Utah authors see works come to life on big screen

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 21 2013 5:30 p.m. MDT

In "The Maze Runner," the residents of a strange world known as the Glade are trapped and fight a daily battle for survival in an enormous maze.

Ben Rothstein

It was the big screen that captured James Dashner’s attention as a child.

“Movies are my first love,” he recalled.

So when he learned Twentieth Century Fox had decide to adapt his young adult novel “The Maze Runner” for film, it was a dream come true.

“It’s still kind of surreal to me,” Dashner said. “I mean I’ve loved movies my whole life. When I wrote the book, I imagined it cinematically, and I always thought it would make a good movie.”

The Maze Runner” is due to hit theaters in February and is one of two recent films to be adapted from the work of Utah authors. Shannon Hale’s “Austenland” was released in select cities Aug. 16. It opens in Salt Lake City today.

While both adaptations are arriving in theaters, they took different routes along the way.

Inspired by "Lord of the Flies," "Ender’s Game” and the TV show "Lost," Dashner began writing "The Maze Runner" in 2005. The four-novel series follows a group of young boys who are trapped in a maze with no memories of their lives before the maze.

Before it was officially published by Random House in 2009, Twentieth Century Fox optioned the novel to turn it into a film.

“I have a really fantastic agent," Dashner said. “He has contacts in Hollywood, so he shopped the book around, even before it came out, to Hollywood people.”

Wes Ball took over as director in 2012, and, according to Dashner, the film quickly picked up steam.

“There’ve been different stages that I’ve been excited about: when we first optioned it, when they named this new director and when the producers called me and told me how serious about it they were. There have been all kinds of fun stuff,” Dashner said.

“Austenland” grew from a grass-roots effort over lunch.

Hale’s tale of a Jane Austen fanatic who attempts to end her obsession by booking an Austen immersive vacation was published in 2005. While Stephenie Meyer was working on the adaptation of her novel “Twilight,” the two authors would joke about how fun it would be to make “Austenland” into a movie.

“We said flippantly, ‘Yeah we'll just rent a house in England and hire a cast and crew and make it!’ Ha ha, that would never happen, but it was fun to talk about,” Hale said in an email.

A few years later, Hale met with Jerusha Hess, who co-wrote “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Nacho Libre” and was a fan of Hale’s novels, for a lunch date. Hale gave Hess a copy of “Austenland” as a thank you for lunch.

Within 24 hours, Hess emailed Hale saying she wanted to turn "Austenland" into a movie. Two years later, Hess, Hale and Meyer were shooting in the U.K.

“It was exciting at every stage,” Hale said. “Everyone kept warning me, movies fall through. This probably won't happen. And I knew the odds weren't great. I know dozens of writers whose books have been optioned for film but the film was never made. Still after meeting Jerusha and Jared Hess, I just knew it would work out. Those guys don't mess around. And Stephenie too. They are people of action. They make things happen.”

Once production started, both authors became involved in the projects.

Dashner was in contact with the director, gave feedback on the script, visited the set, met the actors and even has a cameo in the film.

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