I have recently seen 2 movies adapted from teen science fiction novels... The Giver and The Maze Runner. I saw The Giver a couple of weeks ago, but decided to review it alongside Maze Runner as a sort of juxtaposition (I love that word). So how were they and how did they compare to each other?
Well, to properly analyze that, I'm going to have to spoil the crap out of both movies. Why? Because even though I didn't hate watching them and for the most part was entertained doing so, both The Giver and Maze Runner have major flaws right down the very cores of their plots. So, I will begin with the film I saw first:
The Giver was written in 1993, before most of the current crop of sci-fi teen novels that have since been adapted into films (I think only Enders Game is older). In a way, it's kind of sad that Divergent was so successful while The Giver bombed at the box office, seeing as how Divergent owes a great deal of it's concepts and inspiration to it.
So the plot in a nutshell is as follows: In the future... probably somewhat distant... the people live in a neat, clean, little cookie cutter society known as The Community, which sits atop a plateau surrounded by wastelands. Here, everyone is genetically improved at conception, drugged to subdue emotions and assigned tasks based on their skills or personalities. Virtually nothing is known about the past as all of this knowledge, like the culminated memories of all of human civilization, is kept by one man. The story hinges upon Jonas, a young man who has been selected to become the Receiver of Memories from "The Giver," an elderly man (played by Jeff Bridges). So, as you might suspect, things don't go according to plan. As Jonas gradually sees the world in a new light, he decides to change everything and set society on it's ear.
Most of the movie dwells upon Jonas slowly learning the truth about the world. It's interesting, but not action packed. Now that I think of it, the action is reminiscent of that in Fahrenheit 451. In both stories, most of the action is derived from the authorities coming after the protagonist. I suspect that The Giver was at least partially inspired by Fahrenheit 451.
So Jonas puts a plan together when The Giver presents him with an old map. Jonas surmises that if he were to cross the border of "Elsewhere," the surrounding wasteland, then everyone will end up with these memories he now possesses and will see the world as he now sees it. I'm not really sure how he came to that conclusion, though. There seems to be no precedent to indicate that the Receiver leaving the boundary of Elsewhere would result in everyone getting the memories. This is a big plot point that just feels like a convenient A leads to B storyline... sort of like how in The Phantom Menace the Naboo spaceship that Qui-gon and Obi Wan were on got damaged and it just happened that Tattooine was the closest planet at which they could get repairs. I don't remember The Giver explaining the whole memory boundary thing, which I suspect was something lost in the conversion from book to film.
Overall, I think the film skipped too much detail that made the book so beloved. Many critics agree with that assessment (or maybe I agree with them... either way). The concepts were there, but I think another 15 to 30 minutes of screen time could have provided more information and made for a better film. Having never read the book, I have heard that the film offers some closure not given in novel form. As it stands, though, The Giver should have been better.
The Maze Runner
The easiest way to describe this movie is that it's Cube meets Lord of the Flies. For those who don't know Cube, it centers on people that have been trapped in an ever-changing maze full of deadly traps. For those who don't know Lord of the Flies... READ A DAMN BOOK! Seriously, it's a good book about a group of boys stranded on a desert island who end up creating their own society and... things go south.
(Note: Yes, I do get the irony of my telling everyone to read a book while reviewing 2 films based upon books I have never read. To be fair, Lord of the Flies is a literary classic that I feel supersedes the need to read more contemporary works... though many consider The Giver a classic in it's own right.)
The story of Maze Runner is as follows: Thomas wakes up on a platform that is quickly headed upward and eventually deposits him in a wooded field surrounded by huge stone and metal walls. He learns from the other deposited amnesiac boys that the walls make up an ever changing maze with no apparent way out... oh, and if after venturing into the maze they don't return to their meadow before sundown, they'll be killed by monsters known as Grievers. Thomas, however, has a curious mind and a strong inclination to escape, which brings about all sorts of problems for him and the other boys.
In some ways, I think Maze Runner was better than The Giver. However, that's mainly from a viewing standpoint. You see, while Maze Runner had some great action and edge of your seat tense moments, the overall reveal of what is going on was a lot more convoluted and ultimately disappointing than The Giver's revelations. As I was watching Maze Runner, I asked myself the question that all audience members are meant to ask... why are these boys stranded in the middle of the maze? I came to two conclusions. The first was that it was some sort of elaborate prison with built in execution system for attempting escapees, but that seemed way too over the top. Why not throw them in a regular prison, abandon them on a desert island, or just shoot them? My other conclusion and subsequent theory was that they were being screwed with in one massive experiment for some reason. Guess what? I was right.
Right there is one of my biggest problems with Maze Runner... it's surprisingly predictable. I figured that Thomas would become a 'Runner' and be the first to survive the night in the maze... I was right. I knew the fat kid would die. He tried to give a stone carving to Thomas, telling him to give it to fatty's parents once he escapes. Thomas refuses and tells the fatty he will escape with him and give the carving to his parents himself. On top of that, he was only two days away from retirement! Okay, that last part's a joke, but seriously... fatty died. For a film that hinges it's plot upon the unknown, it should not have been that predictable.
The one unpredictable aspect of Maze Runner is the big reveal at the end of why the boys are being screwed with. It's unpredictable because of how outlandishly ridiculous and needlessly complicated the reasoning is. So apparently, the Earth was scorched by a solar flare or something. Then, a pandemic (geez, the human race can't catch a break can we?) that attack people's brains starts killing off the survivors. But then a new generation of kids was born with an immunity to the disease. Enter W.C.K.D. or the World Catastrophe Killzone Department (believe it or not that acronym was even worse in the book with W.I.C.K.E.D. being World in Catastrophe Killzone Experiment Department... gee, I wonder who the bad guys are). They are a group of scientists who decided that the best way to test how the immunity works in the human brain is to test these kids in life threatening environments. Does any of that make sense to you?
Why wouldn't the scientists, I don't know, take blood samples from the kids and make a vaccine or treatment from it? Maybe do some blood transfusions? No, no... let's fuck with teenage boys, possibly killing them in the process... that'll get results!
And why just boys? Was the immunity based on sex? I know a girl is sent to the maze during the movie, but she was the only one! Maybe that's explained in future installments, but it will probably have another convoluted, dumb explanation like part of a peace treaty with the Martians established a sex trade with the red planet that required every teenage girl except one that looked sort of like Kristen Stewart in that Skeet Ulrich looks like Johnny Depp sort of way.
One trend in these teen sci/fi adaptations that I find amusing is that the bad guy seems to be an older, accomplished actress. In The Giver, it was Meryl Streep and in Maze Runner it's Patricia Clarkson. In Divergent, it was Kate Winslet (yes, I know she's not that old, but she's older than most of the main characters). Hunger Games has a variation of this with Donald Sutherland... not a woman but an accomplished older actor none-the-less. I mean, I get the formula. You are mostly hiring unknowns, so you want some mentoring star power, which usually fits with the villain. I just find it interesting.
Like I said, I enjoyed Maze Runner in the theater. It was just after leaving the theater and mulling it over that I realized just how ridiculous the story is. The Giver has a better story overall, but lacked a lot of the sort of action that made Maze Runner fun to watch. I think both are better than Divergent, but I like The Hunger Games overall the best... though none are without their flaws.