The Running Man
Director: Paul Michael Glaser
Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Conchita Alonso,Yaphet Kotto
A wrongly convicted man must try to survive a public execution gauntlet staged as a game show.
I first saw The Running Man back when I was in middle school. I was just starting to become a Stephen King fan and this movie happened to be coming on television. I watched it, it didn’t feel like Stephen King so I didn’t commit much of it to memory and moved on. Later when I got older and considered giving the movie another view I kept realizing that it was from the director of Kazaam and wanted nothing to do with it. Well I just read the novel it was based on recently and decided to give the movie another good view and was surprised to see that it’s aged quite well.
Book Vs. Movie
The novel, The Running Man is a harrowing tale of a dystopian future. The first few paragraphs describe just how bad it is for the poor in the future as Sheila Richards as to turn tricks in order to get medicine for her sick infant while husband Ben Richards is stewing over their situation while the television (called Free-Vee) plays a game show in the background. Most of society is desperately poor but the government/television network likes it that way. The only way that Ben Richards can hope to get any sort of money for his daughter to get treated for pneumonia and for his family to eat is to go compete in “The Games.” All of television is violent reality shows where people risk life and limb for a chance to win money. Being the non-conformist that Ben is he is selected for the network’s most popular show, The Running Man where a person must evade capture from hunters and for every hour they stay alive they receive 100 dollars. This hunt happens out in the open, across the whole country (theoretically but the film primarily takes place in New England). Ultimately he discovers just how bad the world actually is and finds the motivation to somehow use this game to enact societal change. The novel is dark and persists with it’s ever-grimmer visage up until the sudden and surprising ending.
The movie, The Running Man, Ben Richards is a police officer who refuses to shoot unarmed civilians. He’s framed for their murder and sent to jail. Because of his notable physique he’s forced to compete in The Running Man which now takes place in a confined area where specific “stalkers” (the heroes of the show) take turns hunting down their prey. It takes simply the concept of a tv-centric dystopia with a game show called “The Running Man” and that’s about it. Oh sure, the main character is named Ben Richards and there is a character named Killian but in the novel he is a producer of the show and in the film he’s the host played by Richard Dawson. Both have a character named “Laughlin” but I believe that’s a coincidence. The Ben Richards in the Stephen King (Richard Bachman) novel is unemployed, desperate and underfed. He’s a scrawny guy that uses intelligence and the assistance of an underground to get by. The Ben Richards of the film was a police officer turned prisoner who is a physically dominating individual.
I believe the significant reasons for these differences are because of how bleak the novel is and, of course, money. The novel rights were bought cheap because it was written by some nobody author named Richard Bachman so the producers didn’t have to pay the premium Stephen King film option prices. In order to make money one was going to have to make a fun action film instead of a depressing vision of the future. Certainly an action movie is going to need an action star like Schwarzenegger as opposed to a scrawny guy like Dustin Hoffman. It’s easier to shoot on one set with a minimal cast instead of across all New England with all kinds of people. I’m not bothered by the changes – in fact it’s like getting two different stories for the price of one!
The Running Man is a prescient film presenting a future that may very well be our own. The novel is in it’s own way but let’s just focus on the film for a moment. First off, “The Running Man” isn’t the only show on television – it’s only the most popular. There’s another show where people struggle to climb up a rope in order to grab stacks of cash while there are vicious dogs below ready to tear the contestant to shreds. Like the novel it’s all reality based programming focused on the mutilation and death of others. In the almost 30 years since this film came out we’ve come to embrace reality shows. Granted the big reality boom that consisted of Big Brother, The Real World, Road Rules, Fear Factor and dozens others all airing at once has died down. For awhile I was worried that competitive reality shows like Fear Factor would eventually evolve into game shows where the losers die. We still have major competitive reality shows like American Idol where we get a pleasure out of seeing the humiliation of others. Though the mindless preoccupation we have on television is greater now than it ever was before. The Running Man presents a future where the television is our glowing God and we are all slaves to it – and THAT is a reality we currently live in.
Another theory that The Running Man posits is just how gullible and stupid society has become. The public opinion is very easy to manipulate with some quick editing, it’s simpler than ever to get every person on board in a witch hunt against someone else. In the film Ben Richards is painted as a villain and everyone believes it. How many celebrities, corporations or even everyday people are easily demonized through social media? Hell, one doesn’t even need to be a major media outlet in order to start a campaign of hate against anyone – anybody can post a screen shot of something and say something bitter about it and then it’ll become viral and a whole world will turn against someone. There’s also the fact that people in The Running Man only care about what’s happening now. While they’ve been led to believe that Benjamin Richards is an unrepentant mass murderer it doesn’t stop the public from swaying their opinion on him when he starts to become the star of a television show. It’s quite easily to forget the past crimes of someone when they happen to do one cool thing recently. Likewise, the good deeds of others are easily forgotten when they make one error. While we may not end up with a game show like “The Running Man” on television we certainly do live in the same society that created it.
The role of “game show host” is the kind of celebrity it once was. As a child the only game show hosts I truly admired were Marc Sommers (Double Dare) and Chuck Woolery. Pat Sajack has always seemed devoid of a personality and Alec Trebek has only recently become interesting. It wasn’t until I became an adult and checked out the Game Show Network that I encountered and became fascinated by Richard Dawson. There are several different game shows he hosted but where he really shined was hosting Match Game and Family Feud. He always came across as this incorruptible nicest guy in the world and when he would hug and kiss every single female contestant it didn’t seem that creepy because, hey, it’s Richard Dawson, he doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.
As Damon Killian, the host of “The Running Man,” Richard Dawson is my favorite thing in the movie. As the game show host is the exact same Richard Dawson from television – the motivating energy he brings as well as the way he interacts with contestants and the audience is exactly like he would do it on Match Game and Family Feud. When the cameras aren’t on Damon Killian, however, he is cruel, manipulative and truly the villain of this movie – and this genial game show host that seems to love everybody turns into one mean motherfucker. It’s a wonderful side to Richard Dawson I never saw before and I loved it. Certainly it goes to show how deceptive television can be. You see any game show or reality show on TV and you don’t know what happened when the cameras weren’t rolling. Okay I DO know what goes on during a game show taping because I’ve been to several and the truth is that it’s really really boring. There is still that tendency people have to associate a person’s on screen presence with how that person must be in real life. With fictional shows you do get the ones who assume that actor must be exactly like the person they play on television. With game shows that assumption is stronger because, hey, they are playing THEMSELVES. Which is what makes the ending a bit more significant because the audience for “The Running Man” carries the assumption that Damon Killian is a nice, wonderful guy, nobody questioned what this guy would be like when the cameras were off. But when the truth comes out…
Is It Still Significant?
Most stories about a future dystopia carry a message of “this could be our future” and as far as being a word of warning, The Running Man does a good job. Not as good as the novel did in delivering it’s theme but it’s still fairly competent. The Running Man stands more though as a great piece of pop culture. With the exception of Schwarzenegger and Richard Dawson, the film has many recognizable faces; Jesse Ventura, Yaphet Kotto, Mic Fleetwood, Dweezil Zappa and Maria Conchita Alonso (who looks and sounds exactly like Selma Hayek in everything she’s done). It’s typical of an Arnold Schwarzenegger film and he gets so many wonderful lines when he kills someone. If you liked the “Let off some steam Bennett” line from Commando then you’ll definitely love Arnold’s dialogue in The Running Man.
Also, it is good to know that the man who directed a film as notorious as Kazaam did give us some very worthwhile entertainment with The Running Man.