This week’s classic film review analyses The Running Man, the 1980s dystopian action movie based, and yet also not based, on a Stephen King novel
In J. W. Eagan’s sage words, ‘Never judge a book by its movie.’ The following is part of this new monthly ‘literary film review’ segment on this blog, and as such it’s a review of the film of The Running Man (dir. Paul Michael Glaser – yes, Starsky from Starsky and Hutch – 1987), but it’s important to go back to the – very different – source material for The Running Man: that is, the novel called The Running Man, by Richard Bachman, aka Stephen King.
The 1982 novel The Running Man – which was published under King’s pseudonymous creation Richard Bachman partly to appease his publishers, who were worried about glutting the market with too many new Stephen King titles at once – is a tense, gripping thriller set in a futuristic dystopian city, known as Co-Op City, in the year 2025. The novel focuses on a man, Benjamin Richards, who enters The Running Man, the popular manhunt survival TV show, in the hope of achieving what no contestant has ever managed to do before: to stay alive for thirty days, while on the run from the trained Hunters who are coming after him, and win the grand prize of one billion ‘New dollars’. Richards needs this money: his wife and daughter are both starving, and Richards, blacklisted from most workplaces because he resigned from the radiation plant where he worked because he was worried about becoming sterile, is desperately trying to find a way to provide for them. Especially for their daughter, Cathy, who is ill and needs medicine. The novel is a taut page-turner which shows Richards’ journey across dystopian North America, trying to evade capture and death at the hands of the police, the Hunters, and even the ordinary members of the public, who will win a prize if they spot Richards and turn him over to the Hunters.
This is the bit where I should say ‘spoiler alert’, so if you don’t want to know how Bachman’s The Running Man ends, skip this paragraph. The novel concludes with a violent and rather despairing finale in which Ben Richards, having hijacked a plane, learns that his wife and daughter are dead – indeed, have been dead almost the whole time he has been on the run. This hopeless and tragic ending pushes Richards to breaking point: his guts literally spilling out of his body from a wound he received earlier, and with nothing left to lose, he flies the plane into a skyscraper – the headquarters of The Running Man gameshow – exploding in a ball of blame and exacting his bitter revenge, in a scene which reads as oddly prophetic of the horrors of 9/11.
Stephen King once said that Richard Matheson had more influence on him than any other writer, and the idea of the countdown chapter-structure in The Running Man may have been inspired by Matheson’s masterpiece, the 1956 novel The Shrinking Man. Indeed, I’m convinced there’s a link, looking at the similarities of the two novels, the similarity of their titles, their countdown structure, the fact that their central protagonists are desperately trying to survive against the odds, and the fact that they’re both novels full of ideas that are masquerading as pure thriller, as throwaway entertainment. In his 1985 preface to the anthology of the first four of The Bachman Books, King said that The Running Man may be the best of the four, because it is nothing but story: no preachments, no philosophising. But the ideas are there, and are pretty deftly conveyed by the story, in fact – which is no mean feat given that King was battling a drug and alcohol addiction when he wrote the novel, and that he claims he penned it in 72 hours flat, with the novel being published with no changes. Even Michael Moorcock would blanch at such a feat! (King told a slightly different story in his later memoir, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, claiming he wrote the book in a single week rather than three days. That’s still fast, but not quite the breakneck pace originally mooted.)
The film of The Running Man is very different from the novel. The Ben Richards of the novel is 6’2”, but he is ‘lanky’ – hardly a word one could use about Arnold Schwarzenegger. He is also far more complex a character, and not completely likeable. But that, oddly, makes him endearing: he ogles the pretty woman during the test stages for the show, he is rude and surly, but he is living in a world in which he and other poverty-stricken Americans are being derided and forgotten. He has character, he has ‘balls’, as they say. Of course, the Arnie character on the big screen is also brave, but in a far more conventional and straightforward way: an innocent man out to right the wrongs of the world.
In the film of The Running Man, the game show takes place in a huge TV set, rather than all over the world. Instead of willingly applying to be on the show, Arnie’s Ben Richards is practically forced to go on, otherwise the omnipotent Killian (the gameshow’s host; he’s just the producer in the novel, with the charismatic Bobby Thompson being the frontman) will arrange for Richards’ friends from the breakout, Laughlin and Weiss, to go on in his stead (the Laughlin in the novel is a completely different character, while Weiss was invented for the film adaptation). In the end, Richards’ friends are made to participate in the show as well, as is Amber Mendez, the woman whose apartment Richards ‘broke into’ while looking for his brother. The show takes place over a single night.
Even critics of The Running Man have praised Richard Dawson’s performance as Killian, the host of The Running Man in the movie. And it’s a show-stopping and scene-stealing performance. But I would argue that it works because of the way the film is directed, not in spite of it (it’s also a scandal that the finest piece of the movie’s soundtrack, known informally as Paula’s theme, was left off the official soundtrack release for reasons that remain mired in mystery and rumour). Paul Michael Glaser was criticised – by Schwarzenegger himself, among others – for his direction of the film, but this review takes a kinder approach. The film of The Running Man is somewhat ridiculous. Even its die-hard fans wouldn’t deny this. But many of the choices made in the film direction work in a way that one cannot imagine a more faithful adaptation of Bachman’s/King’s source material succeeding so well. Glaser was criticised for filming the movie as though it were a TV show, but by doing so, the film reels us in, inviting us to share in the sadistic spectacle of gladiatorial combat, making the film a sometimes uneasy viewing experience (but since when is that a bad thing – especially in a Stephen King adaptation!). What’s more, in reducing the longer time frame of the novel so that the TV show takes place over a single night, and in one studio rather than across a whole continent, the film adheres to the Aristotelian Unities of time, place, and action in a pleasing and effective way. Again, it’s hard to see the tension that works so well in the novel transferring easily to a movie, if these changes hadn’t been made.
Many films are ridiculous but also fun. The Running Man is not aiming for realism, it’s an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle at a time when he was known for escapist action movies such as Commando, and despite the more laughable plot elements, The Running Man taps into the ‘bread and circuses’ mentality of the crowd, something made all the clearer in the wake of austerity and the recession over the last decade, where people are scraping by, some without enough food to feed their families or pay medical bills. Entertainment, including humiliating entertainment (Big Brother or I’m a Celeb…, anyone?) is the ‘diet’ they are offered to distract them from the fact that austerity has robbed them of the essentials they need. The films of The Hunger Games, the worthy heirs of such movies as The Running Man (to say nothing of an earlier Bachman title which hasn’t been filmed yet, The Long Walk – although an adaptation is reportedly in the offing), were made when post-2008 austerity was already a reality; The Running Man foresaw such a world.