By Anthony Breznican
May 09, 2013 at 04:37 PM EDT

The massive walls seem simultaneously industrial and ancient. They have the scale of natural rock formations, but there is no such thing as straight lines like these in the wild.

From the creeping vines and empty corridors, the walls also seem to have been totally abandoned … except for a group of young boys who live in the grassy center of this intimidating structure.

As you can tell from the tiny figures in this first concept image from the upcoming film The Maze Runner, not all of the boys are eager to find out what lies beyond the barrier.

Filming gets underway Monday for 20th Century Fox’s big-screen adaptation of James Dashner‘s best-selling 2009 young-adult novel, a mysterious survival saga that passionate fans describe as a fusion of Lord of the Flies, The Hunger Games and Lost.

The illustration above is something first-time feature director Wes Ball created himself for inspiration. “It was for me, really. I like writing images,” says Ball, who previously worked as a special effects designer. “I started daydreaming about what it’s like to be at those doors and looking up at those walls.”

As cameras begin to roll on the film, which will open Feb. 14, 2014, he offered it up to Entertainment Weekly as a teaser for readers who have long imagined the novel’s menacing labyrinth.

The story begins with the lead character, Thomas (played by Teen Wolf‘s Dylan O’Brien), awakening inside a rusting, rumbling industrial elevator, which ascends from some unfathomable depth — into a peaceful meadow. He has no idea who he is or where he comes from. “The doors open and deposit him in this rustic, idyllic place surrounded by walls on all sides,” says Ball.

Thomas also finds himself surrounded by a ragtag group of other boys his age. “He is just one of many boys who have come up once a month in the last three years,” Ball says. They also have no idea who they are or how they got there, but they’ve pieced together a few things about the creepy walls that surround them.

Each morning, the barriers slide open. There is no other way out of the glade. “They have been trying to figure out how the hell to get out of this place and deal with the maze beyond the walls,” Ball says. “The doors open in the morning and the boys have to get back before they close because nobody survives a night in the maze.”

There’s something out there that preys on the ones who stay out too long. The kids call the creatures Grievers, though none has ever actually seen one (and lived.)

Most of the kids are content to stay within the confines — and relative safety — of the glade, even if it means never knowing why they’re there, or if anything lies beyond. Something must be, right? Something built all this and put them there. Only the bravest of the boys are willing to venture out to look for escape.

A moment like that is what Ball hints at amid the tiny figures in this concept drawing. “Thomas is the boy who takes that step forward when everybody else takes a step back,” he says.

Another challenge: the maze changes every day. Despite its imposing size, the walls somehow shift in the night, and so those who run out to map it tend to find their efforts useless the next day.

What makes Thomas different than the others?

“He’s curious,” Ball says. “That’s partly perceived as a threat, but it actually may be the thing that gets him out.”

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Above is the short film Wes Ball made that helped land him the job of directing The Maze Runner. RUIN is the prologue to a much longer epic he hopes to make someday, and was a side-project he made while working as a special effects designer. (Some of the overgrowth elements used in the short came in handy while making the concept art on the previous page, he notes.)

As for The Maze Runner, we already know about Dylan O’Brien’s character Thomas. (At least, as much as you can know about a character who doesn’t know anything about himself.)

Here are some of the other kids trapped in the glade with him

Gally — played by Will Poulter (Son of Rambow, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader)

“He and Thomas are two sides of the same coin,” Ball says. “Thomas fully embraces and charges into the unknown and Gally is all about self-preservation and keeping things safe and normal.” But that approach has caused stagnation and hopelessness in the primitive glade civilization. “Over the years, the boys have developed ways of doing things that actually prevent them from finding a way out,” Ball says.

Alby – played by Aml Ameen (Red Tails, TV’s Harry’s Law)

“He’s the main dude. He’s the father figure of this group,” Ball says. “He was the first glader, the first boy sent up the elevator, and he had to survive a whole month by himself not knowing what’s going on. Then the next boy showed up. He figured out that order was how to survive in this world. He’s very protective of it.”

Newt – played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Game of Thrones, Paul McCartney in Nowhere Boy, the voice of Ferb on Phineas & Ferb.)

You can tell from his limp, Newt has been through something he’d rather not talk about. “He’s Number 2 in the glade. He’s basically Alby’s right hand,” Ball says. “If Alby’s not there, Newt takes up the reins, but he’s not really up to the challenge and it makes a kind of power vacuum with Gally, who would prefer to do things his way.”

Chuck – played by Blake Cooper (Parental Guidance)

“He’s this absolutely adorable kid. Sort of a little brother character,” Ball says. Chuck is younger and smaller than most of the other boys. “He totally stands out, like ‘Why is this kid here?’” the director says. “He tries hard, and nobody expects much out of him, though he gets his hero moments.”

Cooper got the job, by the way, by relentlessly lobbying Ball on Twitter. When the filmmaker and his casting director finally saw his audition tape, they were staggered by the young performer’s charisma. “Oh my God he’s amazing,” Ball says. “We almost cast someone else who wasn’t as close to Dashner’s description, but Blake actually fits Chuck to a T.”

Minho – played by Ki Hong Lee (TV’s The Nine Lives of Chloe King)

Minho doesn’t say much – he just runs fast, which makes him invaluable for solving the riddle of the maze. “He’s an Indiana Jones-type adventure dude,” Ball says. “He’s the fastest, most bad-ass guy who goes out into the maze every day. He’s kind of a mysterious guy, but will eventually open up, too. We’ll get a sense of his humor and different aspects of his character.”

Teresa – played by Kaya Scodelario (TV’s Skins, Clash of the Titans, Moon)

You’ve probably noticed all the residents of the glade are boys – until a critical part of the story when the elevator rumbles and opens its doors to reveal Teresa. There’s not much we should reveal about her to those who don’t yet know the story, but suffice to say she has the boys in awe.She is this mysterious, almost harbingers of doom,” Ball says. “When she comes up, it all goes bad.”

The Maze Runner is shooting in Louisiana and will be in theaters Feb. 14, 2014.

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  • Movie
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  • PG-13
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  • 114 minutes
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