Revisiting the film of Stephen King’s The Running Man

Our lookback through the screen adaptations of Stephen King brings us to Arnold Schwarzenegger, and The Running Man...

The film: In the totalitarian dystopia of 2017, Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger) finds himself wrongly convicted and sent to prison. Recaptured after an escape attempt, he’s placed into a television gameshow called The Running Man, in which prison convicts attempt to stay alive in the Game Zone in order to achieve prizes such as a suspended sentence or even a pardon. However, Richards has links to the Resistance and they’re on hand to assist with his game-changing TV appearance. To say that The Running Man is a loose adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same name, published under his pseudonym Richard Bachman, is something of an understatement. Stephen E. de Souza takes a hacksaw to the original everyman Ben Richards, an unemployed family man desperate for money to assist his ailing daughter, who is forced to enter the Games Network for a chance at some instant cash. He’s selected for The Running Man, in which he will go on the run in the world, to be hunted down by hitmen for the entertainment of the masses. There, Ben’s decision to throw himself into something dangerous is an act of free will, albeit dictated by horrendous circumstances. In the film version, Richards is manipulated into it after his false conviction for taking part in a massacre, ensuring that he’s a much more reactive character than his book counterpart. As mentioned by our very own Simon Brew in his look back at the film, it’s very keen to let you know that Richards is a good guy and someone to root for. He’s a man forced into the system, rather than someone who chooses to enter it of his own volition. It’s a much cleaner morality.

It helps that the film makes it very clear who the bad guy is. Damon Killian, host of The Running Man and possessor of sharp suits, is played by Richard Dawson with scenery-chewing relish. He’s a worthy foil to Arnie and an unsubtle representation of capitalist American values, greedily pursuing his audience until they start to turn on him. As a result, he’s the most fun element of the film and where it leans full tilt into its corporate media satire themes.

Those themes are where the film is strongest, capturing the bitter heart of King’s novel underneath the bright studio lights. It does so in a different way to the book, mostly through the use of a television studio as its location. We’re reminded of its artifice at all times in the shots from the show’s control room, which punctuate the action, and the clear delineation between the studio set and the audience. In King’s novella, there was no Game Zone, just wherever Ben could get to in the real world; the barrier between reality and television was broken down and the public, offered cash rewards to alert the Network to Ben’s presence, became actively complicit in a way the film doesn’t allow them to be. However, the way the film does use its studio and television audiences as a barometer for Richards’ story is really smart. They are depicted as a near-rabid horde, desperate and easily directed by whoever they see as the most powerful in any given situation. When Richards looks like he’s going to beat the stalkers, public opinion sways to make him the hero and without that, Richards could never have brought down Killian.

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Depending on your tolerance for Arnie and his puns or a late 80s vision of our current society (it’s not surprising the film’s exposition card became a meme this year), The Running Man is one to love or not quite get on with. I think I probably fall into the latter camp, but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy or appreciate the experience. Arnie’s various one-liners feel like they’re inserted to distract you from that fact that this is a social satire, which creates a weird tension to the film and is perhaps why it never quite works as well as it should. It never manages to quite strike the balance between satire and violent entertainment in the manner of say, Robocop, but it’s a valiant effort and there’s certainly more going on in The Running Man than the coating of spandex and gaudiness would suggest. I dare say though that The Running Man is ripe for another adaptation, one more faithful to King’s tale.

As glorious as the bright colours and bombast of Paul Michael Glaser and de Souza’s version are, the novel has got a real grit to it. The prescience regarding the increased poverty, unaffordable healthcare, and the sway that the media holds over the populace would cut particularly keenly. For now, at least we have Arnie in a Hawaiian shirt and a silly hat.

Scariest moment: In an age when fake news and virality seem to exert a vice-like grip over social media, the moment in which footage from the airport is manipulated to make it seem like Richards is a cold-blooded killer certainly induces a chill in the bones. Musicality: Harold Faltermeyer’s score utilises classical music effectively amongst his own synth stylings and the most impressive is Dynamo’s introduction. Dynamo enters singing an aria from The Marriage Of Figaro. It helps that it really is the man himself singing; Erland van Lidth was a classically trained baritone opera singer. A King thing: The angry mob. The television audiences in The Running Man are feral, easily-led beings, swayed by the shiniest thing in front of them at any given moment. Here, they never quite break out into violence, but it’s bubbling under the surface, carefully managed by Killian’s showmanship. It’s something King would later explore more fully in his novel Needful Things.