides the fact that I don’t think that ambiguity is covered well), just because he may tap into something that is true, doesn’t make it an age appropriate truth. There are many issues in the book I’m not sure are really age appropriate, for example, the kids who are having to decide whether or not they should kill their friends if they get infected. It’s the idea of mercy-killing, and in the book, there are times when someone will beg their friend to kill them and the friend has to decide what to do. That’s a rough choice to face and one that, fortunately, few of us will ever be faced with. But in reading this book, everyone has to live through it, and they have to go through it ill-equipped to make a good decision. There’s no help, no wise counsel to appeal to, no Biblical standard, just kids blindly trying to decide what’s right and wrong. And in the end, we don’t have real answers to the dilemmas, or even hope or comfort.
The post-apocalyptic world is brutal, but it’s also very real in some ways. It’s not as far removed from reality as Katniss’ world is in the Hunger Games. There’s the thought that the world really could end up in some sort of similarly dire situation as a result of similar natural conditions, and there’s little hope for how that ends up. In reality, we may not know what the future holds and yes, things may become very difficult for us, but first off, just because it is an actual possibility that doesn’t automatically make it appropriate bedtime reading for kids. I really question the age appropriateness for young adult readers of the moral struggles and hard choices/situations the kids in the book (and consequently the readers) find themselves in. (The birds and the bees are true too, but that doesn’t automatically make it appropriate for a four year old.)
Secondly, we need not face such difficult situations with neither compass nor hope. We do have a compass; help to guide us in making tough decisions—the Bible. And we have hope, also found in the Bible. Jesus wins! GOOD wins! We may have to suffer at the hands of wicked men, but it will end, and Jesus will come again, and there will be a new Heaven and a new earth. We aren’t left with some cliff hanger ending, wondering if, after the tribulation anyone makes it or not. Even those who die are resurrected and all things will be made new…better than new. This is the story of someone who doesn’t have hope, who doesn’t know Jesus, who doesn’t have any certainty that the story turns out alright in the end. It may be how many people view life, but it’s not the whole story. There is hope and a promise for us and our world.
One last irritation as I read the books may bear mentioning: the language. The kids don’t “cuss” exactly, but they have their own language, with their own unique cuss words that are basically knock-off’s of “real” cuss words that the gladers (kids in the book) use prolifically. It’s as if the author wrote the book as if it was a bunch of foul-mouthed cussing kids talking, but then, to make it acceptable to all audiences, took out the cuss words and replaced them with words he invented. It’s not hard to come up with direct translations for each of the words, for example, they call each other “shuck-face”… not much of a stretch to imagine what that would be if the book wasn’t edited for the young adult section.
I am not sure why this bothered me quite like it did. I certainly have my own vocabulary of substitutionary words that I use to avoid the crasser vulgarities used by most. I say “shoot” and “ding, dang, dong” and “sugar” and “darn”… and occasionally I may say “freaking” or “flipping”…though I’ve tried to use those less lately. So I can’t say exactly why this was grating, except for the fact that it was so much more noticeable than in most books. It’s like being around someone who doesn’t use the “f” word, but who says “freaking” before Every. Freaking. Word. For emphasis. Just like some people use the “f” word before Every. F’ing. Word. For emphasis. As if Every. Flipping. Word. Actually needs emphasis. It’s too much.
So those are my primary issues with the books: the consuming darkness I felt reading them; the lack of resolution/satisfaction in the ending; the moral ambiguity; the statement that WICKED is good—no matter how you may feel about that statement in the end, you question if it could be true throughout four books; and the language. The author gets by on technicalities. It’s like when your kid intentionally misleads you when he answers your questions, but when you challenge him on it he says he didn’t technically do anything wrong…and you know he’s technically right. But God is concerned with the heart, not just technicalities. I feel the author is missing that…the concern with the heart.
I know I’ve just bashed on this a bit, and that can be a sensitive thing, especially if you read the book and liked it. SO, let me offer some positives—some positive things about the book, and some ways to turn the negative things in this book into positives…or at least ways to make the most out of it.
First off, I truly believe that any time you read a book (or watch a movie) that deals with the end of the world as we know it, with war, and/or with life and death situations, you have several valuable opportunities. First off, it’s a chance to reevaluate what matters in life. All the frivolous stuff becomes just that…frivolous—it’s the chaff that blows away in the wind and what’s left behind is the good stuff, the life-sustaining substance. The Maze Runner doesn’t have a lot of fluff. No one is complaining about not having the newest cell phone, or matching shoes and handbag.
Another benefit of these extreme situations is the opportunity to see real heroism. The kids are all together in the glade, desperate to survive, and to do so, they learn to depend on each other. They learn sacrifice. They learn to truly love and care for each other. Character matters when you are struggling to survive and have to work together to do it. There are plenty of opportunities to discuss and examine choices the characters make, sacrifices, matters of character, etc. In these books, because so many of the situations are so morally ambiguous – they provide a lot of provocative opportunities for discussion. You may not agree with the situations, but because things aren’t clear cut, they are ripe for discussion, and probably far more appealing to non-believers or kids who are on the edge, whose lives haven’t been simple either. Those kids in particular will likely resonate with the ambiguity and confusion, and be eager to enter into discussions that they may shy away from in stories that are a little too Leave it to Beaver or Polyanna for their tastes.
Because the stories focus on cataclysmic events, end of the world kinds of stuff, it’s also an opportunity to discuss what the Bible says about the end of the world. “What did you think about the ending? Oh, you didn’t like not knowing how things turned out? What if I told you the Bible actually does tell you how things turn out? …”
The same is true of the any of the concerns I’ve brought up. Take the darkness and the ambiguity in the books—they give you opportunity to enter into discussions with those who have read it and ask them their thoughts. What did they think about the stories? Did they find them dark? How would they compare them to the Hunger Games or Divergent? Which was better and why? How could the ending have been better? Did the darkness in the books affect you in any way? What did you think about the statement “WICKED is good”? What do you conclude about WICKED? Do you think the author is trying to make a point about life in that statement? Did you find that the story was making a statement, or was it ambiguous? Explain. See how, instead of attacking all that is negative about it (as I did earlier), those negatives can become discussion points, opportunities to challenge the fan or reader to think about things, to form their own opinions (beyond the basic I liked it or I didn’t like it)? It’s all just an opportunity.
When you are talking to someone who has read the books, use it as an opportunity to ask questions and engage, not necessarily to criticize and judge. I’m not saying you can’t voice your own opinions about it, but share them as an opinion, not a judgment (this is a hard one, I know), if you must. Do it in such a way that opens the door for more discussion and thoughtful consideration on their part, not in a way that makes them defensive or in a way that is definitive and shuts down conversation and openness. The goal is to get them thinking and questioning and searching for truth, not simply to air your opinions as the ultimate truth, or to convince them to see the world your way. They don’t need to think the way you think, they need to learn to seek after the heart of God for how He would have them think. You won’t always be there to give them answers, but God will.
If you are considering whether to read the books, or whether to let your child read them, or if you are talking with someone else who is considering reading them, think carefully about how things affect you. Think about the value of what goes into your mind, and whether or not this is a good and wise thing for you (or them). If they are already struggling with feeling like the world is a dark place, if they are sensitive by nature, if they are going through a difficult season…this may not be the right series. There are so many other wonderful books to read in this world, why not spend your time and energy on something that is inspiring, hopeful and life-giving? Just a thought to consider.
Here are some questions for discussion:
- What did you think about the stories?
- Did you find the stories dark?
- How would you compare them to the Hunger Games or Divergent? Which was better and why?
- How could the ending have been better?
- Compare this series with the Bible, both deal with end of the world, apocalyptic type destruction. What are the differences in the way the two stories handle the end of the world? Which do you think handles it better?
- Which story ends with more hope, the Bible or the Maze Runner series? Why?
- Did the darkness in the books affect you in any way?
- What did you think about the statement “WICKED is good”?
- Do you know that God said “Woe to anyone who calls evil good”? Do you think that applies here?
- What do you conclude about WICKED?
- Do you think the author is trying to make a point about life in that statement (WICKED is good)? Do you think maybe he is saying something intentionally contrary to the Bible?
- Did you find that the story was making a statement, or was it ambiguous? Explain.
- What did you think about the kids made-up cuss words? Do you think they were cussing or not? Why? What actually makes something a cuss-word?
- How did the stories make you feel? How did they affect you?
- What do you think was the point to the series? What was the author trying to say about the world?
- Did it bother you that things were clear cut, right and wrong, or did you think that was honest?
- Is your world, your life, dark and hopeless and hard like in this series? Did you relate to that about these stories?
- In the end, do you think reading these books improved your life in any way? Or did they harm it? (Or was it a non-event, a neutral outcome?) What books have you read that had a positive impact on your life? How did this compare? Could the author have done something different that would have increased the book’s positive impact?
 “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.”