The Most Puzzling Thing About ‘The Maze Runner’ and Maybe Movies In General

By  · Published on September 18th, 2014

Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Two things struck me while watching The Maze Runner. One is that director Wes Ball definitely nailed his pitch to make “Lord of the Flies meets Lost.” The second is that there are a number of English actors in this movie who speak with an American accent for no discernible reason. This wouldn’t be so weird except that there is one English actor, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, who got to keep his. Well, not exactly his, because he purposefully changed his dialect slightly for the role, but he still got to be the sole English actor on screen who actually sounds English. Except for the one noticeable and unfortunate moment when English actress Kaya Scodelario accidentally lets her American accent slip.

That’s when the whole thing started to bother me, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. The only members of the Maze Runner cast I knew to be English beforehand are Brodie-Sangster and Will Poulter – who does a pretty great job with his speech, I’ll point out. I wasn’t familiar with Scodelario, yet as soon as I heard her mess up, I could tell she wasn’t from the U.S. either. And that immediately took me out of the movie, at least for a brief period. Following the screening, I couldn’t help but look up the rest of the players. One of the other major characters, Alby, is also played by a Brit – Aml Ameen. I believe that’s it (not all the young actors have birthplaces listed on IMDb or elsewhere). Four of the leads, three of them who had to mask their true voices. But why? And should I care?

The first answer is unclear. I’ve searched and searched and can not find a good explanation for why the characters have to be American. The one thing I’ve avoided, though, is reading too much of the sequels and prequel so as to not be spoiled for their respective movies. From “The Maze Runner” itself, all I can tell is that Brodie-Sangster’s character, Newt, is described as having an “odd” accent, but outside of him regularly saying “bloody” there’s not much else to go by. Having him be the only one with any sort of accent makes sense in that regard, yet the basic why is still not clear.

Meanwhile, the audio book of “The Maze Runner” has other characters given accents, as well, perhaps just to differentiate them in that format. With the visual medium of the movies, there’s distinction in ethnicity and general appearance, to where we don’t need accents as character traits. For instance, in the audio book, Minho has an Asian accent of some kind, while on screen he’s just played by an Asian-American actor (Ki Hong Lee) with no accent.

Whether I, or anyone else, should care is also difficult to answer. Certainly the moment where the escapism broke due to an apparent break in cinematic illusion is an issue, but not a huge one. Still, it’s pretty remarkable how regularly accents have been the subject of complaint for movies since at least the beginning of sound pictures (and surely before then on the stage, though theater has never been as critical as far as realism is concerned). Bad accents can ruin a performance or even a movie for viewers, especially those from wherever that accent is meant to represent. Most of them are a matter of poor casting and just downright bad acting. Some are just a bad fit of a movie star who couldn’t master the dialect as well as everyone expected. For The Maze Runner, it’s all about a choice without any understood motivation. Why give these young actors the extra work? Why not just let them use their own voices?

I’m sure to get some comments giving the spoiler of an explanation. Scodelario’s character, Teresa, is Leia to Dylan O’Brien/Thomas’s Luke. The actors have to be from the same place, and O’Brien isn’t great impersonating the English. Maybe a fan of the books can chime in that these characters just have to be American because that’s how he or she imagined them. Perhaps I’m missing something else. There is probably something to the appeal of American voices here and around the world. Something in the way YA sci-fi is all-American, unlike the classic genre trope where everyone is British for no reason. And it’s still not as weird as how English filmmaker Christopher Smith made Triangle with all Australian and Kiwi actors but had to have them all act with an American accent because the story is set – not of necessity at all except to loosely associate it to the Bermuda Triangle – in Florida.

By all means, Hollywood, go ahead and cast Brad Pitt as an Irishman who has to be an Irishman and suffer the consequences. Cast American actor Peter Dinklage as the dwarf in Game of Thrones because he really is the best person for the role outside of his problems perfecting the English accent (which, aside from the fact that everyone else is English isn’t a requirement for a show set in a fantasy realm). Do the thing where you have American actors playing Russian where they still speak English but have bad Russian-type accents. And feel free to have an American, Hollywood movie star play the lead in a Biblical or historical movie set nowhere near England and yet has to have all English accents, including one from that lead actor. But please don’t make characters have accents just because. There’s too much chance of a screwup.

Let’s look to Neighbors as a great role model for what it did with Rose Byrne. She was and is the perfect actress for that role (at least that’s evident in retrospect), and she just so happens to be Australian. Let her be an Australian. Never mind that it added a couple jokes to the script. It’s not important that Byrne does an impeccable American accent and has been doing it for most of her career, enough that most movie and TV viewers had no idea she was a foreigner. But here it wasn’t important or even necessarily more logical that she be an American character, so she’s not. You can tell she’s comfortable and possibly that allowed her to be her funniest yet.

What are some other characters where the actor had to speak in an accent not his own for no good reason? And what are some great roles where an actor was allowed to use his or her own accent because it didn’t matter?

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.