The Maze Runner is a story of a young man, Thomas, who is brought into the heart of a Maze, and leads a band of boys out of the Maze into the “real world” of the adults. It is a post-apocalyptic story about growing up. Think Labyrinth without the whimsy and an all male cast. Think Lord of the Flies meets Ender’s Game. This story, which targets young adults, intimately resonates on multiple levels with US Americans of all ages.
Level 1: Psychological
On the most basic level, Maze Runner is a story about childhood and growing up. The symbology of biological birth and mental process of development are overarching metaphors throughout the film.
Let’s break this down. The movie begins with a boy going up a dark shaft into the light, imagery which evokes the birthing process. He is then whisked away into isolation (early childhood,) and, after much pain, is given a name: Thomas.
While the boys at first seem brutal, uncontrolled, and anarchistic, we see Thomas slowly being socialized with them. He’s partnered up with one of the youngest boys and is portrayed to be (labeled as) less experienced, less powerful, and in all ways but physically, “younger” than his teacher.
As the “day” (time) progresses, we see that the boys have a semblance of order and a power hierarchy. Thomas learns about the cliques: common talents lend certain boys to come together, and they are given jobs which reinforce those skillsets. Specialization leads to a stronger focus on what each person’s strength and, in some cases, an overestimation of what his capabilities are.
The heart of the maze where the boys live is named the Glade. Gally directly says, “The Glade is my home.” This taps into the idea of a childhood home we have, complete with rules. Albee serves as a parental figure being more experienced (symbolically older) than any of the others. He creates the rules of the Home, explaining to Thomas “If you want to stay here…follow the rules.” Newt, another boy of the Glade, later confides to Thomas that he cannot imagine how different Albee’s life was before the other boys’ arrivals. This closely aligns with children’s struggle to see their parents as anything but adults. Like adolescents who grapple with empathizing with their parents, Newt contemplates how different Albee must have been, how his difficulties are comparable yet much harsher than Newt’s and Thomas’s own struggle (to grow up,) before the first arrival of another boy (before the first birth into the Glade family.)
While Albee’s pseudo-adult role and Newt’s internal struggles all mirror developmental phases of growing up, Thomas pushes his independence by declaring, “We don’t belong here.” His pursuit of independence brings new, harsh truth to light: being evil is necessary. Time is running out for those living in the idyll, the Eden of the Glade. Intermittently, a boy is given a short of harsh medicine; a machine injects him with a “venom” that wakes the boys up to harsh realities of the adult world. All are overwhelmed by this poison and go mad without the normalizing, calming antidote found from the same structure that made the venomous machines.
Struggling with the fact that the cure is in the source, the boys are left to wonder if, truly, “Wicked is Good.” The black and white morality of the Glade is broken by the new reality that destruction makes way for creation and rebirth, and they are presented with the challenge of the ends/means dilemma. This part of upbringing overlaps with our next level of meaning, socio-educational.
Level 2: Sociological: Educational Level
Another layer of interpretation and resonance lies in the Maze Runner symbology resonating with socio-educational development of individuals in the US. Socio-educational development encompasses socialization, education of facts, and teaching of critical thinking skills.
As mentioned before, Gladers are isolated upon their arrival to the world, much like children are isolated from society (i.e. stay with their parents) from ages 0-5. After a period of time, new Gladers are introduced to peers, similarly to how children are enrolled in school at age 6.
The Gladers struggle to learn the Maze, but it changes every night. In schooling, children strive to learn the material, but each year they repeat the similar tasks with slightly deeper knowledge, and slight changes. (This is true of all subject areas, but perhaps easiest explained with a math example. In elementary school, we are taught that adding two things together always makes more than the previous two. In middle school, we are introduced to negative numbers, and adding two things together no longer always means having “more.”)
Several days later, Theresa arrives, and now the boys are interacting with a girl. Developmentally, we see the boys have now entered adolescence, and the opposite sex is part of their lives. They have mixed feelings about girls, from Chuck’s “Girls are awesome” to Gally’s continuing (increasingly loud) complaints of changes to the sacrosanct Glade.
Shortly thereafter, Thomas leads the boys to conquer the maze (the education system) and they are rewarded with the knowledge of the darkest realities of the world, from which they were protected while in the Glade. This aligns with US education of ages 12-14, in which children are educated about the evils of the world: genocide (particularly the Holocaust,) poverty (particularly the third world,) hunger, famine, war (WWI and WWII, and later wars on foreign soil that the US has fought.) Growing up in the United States, we struggle with a legacy that has committed atrocity, sometimes through direct action, and other times by turning a blind eye (ignoring what is going happening in other parts of the world.) We are proud to be US American, but there is some evil here. We struggle with “Wicked is Good.”
The leader of WCKD tells Thomas, “Everything we’ve done to you, we’ve done for a reason.” Perhaps, as adults, the best thing we give our children is new life, and the worst thing we give them is the world of our making.
Level 3: Generational – Hacker Gen
“You’re not like the others. You’re curious.” Alby to Thomas
This line heralds the arrival of the Hacker generation. Much of the plot and character tension of Maze Runner dip into generational changes of the past decade. Millennials and the post-Millennial generation, what I posit to be the “Hacker Gen,” have distinctive opinions towards both curiosity and change, which are examined in this film.
The Millennials, born in the 1990s, grew up in a tumultuous world. In their childhood, they were impacted by the great hope and novelty of the internet. They were the first generation to receive instant gratification for any knowledge or physical pursuits. Their adolescence was marred by 9/11, which, at this time, is the most defining moment of their lives: They see their lives as pre-9/11 and post-9/11. The birth of the digital age influenced the world in innumerable ways, and this generation was trying to sort out their personal identities at the same time as being bombarded with these world changes. They have developed an indifference to new things, and many institutions of higher learning are remarking upon their lack of curiosity. Gladers or the other young people in the film, are described as not having the curiosity that Thomas exhibits. They do not want to go into the unknown, they do not want any more information than what they already have, and they want to stay in their habitat which they’ve made as stable as possible. Thomas, is the newest young person (youngest) and exhibits a curiosity on all dimensions, and thus is a member of the Hacker Gen.
The Hacker Gen is curious. They are born into the broken world that the Millennials have become disillusioned by, and they see hope for improvement. They are intimately aware that “the only thing constant is change,” and they work the system in a positive way, using their abilities to work with, instead of against the systems that be.
Thomas, the personification of the Hacker gen, flies through puzzles and challenges, but also pushes for change. Not only are members of the Hacker Gen curious about the broken systems of the world, but they hope to change them. They are pushing for more change, not less. Millennials, personified by Gally, see change as negative and intimidating, possibly because the biggest change that crystallized in their lives is 9/11. Gally, when prodded by Thomas to explain his dislike of the boy, vents, “Ever since you go here, things have started to change.” Gally (Millennials) doesn’t want any more change, and Thomas (Hacker Gen) pushes for more change.
At the very end of the film, we see one final cross-generational conversation. An adult, who in this extended metaphor would be standing in for a Gen Y-er, which is the last generation to have postive view of change, consoles both Thomas (Hacker Gen) and the others (Millenials along for the ride,) “Don’t worry, kids, everything’s going to chage.”
Teasing out generational identities through distinctive traits:
||Appx Birth Year (current age)
||Fight for Civil Rights and improved life circumstances of
||-post Baby Boom-Cold War
||-highest rate of volunteerism among generations-Are currently “set in their ways” and no longer embrace large changes.
||-last generation to remember a time before the internet
||-Grapples with change, but embraces it.-adapted to use technology.
||-1st generation born into the internet and cell phone age.-their childhood is defined by the great hope the internet would have to change the world for the better.
-Grew up with the joy of instant gratification of the digital age.
|-Disillusionment and unable to grapple with huge changes (internet, 9/11) that occurred at the same time as stressful adolescence.-This disillusionment is manifested in the rise of emo-music and the popularity of films/books to have darker tones.
-Overwhelmed by the plurality of ideals and identities presented to them; therefore, defined by a lack of curiosity. (No news is good news, mentality)
||-Younger siblings of Millennials, these young people see the world as filled with flaws and systemic flaws, and strive to navigate around them.
||-Adept to change.-Curious of new facts.
||TBD; possibly redefinition of gender roles
Level 4: US American Culture
On a final level of resonance, we see US American acculturalization being an active agent in the film. In addition to the well played racial diversity among the Gladers, we see two tenets of USian culture come into importance through the plot of the film: devaluing of the past and risk taking.
Insert graphic of US perspective on time, vs european and chinese.
America runs. Running is a very apt metaphor for the speed of American culture. Sprinting perhaps more so. When one runs, the destination and velocity are key: One’s focus is on where they are heading, especially the next few steps ahead. What is passed is of no importance. The next twenty to fifty feet are the most important to handle, and all else falls away.
Our culture as a whole has a similar priority span. The past falls away, the distant future glimmers in our periphery, and the immediate future consumes our thoughts. The ever present question is “What’s next?” For politics, for marketing, for mass media–What’s next?
Maze Runner teaches this beyond the title and rising action of running the maze. Minho instructs Thomas several times “Don’t look back.” Yes, this is in relation to the act of running, but the larger significance of it reaches deeper. Later, Newt states assuredly, “It doesn’t matter who you were. What matters is what you do here, now.” The importance of immediacy over history and austerity is again reiterated. This idea is further concreted by the combination of ever present change, as stated by Theresa at the beginning of the story and the adult man at the end. The past is devalued and priority is given to the present and immediate future.
“It seems to be a law of nature, inflexible and inexorable, that those who will not risk cannot win.” -John Paul Jones
This quote by the Father of the US Navy is printed on the pages of my US Passport. As illogical and unreasonable as it may seem, risk taking is rewarded in US culture and economics. There are structures in place to promote risk taking behavior and ventures. This idea is tied up with the free enterprise ideal in US capitalist economy, but, where one idea flows deeply in one part of society, other parts of society feel that pull as well.
In Maze Runner, Thomas takes risks over and over and is rewarded each time, either by surviving, winning battles, or being praised. He conquers fear over and over and pushes forward. At one point, Minho queries Thomas’s confidence, “Are you sure about this?” Thomas replies, “No” and they begin their next risk against the Maze. Risks are rewarded in the Maze as they are in our country at large.
Conclusion: Having multi-dimensional resonance is the most effective way of creating a successful piece of art. Even if one dimension doesn’t resonate, others might, and then a type of familiarity is acquired for the non-resonating significance/content. Maze Runner is a best-selling novel and now the first installment of a four part film series. Not only is the world dark and intriguing, but the story resonates on multiple levels–as seen in this post: psychological, educational/sociological, generational, and cultural–and if one resonance layer doesn’t hit, another probably will. This multi-functionality of the story allows it to be easily accessible and significant to consumers, while tapping into and giving voice and validity to their internal struggles and tension they deal with in their everyday lives. Maze Runner functions as an impactful story for most people, and this impact makes it a cultural artifact of our time and a piece of Great Art.