Novelist’s best seller moves from page to the big screen

Dylan O'Brian and Kaya Scodelario in The Maze Runner
Dylan O'Brian and Kaya Scodelario in The Maze Runner
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He was the novelist who wanted to be big. Now one of James Dashner’s books has been adapted for the big screen. Tony Earnshaw reports.

James Dashner was an accountant in his mid-thirties when he decided to “try his hand at writing”.

That was a decade ago and his first books, adventures of survival wrapped in the sci-fi genre, were modest successes with young readers. Then came The Maze Runner.

The legend of Dashner’s success is built on his decision to write something that would speak to teenagers. He muddled through a succession of rejection slips and negative responses that left him “mortified”. But his first book, A Door in the Woods, came out in 2003.

He helped pay for it and a trickle of book sales gradually became a flood. Word of mouth was crucial. He delivered two more books in a year. The hero, Jimmy Fincher, was a hit. But Dashner wanted more. It was time to move on.

The Maze Runner was conceived as a mass appeal project that took some inspiration from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and perhaps Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.

He wrote it over four months. It was rejected by everyone. He abandoned it, rewrote it, put it away, dug it out again and finally, two-and-a-bit years later, it was accepted and published.

It became a phenomenon, quickly optioned as a movie series. Readers who loved Golding, Collins and the TV show Lost saw comparisons in Dashner’s style. It was a winner.

“I don’t think characters would react they way they do in Lord of the Flies,” Dashner counters. “I think they’d be more civilised, orderly, and determined to survive and escape. The Maze Runner is an adventure story that’s also about hope and the potential of the human spirit.” In fact the comparisons go further, with some devotees linking Dashner’s world with that created by JK Rowling. Like Rowling, Dashner created an array of characters that teen readers could identify with.

He also conceived a code of conduct for his boys, this band of amnesiacs who find themselves in the Glade, a verdant place surrounded by 100ft walls that make it impossible to escape.

All of the boys in the Glade have heroic qualities. Only one appears to have an enigmatic aspect: the intelligent Gally, a sergeant major type keen on maintaining the status quo and who clashes with new arrival Thomas. Novelist Dashner disagrees with the suggestion that Gally – played by Will Poulter in the movie – is a villain. “I wanted to set him up as a major rival to Thomas, but I also wanted readers to empathise with him and understand his beliefs and actions,” he says.

Thus readers’ attention is focused on the mysterious behind-the-scenes entity that controls the Gladers’ lives – and their deaths. For lurking in the mysterious maze are terrifying biomechanical beasts known as grievers.

Reflecting on the story’s appeal, Dashner notes that much of it stems from the “constant state of not being able to predict what’s going to happen next. I wanted my readers, and now the movie-going audience, to feel like Thomas when they enter the Glade.”

The author worked closely with director Wes Ball to bring his book to the screen. His trust was complete, he says.

“Wes and I communicated from the beginning, and I could tell almost immediately that he was capturing my vision. His enthusiasm, passion, and faithfulness to the book’s spirit were so impressive.”

• The Maze Runner (12A) is on saturation release.