Utah authors see works come to life on big screen

Published: Monday, Oct. 5 2015 8:46 p.m. MDT

In 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.

In 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)

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.

Dylan OBrien stars in Dylan OBrien stars in "The Maze Runner," based on the best-selling young adult thriller. (Ben Rothstein)

“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.

In 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)

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.

The new movie tie-in book cover of The new movie tie-in book cover of "Austenland" by Shannon Hale features Keri Russell, right, Bret McKenzie, center, and J.J. Feild. (book cover)

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.

“I‘ve been very lucky that they wanted me to be involved,” Dashner said. “They gave me the script and I gave feedback. The director, Wes Ball, he’d call or email me a lot with little questions. They brought me out to the set. It’s just been really fun to have a small part in it.”

Hale was also thoroughly involved in the production of “Austenland,” co-writing the screenplay with Hess, visiting the set and, like Dashner, doing a cameo.

“Sometimes it was exactly what I imagined, sometimes nothing like what I imagined, but always wonderful,” Hale said.

The cast of The cast of "Austenland" includes Jennifer Coolidge, left, James Callis, Keri Russell, J.J. Feild, Georgia King and Ricky Whittle. (Giles Keyte)

While having a novel made into a film is an accomplishment for any author, it can also be rife with its own complications — often in how to adapt the written word into the visual medium of a film.

“I’ve always been a little nervous about it. I knew I’d be devastated if the movie wasn’t very good,” Dashner said. “But luckily, most of it goes back to the director Wes Ball. He has just really captured the vision of the book. They’re staying very true to it. All the characters are there, all the major events are there. The basic plot and premise is all there. So I’ve just been thrilled. I’ve seen a little bit of footage that has made me feel very confident that the final movie is going to be awesome.“

Dashner said that anytime a book is turned into a movie there have to be some changes made, but those changes should reflect the spirit and vision of the book.

Keri Russell (Jane Hayes) and Bret McKenzie (Martin), perform in Keri Russell (Jane Hayes) and Bret McKenzie (Martin), perform in "Austenland." (Ed Miller)

“You take a book, and you take the spirit of the book, and you turn it into a cinematic experience,” Dashner said.

Co-writing the screenplay, Hale helped to create many of the changes to “Austenland.” Like Dashner, Hale said she knew changes had to be made. According to Hale, most of the changes came about organically as the screenplay was written and rewritten.

“The changes were the most fun,” she said. “I don't feel frustrated by things that didn't come out as I imagined. I can enjoy the film for what it is. The book still exists on its own, so for me nothing is lost."

While Dashner is still waiting to see the final product, Hale experienced her film’s premiere early this year at the Sundance Film Festival. Hale said sitting in a theater with hundreds of people watching the film for the first time was “pure magic.”

The movie poster for The movie poster for "Austenland" features Keri Russell. (Sony Pictures Classics)

“I've had a wonderful writing career, but reading is such an intimate entertainment. I don't get to be there to experience others first reading my story,” she said. “At the Sundance premiere, I was there, 1,500 people in the theater were laughing, and I just sat there crying. The response couldn't have been more gratifying.”

Katie Harmer is a journalism graduate of Brigham Young University and writes for Mormon Times. Email: kharmer@deseretnews.com Twitter: harmerk

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