The Maze Runner, the new post-apocalyptic film based on James Dashner’s 2009 book, has a strong lead female and a diverse cast in terms of race (what a nice change from the too-white Hunger Games!). But, when I mention “a strong lead female,” I literally mean “a”—yes, as in one—one female among a gaggle of adolescent males, and her role is nowhere near as key as that of various lead males.
The explanation as to why this group of adolescent males (and one female) are locked up in a pastoral “glade,” which is itself imprisoned in a massive maze, is compelling and promises all sorts of possibilities for complex critique. However, this backstory is not revealed until the very end of the film and only minutely hinted at over the course of the movie. I won’t give away the jaw-dropper of an ending, but it makes the fact that all those locked in the glade are male even more disturbing, suggesting the reasoning behind an all-male society is profoundly sexist.
I went into the theater hoping for another Hunger Games, or perhaps a modern Lord of the Flies; instead, I got some genuine scares and enough drama to keep me in my seat, though I did find myself wishing the film moved along quicker. The mystery of the maze, and the world beyond it, kept me watching, but with no Katniss, Rue, or Peeta to root for; no core political critique to drive the narrative; and only a pastoral glade filled with adolescent males and not a conch shell in sight, I found myself daydreaming about utopian and dystopian narratives generally, wondering why they can’t tell their tales between the covers of one book or film any more.
Why does it now take three or more installments to tell the story of these worlds? The best dystopian texts only take one volume/film: The Handmaid’s Tale, Woman on the Edge of Time, Brave New World, 1984, When She Woke. Granted, none of these have been made into blockbuster films (though Atwood’s text got a passing adaptation starring Natasha Richardson back in 1990).
Part of the reason such novels are not adapted (or at least not adapted well, as with the attempts to adapt Brave New World) is that there is too much intellectual and political meat to them. Sure, The Hunger Games makes political statements, but it is wrapped in a rather palatable three-part package, with the requisite love triangle. It is no The Female Man, that is for sure.
Part of me fears audiences have gone a little bit too much towards the way of the Capitol: Like those candy-coated dwellers of The Hunger Games, they want to be entertained, to have action and drama and to have clear victors and villains. Or, perhaps it is the Caesar Flickermans and Claudius Templesmiths of our world, the media-makers and shakers, who presume this is what audiences want.
Was the success of the Harry Potter series not a clear message audiences of all ages like meaty tales? Are the various meteoric successes of female-driven series— The Hunger Games, Divergent and, yes, Twilight—not enough to indicate that people want females at the helm more often? How about the box-office smashing Guardians of the Galaxy? Did that not reveal that audiences like humor, a good soundtrack and a bit of metatextual genre play?
Alas, dystopian texts– and this is coming from someone who loves such texts—are getting even bleaker and more repetitive than the worlds they represent.
As for The Maze Runner, sure, the premise is promising. Yes, the robotic spider/scorpion creatures “The Grievers” supply a fare amount of chills. But if you are going to have a film of all males with one lone female, at least give us some critique of masculinity, of the brawny bravura, of the typical male hero trope (he is white and good-looking—what a surprise!).
I suppose the Grievers might be female—they do have the typical vagina dentata mouth. In fact, when I overheard a fellow viewer note the Grievers reminded them of the creatures in Alien, I was overcome with longing for a modern day Ripley. Admittedly, there are some characters that have come close, and certainly some amazing female characters in genres other than the sci-fi/dystopian ilk, but I am still waiting for the novel or film that gives us Hunger Games’ Katniss with no Peeta or Gale, Divergent’s Tris who can be dauntless without falling for Four and a Rue that doesn’t have to die.
In the meantime, couldn’t someone please adapt When She Woke—the brilliant novel by Hillary Jordan that tells the tale of an amazing group of women who live in a world where reproductive rights are practically non-existent; where fundamentalist right-wing religious leaders mislead the public and sway public policy; where domestic abuse, sexual assault and sexual trafficking are rife; and where the prison-industrial complex has colonized our very bodies? This text, like its similarly brilliant predecessors—Herland, Woman on the Edge of Time, The Handmaid’s Tale—perhaps hits a little too close to home for media-makers who shy away from the “too political.” That, and it has an almost entirely female cast. I know we who read Ms. would go to the film, as would many others, but apparently the media makers of our world are stuck in the “chick flick” realm when they think of women-driven films.
As for The Maze Runner, well, it does have some good action sequences and the scenes within the maze provide great edge-of-one’s seat moments. Plus, I like that the cast is racially and morphologically diverse. However, it lacks political punch and does not offer any framing narrative to put meat on the bones of its dystopian world. If you are starving for a dystopian film, see it, but I would suggest instead satiating yourself on one of the many brilliant dystopian recent novels—When She Woke, MaddAddam or Oryx and Crake.
Natalie Wilson teaches women’s studies and literature at California State University, San Marcos. She is the author of Seduced by Twilight and blogs for Ms., Girl with Pen and Bitch Flicks.