By: Wong Zhi Min, Olivia
The Maze Runner (TMR) (2014) is a film set in a post-apocalyptic world where male teens are trapped and left to fend for themselves in the Glade (the area enclosed by The Maze and its boundaries). Better known as Gladers, these boys have had their memories wiped by the company WCKD, and unbeknownst to them, have been thrown sequentially into The Maze to be tested on the special immunity they possess towards a deadly virus. The main protagonist, Thomas, challenges the status quo of the Glade from the day that he arrives, soon causing a rift to form amongst the Gladers. His unconventional attempts to escape The Maze leads to conflict, ostensibly stemming from the differences between his beliefs and that of the Gladers, many of whom have formed a narrow worldview due to their residence in the Glade. Tensions form within the Gladers, especially between Thomas and the main antagonist, Gally.
Interestingly, many audiences have pointed out that similarities between the narrative of TMR and that of Plato’s The Allegory of The Cave (TAOTC) is palpable. TAOTC essentially questions the extent to which true knowledge can be derived from human perception (Davis, 2021), and suggests that conflict arises when humans’ deeply-rooted beliefs about reality are challenged by other beings that claim to possess higher-level knowledge. In TAOTC, Plato suggests that a group of prisoners are chained inside a cave, and they perceive shadows on the walls to be objects of real life. A prisoner is set free to discover the real world; he returns to liberate the others, but is met with suspicion as a result of the others’ fears of the world outside. Conflict arises, and the prisoners ultimately refuse to leave the cave with him (Plato, 375 B.C.).
While the ancient Greek text is fairly well-known in the field of philosophy, it is surprising that several keen audiences of TMR have drawn parallels between it and the obscure text of TAOTC. In her personal blog, Louise Jensby suggests that TMR is a modern take on TAOTC, and in considering their salient similarities she concludes that the use of TAOTC’s concepts in TMR must be ‘intentional’ (2019). Another blog further identifies that the narrative of TAOTC, in its portrayal of the prisoners’ fears and narrow perspectives of reality, has been echoed by TMR in its portrayal of Gally’s anxieties and behaviour towards Thomas (Hay & Fry, n.d.). Clearly, an overt viewing of TMR has led audience members to distinguish the similarities between the film and TAOTC. To some extent I agree with them, in that TAOTC proves useful in explaining the ostensible reasons for the cracks that form within the Gladers after Thomas challenges their pre-existing beliefs and practices.
Fig. 1: An illustration of Plato’s The Allegory of the Cave
Upon closer inspection however, I find that the narrative of TMR ultimately departs from that of TAOTC, especially when we consider the reasons for palpable tension between Thomas and Gally. Contrary to the phenomenon of power dynamics that exists in the real world, the narrative in TAOTC is seemingly based on the assumption that there is no power play between the prisoners. The prisoners in TAOTC wield equal decision-making powers to collectively decide whether to leave the cave with the liberated one. Meanwhile, TMR showcases the personal struggles that Gally faces when his position in the Glade is undercut by Thomas’s growing power, hence addressing the reality of power dynamics head-on. In light of these deviations and more, can we really then say that the narrative of TMR truly echoes that of Plato’s TAOTC? I argue that, despite the marked similarities between TMR and TAOTC, the presented conflict between the main characters (i.e. Thomas and Gally) in TMR ultimately cannot solely be explained by the ideas and narrative postulated in TAOTC. Instead, TMR goes further to reflect the reality of power dynamics, especially the way in which individuals exert varying levels of influence and control over decisions made in groups. TMR hence deviates from key ideas in TAOTC to highlight how it is also the struggle for power that brings about conflict. The main conflicts in TMR come not just in the form of individual versus group (as presented in TAOTC), but also in the form of inter-group tensions and the resultant factionalism.
Fig. 2: Thomas, moments before he impulsively runs into The Maze and breaks the rules
I will first expound on TMR’s key deviations from TAOTC, which contradicts the conclusion made by audiences that TMR well-reflects the ideas of TAOTC.
While the experience of Thomas seemingly reflects that of the liberated prisoner in TAOTC, in which they both face difficulty in imparting their knowledge and practices to the group of people they belong to, TMR gradually departs from such a narrative by granting Thomas a loyal following. “You showed promise out there.” This statement made by fellow Glader, Minho, was the first sign of support for Thomas after he was punished for entering The Maze and blatantly violating the rules. Thomas is soon granted the role of a Maze Runner, and many more Gladers like Minho begin to believe in his efforts to escape The Maze. Thomas’s gain of trust from these Gladers signals the film’s departure from the narrative of TAOTC, in which, unlike Thomas, the freed prisoner faces insurmountable difficulty in enlightening the others with his newfound beliefs. This brings to question whether the key ideas of TAOTC are truly represented in the narrative of TMR at all.
Fig. 3: Thomas and his supportive team of Gladers
Furthermore, the story of the Gladers’ experiences in TMR deviates from the essence of TAOTC, which suggests that human perception skews one’s ability to gain true knowledge. In TAOTC, the prisoners are restricted in their ability to perceive the real world as a result of their limited and flawed perception of reality since young. Being chained down since young, the prisoners can only observe the shadows of objects being casted onto the wall of the cave that they are trapped in. Due to their lack of knowledge of the world outside, the prisoners believe that these shadows are objects of real life, unable to comprehend the liberated prisoners’ claims that they have simply been observing shadows. Conversely, the boys in TMR are cognizant of the outside world, and they are aware that they are trapped in a special situation. While their memories of their life before The Maze have been purposefully erased, they had only arrived at The Maze in the later half of their lives, and they are well-acquainted with the existence of a real world outside. In fact, it is this awareness that spurs them to consistently try and figure out how to escape The Maze. Thus, the problems of false human perception brought up in TAOTC are somewhat lost in translation here. While the Gladers in TMR are as equally physically trapped as the prisoners in TAOTC, the confinements of their minds and perceptions of reality are glaringly different.
I will now dive deeper into the differences in key ideas of the narratives between TMR and TAOTC, especially the cause for conflict and tension presented in both texts.
As compared to TAOTC, TMR seems to extend the root cause for disagreements and factionalism to go beyond deeply-rooted beliefs and incongruent thoughts and behaviours between people. In TAOTC, the liberated prisoner enters an intense debate with the other prisoners when he attempts to impart his newfound knowledge that challenges their deeply-rooted beliefs. His suggestion to leave the cave is viewed by the others as almost sacrilegious, and their disagreement with his beliefs result in conflict, whereby even threats to kill him are posed. Admittedly, TMR shows that Thomas’s unconventional actions in the Glade, informed by his heightened awareness of the outside world, challenges the traditions and beliefs of the Gladers and leads to discord within the group. However, the cause for salient conflict in TMR goes beyond differences in beliefs. This is evident in the way that TMR presents factionalism, when Gally and his followers split to form a divide within the Glade. All of the Gladers have consistently believed in the same end goal since the beginning, that is, to successfully escape The Maze. Yet, Gally chooses to obstruct the team’s efforts to do so by promoting a rift within the Glade, rejecting Thomas’s gang’s efforts to escape The Maze. This prompts a deeper analysis of the cause for disagreements portrayed in the film, which ostensibly departs from the reasons presented in TAOTC.
Going beyond the key ideas presented in the narrative of TAOTC, the tenuous relationship between Thomas and Gally in TMR requires a more extensive explanation about power dynamics that exists between individuals and groups in real life. The theory of power imbalance suggested by psychologists Simon Bernd and Klandermans Bert is useful in revealing the cause for salient conflict in the film. They claim that there seldom is balance in power, as groups ‘often differ in the degree of control they have over their own outcomes’. Even more crucially, they suggest that these ‘power asymmetries’ often produce ‘intense intergroup conflict’ (2001, p. 322). This better explains Gally’s aggressive disposition towards Thomas upon realising that his position in the Glade is being undercut by the charismatic Thomas and his ability to garner strong support. Gally’s power play is evident when he asserts his power over Thomas when he has just freshly arrived on the Glade, grabbing his collar and shouting, ‘Do not make me angry.’ As the film progresses, Gally remains hostile, blaming Thomas for the occurrence of unfortunate events, shooting down Thomas’s ideas at every opportunity. Gally’s issues with power and leadership within the Glade reveals the true cause for his tension and disagreement with Thomas as an individual. Hence, the cause for conflict between the main characters in TMR goes beyond their differences in beliefs— the reality of group power dynamics in society is arguably reflected here as well.
The reality of group power dynamics in society is hence arguably echoed in the case of TMR, complementing the case made by Plato in TAOTC to provide a more all-rounded explanation for the conflict and factionalism that arises within the Glade after Thomas’s arrival.
In conclusion, the salient similarities between TMR and TAOTC are greatly challenged by the deviations in the two narratives, which unravel upon closer inspection. Plato’s assumption that power relations are negligible in the case of the prisoners and their decision-making abilities causes TAOTC to be limited as a text that is useful in explaining the conflicts between characters in TMR. TMR ultimately requires a more extensive discussion that includes the real ideas of power dynamics that result in imbalance and factionalism. As such, the conflict presented in the narrative of TMR is only fully explained by an amalgamation of the key ideas posited by Plato in TAOTC, as well as the realities of power struggles within groups.
- Bernd, S., & Bert, K. (2001). Politicized Collective Identity: A Social Psychological Analysis. American Psychologist, 56(4), pp. 302-371.
- Davis, B. (2021). What is the main theme of allegory of the cave? Mvorganising. https://www.mvorganizing.org/what-is-the-main-theme-of-allegory-of-the-cave/
- Hay, L.V. & Fry, L. (n.d.) Book Versus Film: THE MAZE RUNNER – 11 Ways The Film Is Better [Blog post]. Retrieved from: https://lucyvhayauthor.com/book-versus-film-the-maze-runner-11-ways-the-film-is-better/
- Jensby, L. (2019). Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” Reimagined – The Maze Runner as a Modern Interpretation [Blog post]. https://fantastischeantike.de/platos-allegory-of-the-cave-reimagined-the-maze-runner-as-a-modern-interpretation/
- “Maze Runner” and serial cinema [Online image]. (n.d.). Abc. https://www.abc.com.py/tag/will-poulter/#!
- Plato. (375 B.C.). The Allegory of the Cave. Republic, Book VII, 514a-520a.
- [Untitled poster of The Maze Runner]. Creative Partnership. https://www.thecreativepartnership.co.uk/work/the-maze-runner/
- [Untitled illustration of Plato’s analogy of the cave]. DMY. https://www.dmy.info/platonun-magara-benzetmesi/
- [Untitled image of a scene from The Maze Runner]. Wallpaper Cave. https://wallpapercave.com/w/wp1848107