Dylan O’Brien in ‘The Maze Runner’/Image © Twentieth Century Fox
James Dashner's novel The Maze Runner -- the kick-off to a four-book series about a band of young amnesiacs who find themselves pushed around like pawns through a series of nightmarish social experiments -- preceded the whole "The Hunger Games" movie craze by several years. The slow-track to adaptation is likely to work in his favor, however, guaranteeing Dashner an audience whose appetite for dystopic teen adventure has been pre-whetted. In the following interview, Dashner shares his reaction to seeing some of the darkest corners of his imagination spring to life onscreen, and the responsibility of speaking to (and about) young readers.
SIGNATURE: Your series introduces a completely invented slang that the reader and the protagonist have to jump into totally cold. It allows these kids to swear like gangsters without violating anybody's decency standards. Was this part of your intention? What inspired the language, and did it end up in the movie?
JAMES DASHNER: The slang actually wasn't in the very first draft of the novel. But a good friend of mine gave some feedback saying that these boys lived in a different time and place and their language needed to have a different flavor. I agreed and added the words you read today. It kind of killed two birds with one stone because it also helped make their language sound harsher without getting the books banned from schools! People either love it or hate it, but luckily the love camp is much bigger.
The slang did make it into the film, but more of an homage than full scale. Sometimes what works in a book is too "in your face" when converted to the big screen and sound.
SIG: After living with this extremely visual story in your imagination for so long, which elements were you most thrilled to see on screen? Which do you think will be most surprising for readers?
JD: I couldn't wait to see the Maze itself and the Grievers. Especially the Maze. It was such a huge part (literally and figuratively!) of this story from the very beginning, something that's always been in my head. It's an actual character in every way. To see it come to life so perfectly has been the highlight of my career. And the Grievers. Oh man, the Grievers. People are going to be very surprised at how awesomely terrifying those things are.
SIG: There is a gritty Lord of the Flies quality to your pack of wild boys living in isolation, so I was impressed by how delicately you handled the introduction of a female character into that world. Despite the unwelcome intrusion, the Glade leaders make it clear she is not to be interfered with, and I think that sets the standard for readers' humanity as well. Did you feel any special sort of responsibility for this character?
JD: Yes, I did. It was all part of my bigger aim with this story, to show that I believe in humanity. Lord of the Flies is one of my favorite books of all time, and in some ways I meant this story as an anti-version. The Gladers go to crazy lengths to maintain order and law, and protecting Teresa was one way to show that.
SIG: What book from your teen years sets the standard you aspire to in your fiction? Where would you like to go that you haven't already?
JD: The answer to that is definitely Stephen King. He was my "YA" section when I was a teenager. I have such fond memories of staying up until three in the morning, captivated by his books. It, The Stand, Salem's Lot, Cujo, Pet Sematary ... I could go on and on. I think he's the best writer, period, and I do aspire to someday write an adult horror novel. I think it's my ultimate goal.
SIG: In books for young teens, adults and authority figures are nearly always regarded with suspicion, and the younger characters are mostly left to their own devices. Do you think this is part of teaching kids to assert themselves, by showing them that no one's just going to come along and fix their problems for them?
JD: I feel very passionate about this. Sometimes you hear the same old grumpy dude complaining about these books, and how ridiculous it is that teenagers would have this kind of responsibility, or this kind of power, or survive this kind of atrocity. And I say to them, have you met a teenager recently? They are amazing, beautiful, powerful people. They are smart. And many of them have dealt with difficult, sometimes horrific circumstances. I love using them as my main characters because I sincerely believe they are the most qualified to handle the things my overly inventive mind can throw at them!
SIG: Writer/reviewer Ian Sales speculated last week that instead of encouraging change, the new wave of dystopian sci-fi inspires resignation in readers, molding them to accept global-scale disasters as inevitable. How does this line up with reactions you've observed in younger readers? Do you agree something has changed in the public's relationship with sci-fi?
JD: I couldn't disagree more. Do books about the Holocaust make us think, "Oh well, there was nothing we could've done to prevent that or prevent it from happening again"? Of course not. It makes us angry and determined to stop such atrocities. These dystopian books are about strong people rising up and NOT accepting their circumstances. It encourages young people to not let this happen, to fight it, to reverse it. Seeing these dark futures fascinates and terrifies. It doesn't induce complacency. I hear from a lot of readers, and I can confidently say they mostly agree with me.