Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Maze Runner in Theaters Now

I loved the movie adaptations of The Hunger Games and Divergent, and the preview for The Maze Runner (PG-13, 113 min.) had me pretty excited. But much as James Dashner's endings in all the Maze Runner books fell short of my expectations and hopes, this movie disappoints. I think, perhaps, if I'd not read the book (especially as recently as I have), I would have liked the movie better. But watching the movie first and finding out the ending would have ruined the mystery and tension of the book. So, I guess my recommendation is this: If you are a movie person, watch the movie first. If books are always way better than movies to you, read the book first. Enjoy the story first in the medium you like best, and if you must, check it out in the other, too.

The story is this (taken more from my memory of the book than from the movie, though they are relatively the same). Thomas awakes in an elevator box of sorts, moving slowly and mysteriously toward an unknown destination, but the worst of it is, Thomas remembers nothing about his life. He knows how life works and the names of objects. He just can't remember anything specific pertaining to him except his first name. But everything is about to get stranger. When the box opens, he finds himself in a community of teenage boys who are all like him, no memories, and who are stuck in a giant maze full of monsters. Thomas is supposed to do what he's told, have a good cry if he needs to, and adapt to his part of making their community work. But Thomas is too curious for his own good, and he's not just going to sit by and do nothing.

The premise was fascinating to me. I like stories such as Lord of the Flies, and the TV show Lost. And out of this whole series, The Maze Runner, most similar to those, is my favorite book. The ending is decent enough in that it provides some answers without needing to resolve everything (overall, I don't like how Dashner resolves everything in the series, but if you take this first book by itself, it's fine). I figured the adaptation to a movie would be pretty straightforward, and I was excited to see the story come to life in that way.

Now, hear me out. I know you have to change things when you adapt a book into a movie. Things have to be shortened, focused. If a story takes place in a character's head in the book, you have to figure out a way to translate that to a medium that's largely outside the character's head (unless you provide character narration, which some movies do). So, I get it. I'm not one of those who swears the book is the only way to go. This blog is about books and movies because I really like both, and I love to see adaptations. Now, the adaptations don't always work for me, but I can generally see a movie as a separate entity from the book and not be too disappointed.

But...(you were waiting for it, weren't you?), The Maze Runner movie annoyed me just a tad. It started with small details here and there, different from the book. I was prepared for the big cuts, but the small changes were surprising. They seemed unnecessary and made less sense than the way the details were written in the book. I will try to avoid major SPOILERS here, but if you are concerned, stop reading now.

Some of the changes didn't hurt the movie, but I don't think they helped either. They were just inconsistencies that bothered me, especially when I couldn't see the point of the change (for instance, in the buildings the boys built for themselves). One of those rather minor details that I do think does hurt the movie, however, is the presentation of the mysterious medicine vials. In the book, the medicine comes up in the shipments of survival goods the boys periodically receive from the Box. When they are attacked by the monsters, the boys use this medicine. In the movie, another character arrives with two medicine vials in a pocket, and the movie uses them conveniently for two major characters. Aside from that seeming very coincidental and accidental in the movie, it changes the story and doesn't make sense, to boot. It makes more sense for the boys to already have medicine they use as needed.

Okay, so I'm going to have to go into SPOILER territory (more for the book than the movie, though). If you were braving it out until now, congrats but you've been warned. One thing that really bothered me is that the sci-fi technology is dumbed down. There are some really cool things in the book like telepathy and invisible portals. That's not a spoiler for the movie because those things don't exist in the movie. So, yay, I didn't spoil it for you. The movie only spoiled the book. I can't figure out why the tech was changed. Some things in the book are just not explained. Could that be it? They wanted a more believable world than what the book presented? But that change is going to affect the rest of the story even more than it did the beginning. Stripped of some of those details that make this world so interesting, they're going to have to make up stuff that isn't in the books just to fill in the cracks in future movies. I already thought the pacing was a little slow for this movie, and now some of what makes the book more interesting is gone. And if they bring it back, it will seem inconsistent and have me wondering why they took it out in the first place.

Perhaps my biggest complaint is that the way the kids get out (and that's not spoiling because you knew they would) is totally different from in the book. Okay, "totally" might be an exaggeration, but it's enough different that it affects the story. And it's another change that just doesn't make sense with the way the maze is supposed to work and the answers we discover at the end of the story.

Well, I could go on. Even some of the last shots of the movie get details wrong, but those I actually do understand. It was done for the movie audience to have a better visual that the book doesn't provide. It was a change made for the movie to make a better movie. If you haven't read the book, it works. If you have, it's just one more way the tech is changed that disappoints.

Aside from being annoyed by detail changes, I do have one moral concern to share. The book and the movie have some pretty violent moments. Kids are killed, and the worst part is that hardly anyone stops to mourn or seems to care, except with the one character who's played up to get the audience to care. But PG-13 is an acceptable rating.

Having said all that, I'll admit I didn't dislike the movie entirely. It was enjoyable to watch one time and see the characters, like Newt!, come to life, though there weren't too many other stand-outs, even so. Here was a chance for the movie to improve upon a book that had a few faults of its own. It didn't. So, I give it a shrug and a throw-away three out of five stars.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Ring & the Crown

The Ring & the Crown, a young adult novel by Melissa de la Cruz, mixes fantasy and Victorian genres. The idea of magic competing against a sort of scientific and industrial revolution (not steam but electric) is an idea I've not run across a lot. In fact, it was unique enough that a group of my writing friends (myself included) created a world with a similar idea at its starting point. Our plot differs drastically from anything Melissa de la Cruz would write and was conceived far before I picked up her book, but the idea that magic is a sort of science is the backdrop of both stories. (Ours changes even from that. If you want to know more, check out childrenofthewells.com.)

The Ring & the Crown has a large cast of characters. Most young adult books stick to one or two to narrate the story, but this book is a step removed from the immediacy of first-person narration with a third-person limited viewpoint which is interchanged among five different major characters. Though the characters are appropriate for young adult, the writing style bridges the gap between young adult and fantasy or even historical fiction.

I didn't like all the characters. There were really only two I was rooting for, though I wasn't entirely antagonistic to the others. The setting of the plot both intrigued me and contributed to why I didn't like some of the characters. By at least by the end, I was sympathetic to most of them.

The setting is this: a war has come to an end by the soon-to-be alliance of Prince Leopold and Princess Marie whose interests lie in different directions than each other. Meanwhile, Wolf, the younger brother of the engaged prince is trying to find his own direction, be it in girls or fistfights. Leopold's lover, Isabelle, must sign away her engagement to him so that the royal wedding may progress. The American girl, Ronan, must find herself a rich husband in London to save her family's financial situation. And the magician Aelwyn must choose between a life of independence or a life of service to her childhood friend Marie.

The magic history bears remarking on as it appears to be related to a version of the stories of King Arthur, Lancelot, and Merlin, taking place perhaps near a thousand years after those events. Whether this book would claim that story to be the same one we know or whether it's all part of an alternate universe is not addressed but would be an interesting thing to ask the author.

I'm not sure if this book is part of a series, as most young adult books are, or if it is meant to stand alone. It feels like a standalone book, particularly at the end, which attempts to resolve all the characters' lives. The end is abrupt and unexpected. Looking back, I saw a few hints of foreshadowing, but there didn't seem to be quite enough time taken to set everything up. In fact, characters end up explaining the end to one another, an end that is interesting but that feels a bit like the cliff notes version. I certainly had mixed feelings. I generally liked how things were resolved overall, but I felt like not everyone's story was told adequately...and forget happily. I know stories don't have to end neatly and happily to be good (though I prefer happy, or a really good reason not), but when half your main characters fade into obscurity at the end of a book, it's not satisfying. Fortunately, they were the characters I didn't care about as much, but like I said, once my sympathy was aroused, I thought they deserved better. Maybe that's what a sequel could be for.

This book gets three stars from me. Morality plays a small factor in that rating. There was the sensuality I expected just from the nature of the book's content, but the details were mostly implied. There were places where it fit the story and other places where it didn't need to be there but was just added to give some wildness to a character, which could have been done in other ways. On the other hand, I appreciated the interweaving of story lines (until the end) and the way that the world felt like it had some history and depth, and I did enjoy the read despite the odd end and character complaints I have.

Friday, September 5, 2014


This review contains a few SPOILERS.

I have been a big fan of some of Scott Westerfeld's work. I loved his Uglies series way back before young adult fiction was popular. The world he created in that book was just so different and surprising, and the plot hooked me through the physical and emotional changes the main character underwent. It was quite different from anything I'd read before. Since then, I've read a lot of dystopian young adult stories, so the novelty has worn off. But that series still stands out to me.

That's why I was so excited to receive an advance reader's copy of his latest book, Afterworlds, and so disappointed when I finished it. Westerfeld continues to try to push boundaries, but Afterworlds tries so hard to avoid all the stereotypes that it sabotages itself into becoming something predictable. Think of what's popular in culture right now: paranormal romance (romance is always popular, but if you can throw in a unique creature as a love interest, all the better), homosexuality, not being American (Americans are selfish and bad!) or at least not being white, individuality in youth, making your own living and being dependent on no one but yourself. (It's popular to not be stereotypical, which is sort of ironic, isn't it?) All these elements are thrown together in Westerfeld's story about an 18-year-old gay, Indian girl living on her own in New York City off the extravagant advance she gets for writing a paranormal romance. Like I said, it's so non-stereotypical it's predictable. The only truly unique thing I found in Afterworlds is that it is two stories in one. Every other chapter switches as you follow two plotlines: that of Darcy Patel's writing woes in New York and that of the manuscript she has written, a rather blasé love story between a girl whose experiences in a terrorist attack (the most interesting thing about the whole book) make her see ghosts and the boy she meets in the ghost world.

Westerfeld's characters are usually fairly complex, not wholly good or bad but an intriguing mix. Even in the Uglies series, I didn't always love them, but they fascinated me. In Afterworlds, I didn't like either of his protagonists. I couldn't find a reason to root for them. Darcy is naive, swayed by others' opinions, clingy, and a spendthrift. Though the novel points out her flaws, it doesn't help me like her better. Lizzie, the protagonist of Darcy's novel, is infatuated at first sight-and-kiss with a boy she meets in the middle of a terrible disaster. Though her deathly experiences supposedly give her a new role and purpose in life (and death), she muddles around for awhile, directionless. She is largely defined throughout the book by her connection to the boy she's kissed, and she doesn't have a lot to do on her own. SPOILER ALERT! But when she purposefully murders someone late in the book, any connection I thought I might have been forming with her was severed. The book doles out consequences for this murder, but none of it seems like enough, and the fact that the murder is committed at all just turns me off.

I gave this a two-star rating on Goodreads because on their five-star rating system, two stars means the book is okay. I didn't completely dislike it. I did read it through, after all. But I was disappointed in the story and the morals. I've already mentioned the murder. In addition, though there's nothing too graphic, Darcy's girlfriend does live with her, and the rest is implied. I won't go into the ethics of homosexuality here, but I will reiterate how culturally attuned this novel seems to want to be. By hitting on all our current cultural prejudices and preferences, this book just appears to be trying too hard. You might almost think it was mocking these aspects of modern culture, but it's too serious about itself for that. If this is the direction YA fiction is going, it's going to lose me. I love young adult fiction for its stories, but when they fail to engage or surprise me or when they become commentaries on culture, some of the innocence and simplicity of the genre is lost. They have grown up. They have become too self-aware....

But let's shake off the ghost of the future, shall we? We aren't there yet. This is just one book, and there are at least 30 books on my to-read shelf, half of which have to be at least a little interesting, right? Time to browse my ARC library and stow the cynicism. Forgive me for having a little fun with this review. There always seems to be more to write when there's negative feedback to give. Please remember that I do highly recommend Westerfeld's earlier Uglies series.