Let’s Talk About The Maze Runner. Also Gone Girl.

I’ve been on a cinema spree the last couple of weeks, if “spree” can mean two whole movies. I think the term applies here. Both films were based on books and (therefore) highly anticipated. And happily, my ROI was high: both were thoroughly entertaining movie-going experiences, and both provided plenty of conversation fodder for the journey home.

I’m far from being a qualified film reviewer, but I’m a seasoned opinion-haver. And while my own half-assed critiques are more than a little superfluous alongside all the others, both professional and amateur, I’m charging into this territory anyway.

First up: The Maze Runner. I read the book and mostly hated it. James Dashner took an intriguing plot concept (teenagers must solve a giant maze to survive) and ruined it in every possible way. The characters are poorly developed; the dialogue is phony; the pacing is sloppy; the writing is uninspired and repetitive. How’s that for a thesis statement?

Re: characterization, someone needs to inform Mr. Dashner that an accent does not count as character development. Since the boys who arrive in The Glade lack any memories of their former lives, there’s very little to differentiate them for the reader. There’s The Leader, The British Bloke, The Young’un, and The Guy Who’s a Total Jerk for No Reason. Oh, and our protagonist, Thomas, who is The Special One. He gets to do all the Stuff There is To Do in the book — but only after he pesters everyone for a hundred and fifty pages for some sort of explanation for his/their presence in The Glade, and the purpose of the maze. They are inexplicably hostile and resistant to his curious attitude. (Oh, wait, there is an explanation: the architecture of suspense. Yawn.)

The most notable feature of The Gladers’ dialogue is their self-invented slang vocabulary. I can sympathize with Dashner’s insistence that teenagers in a YA novel should curse if the dialogue is meant to achieve any measurable degree of authenticity… but this attempt to make the boys curse-without-actually-cursing was laughably transparent. Given that The Gladers all speak English, they would have little motivation to invent their own slang terms for universally familiar concepts.

Needless to say, I was disappointed by the book. The movie, however, looked awesome (judging mostly by the trailer), and this time I was pleasantly surprised. Every departure from the source material was an improvement, particularly in terms of pacing. Rather than introducing Teresa and then setting her character aside (literally, in a coma) for a third of the story as in the book, the movie introduces her when her character actually becomes relevant, reducing her coma to just a few hours. No time is wasted pretending Thomas doesn’t “belong” in the maze, and all of the action is consolidated into mere days.

The actors are wildly talented. The use of ill-conceived slang terms is limited. The “solution” to the maze actually makes sense, kind of. The action sequences kept me awake (on a weeknight, no less), and I managed to work up some emotional investment in the characters. All in all, the movie succeeds in every way the book doesn’t — an awkward thing to admit, at least for us voracious readers.

Now we’ll tackle Gone Girl. The movie is just about everything I could have hoped for: a well-cast thriller that hits, and nails, all the high points of this chilling he-said, she-said narrative. I listened to the audiobook back in the spring, and while the first half borders on tedious, the second half is worth the wait. I can’t be sure whether the tonal shift late in the story — when Amy’s sociopathic tendencies become actually comedic — emerges from the text alone, but it is the crowning glory of the audiobook and the film.

Carrie Coon and Kim Dickens succeed in standing out from the character crowd as Nick’s twin sister Margo and police detective Rhonda Boney, respectively. Ben Affleck’s acting is effortless — literally. He does not need to put any effort into the depiction of a thirtysomething man who, if he had even a smidgen more personality, would simply be labeled a douchebag.

Gone Girl, as a book and a film, manages to captivate both reader and viewer in this (maybe) murder mystery, despite the fact that none of the chief characters are remotely likable. If Amy is dead, we wouldn’t mourn her. If Nick did it, we wouldn’t be surprised. We just need to know. And if that notion is enough to propel us through a (too long) book and a (too long) film, Gillian Flynn must be doing something right.