During the 1980s, an author by the name of Stephen King was in such wide circulation that a new film based on one of his novels seemed to be getting released every year. With the film industry of the 1980s progressively showing greater and greater effects of deregulation, and the competition becoming more akin to a street fight, adaptations of King novels progressed in identifiable stages. Specifically, faithful (somewhat), loose, looser, and related only by title.
The Running Man was quite clearly “optioned” before the news broke that authors Stephen King and Richard Bachman were, in fact, the same man. Even the opening credit for “based on the novel by” lists Bachman rather than King. (Actually, the reason for this is, disappointingly, more prosaic, and I will get to it shortly.)
King had two reasons for creating the Bachman alias, one noble, the other not so. The less noble reason was that publishers felt it was good business sense to limit authors to a maximum of one book a year. They felt that any more would oversaturate the market and draw backlash from the public. This is a good business sense rule of the sort that would be welcomed in the modern media, but I digress. Simply put, Bachman was King‘s way of getting around that rule. But King also had a very good and somewhat more noble reason to create the pseudonym. Specifically, King wanted to test whether an author could get to the top of the pile by hard work alone, or whether it was a lucky draw. King maintains that the question remains unanswered, but I personally believe that is a load of bollocks (sing along now!). Even if you dismiss the fact that Thinner sold a thousand percent as many copies after King was revealed the be the actual author, the fact that people like Stephenie Meyer are allowed to publish books and enjoy the marketing bonanza that accompanies film adaptations pretty conclusively demonstrates that merit has never been a factor.
But King was very adamant when the process began to turn The Running Man into a feature film. Richard Bachman was to be credited as the author of the novel on which the film was based, not Stephen King. King had been “out” as Bachman for two years by the time the film was released theatrically, so the plausible explanation for this is that King read the shooting script for the film and threatened to sue to have his actual name removed.
Every author, musician, or filmmaker has their own little quirks. Some big, some small, some planet-sized. But I think that one we can all agree every truly creative artist has one quirk in common. When their work is being indirectly represented to the public at large, they dislike having it misrepresented. Stephen King has had many films based on his work that are incredibly shitty and sometimes very divergent from it, but with the exception of The Shining, he has, so far as I am aware, never publically denounced any of these films as such. But his comments about The Running Man the film are about as close as one can get to slapping the director in the face without actually doing it.
Right from the get-go, we get a faceful of the storytelling problems that King mostly avoided in his novel. The novel is set in the still-somewhat-distant year of 2025. Although the novel is not terribly clear about why, the world’s economy is in ruins, and the level of violence in the world is rising. The film simply states right off the bat that the world economy has collapsed, it is the year 2019, and the government is oppressing the populace, controlling them through means of the television. Yeah, it is going to be that kind of film.
When Stephen King writes about anything, it generally becomes clear that he is trying to make a point about something. Good makers of fiction do this a lot. The real Running Man, as I will refer to King‘s novel from this point going forward, depicts a situation in which the economic polarisation that was occurring at its time is taken to its logical extreme. Ben Richards, the protagonist, has been blacklisted from his trade. His situation is so desperate that his wife has resorted to prostitution to bring in money for the family, and his daughter Cathy is extremely ill. At the time of the novel’s first chapter, Richards is watching a broadcast of a game show called Treadmill To Bucks whilst his wife, Sheila, is measuring Cathy’s temperature. Treadmill To Bucks is a game in which persons suffering from chronic conditions such as asthma have to run on a treadmill (well, duh) whilst answering questions and keeping up a flow of chatter with the host. They get a certain amount of money award for each question they answer correctly. If they miss a question, money is deducted from their earnings, and the treadmill is sped up a little. Obviously, when the contestant is asthmatic or suffering from heart problems, this means the contestant will die eventually. Sometimes, the novel elaborates, a crippled individual (not the novel’s terms) is “thrown in” for comic relief.
The real Running Man‘s titular game show is one of the headlining acts in 2025 television’s constant parade of media distraction. They take the most physically fit and able to fight back applicants. Although King has stated that the Richards of his novel is as far from Schwarzenegger as one can get (the word “pre-tubercular” is used in some descriptions of the plot), he is judged to be clever and fit enough to give an entertaining run on The Running Man. You see, in the economically polarised world of The real Running Man, Richards is far from alone in his desperation. The reason that there are so many game shows on so many channels at all hours of the day is because there just is not enough time in the day or channels available for all of the wanna-be contestants. So there is a bit of a screening process involved. Richards is subjected to a battery of tests, both physical and psychological, to determine which of the shows he will perform best in. He is asked at one stage if he has applied for the games out of suicidal motivation. And both he and the readers know something is up when he requests a means to contact his wife, and is told that once he signs on to be a contestant, he cannot contact the outside world at all.
The Running Man as directed by Paul Michael Glaser goes about the setup a bit differently. In the film, Ben Richards is a police officer or soldier (the film is not specific about distinctions between services) who, when ordered to kill participants in a “food riot”, refuses. Sent to prison and framed for following the exact orders that he refused, Richards eventually escapes and attempts to find his brother. Upon learning that his brother has been taken away for “reeducation”, he kidnaps the woman that has moved into said brother’s apartment and attempts to fly to Hawaii. But she still believes in too much of the bullshit that the network she works for spews, and turns Richards in at the Hawaii airport.
A key difference, one that really sinks the film in my opinion, is the scope. In The real Running Man, participants in the game can literally run to anywhere in the world that they can find a means to get to. The only hobbling that the network puts on this is that contestants must mail in a certain number of tapes every so often. This is so that the show can keep the audience appraised of whom is being chased, and what kind of person they are (after a little creative editing of course). Most importantly, however, the network uses these tapes to encourage the audience to report the running individual in. You see, whilst the player can run to anywhere they want, the network basically turns audience participation deadly. Anyone who thinks that they have seen the contestant can call a number at the network and inform them of where they think they have seen the contestant. The network has its own means of determining the veracity of these tips, but in addition to the police and other armed services, the network has its own little group of private mercenaries who are well-equipped and basically allowed to operate outside of the law with impunity.
Paul Michael Glaser‘s film severely limits the scope. The contestants are sent running through a derelict area of Los Angeles that was rendered somehow uninhabitable by a major earthquake. I forget how big the area in the film is described as. But from the number of distinct areas I see in the film, it cannot be much more than four or five suburban blocks. Also a problem is the manner in which the Stalkers are depicted. In The real Running Man, the Hunters (as they are called) are a professional squad with similar trappings to mercenaries. In the film, the Stalkers look like a bunch of rejects from a World Wrestling Federation show. Their costuming or equipment looks highly impractical at best, or flat-out stupid at worst. There are a few plausible ones mixed in there, but this also highlights a big problem with the way in which the film presents the show. In The real Running Man, the contest is a little lopsided, but with enough work at stealth and ingenuity, the contestant can stay alive for thirty days and collect a prize of one billion “New Dollars”. In the film version, the contest is so utterly one-sided that it beggars belief that people even bother to watch (more on this in a sec), much less that the ruse of parading “last season’s winners” for the audience has a hope in hell of working.
The most implausible Stalker? Well, with one exception they all have their ways of mooning the laws of logic and physics. But by a long road the two worst are called Dynamo (the late Erland Van Lidth De Jeude) and Fireball (Jim Brown). Of these two, it is a toss-up in terms of which flaunts the rules of logic more greviously. But Dynamo comes off the worse of the two because he gets more screentime, and his gimmick is just that spectacularly silly in a very obvious sense.
In his relatively short life, Erland Van Lidth De Jeude was a lot of things. But probably the thing he was best known for outside of a fairly second-string film career was opera singing. And that is what the film uses to introduce us to his character, Dynamo. I do not know my opera from my earhole, so I could not tell you exactly what Erland is singing as he is introduced. But I can tell you that he punctuates each phrasing with a launch of lighting from the bracer he wears on one of his arms. He has one of these bracers on each arm, both of which fire a bolt of what looks like lightning through the air at whatever Dynamo aims them at. I do not know a whole lot about electricity, but I can tell you that as far as I know, air does not conduct it all that well.
Erland was also a very large man, at around 203 centimetres (that is 6′ 7.921″ (and change) for you Americans… see what we mean about the precision of metric?) and ~380 pounds. This would explain somewhat the electricity-based costuming, as when the character gets out of the car, his ability to give chase to fleeing contestants would not exactly be that great. But not only would a fancy rifle or similar device achieve the same amount of spectacle if the cameramen are on the ball (more on this shortly), it would also be quite a good deal more efficient. The costs of making and maintaining the suits that Dynamo would wear would be steep, and exactly where the power for those bursts of lightning would come from in terms of source is never adequately explained.
Fireball looks more plausible to the eye at first, but the character also breaks that fundamental rule of presenting villains with far-out abilities or equipment in action, science fiction, or hybrids of both. Specifically, less is more. Fireball, as the name implies, basically stalks his quarry with a flamethrower. He also uses a rocket pack in order to transport himself to and fro. The film is never clear about this point, but the rocket pack and the tanks of fuel for the flamethrower are essentially in the same place: mounted on Fireball’s back. Fireball’s rocket pack appears to use the same principle of ignition to propel him into the air (and does not appear to contain any visible mechanism for directional propulsion) as the flamethrower uses to propel fire at a target. Given Jim Brown‘s overall size and probable weight (which, in his favour, is noticeably less than that of Erland Van Lidth De Jeune), the jet pack and flamethrower would really be an either-or proposition. A man of his size would not be able to carry enough jet pack fuel on his back to propel him very far, nor would he be able to carry enough napalm in a tank on his back to propel as much flame as he is shown doing throughout the film.
There are, however, a few areas where the film does stand out from the pack in terms of storytelling. Most of them are cosmetic, but there you go. In a lot of public areas, such as shantytowns or where the “upper” class gather to watch the game together, large-screen televisions can be seen, broadcasting the game for the benefit of people within a fairly large area. These giant screens actually appear to be in the same aspect ratio as the film itself was intended, the 1.85:1 Academy Standard Flat ratio. This is pretty close to the 1.78:1 shape that is now the standard for digital television. It also makes it fairly obvious that the shots in the film were intended to be seen in that ratio.
But this is a subtle thing that takes a few viewings to pick up on, and that is assuming a person ever does (you would be amazed at how inobservant Homo Sapien can really be). Another, far more obvious hint of things to come is when Captain Freedom (Jesse Ventura in one of his better performances) refuses to don one of the gimmicky costumes that the other Stalkers have been using to minimal or no effect against Richards. In his words, the Running Man that is presented in the film is a sport of death and honour. “Code of the gladiators”, he punctuates that statement with. The host, Damon Killian (Richard Dawson), having his own hands full with trying to stem the seemingly endless stream of upsets that is unfolding during the episode, puts his position forth very nicely: “it’s not a request, moron, it’s an order”.
The Captain is a ten-time champion and has more of the blood of the criminals put on the show than anyone else, but he has grown sick of the one-sided matches. So Killian simply tells him to get the fukk out, ordering Sven (Sven-Ole Thorsen, a long time stunt double for Arnold Schwarzenegger) to “get him out of here”. This ends in a shot of the Captain turning to Sven, who in turn gives the Captain an open armed, near to puppy-dog look that can be interpreted a number of different ways. Between two men among whom violence is a profession, it can be seen as a sort of “come on, let’s just use the path of least resistance here” look. Or a “I like this guy even less than you do, Captain, but he signs both of our paycheques” look. It is one of the few parts of the film in which the director and writer recognise that sometimes, less can be a whole lot more.
But this also necessitates a way of finding a Stalker who will neutralise the whole threat that has popped up around Richards. So Killian orders his production staff to edit together a fight in which it appears that Captain Freedom kills both of the surviving runners. This is accomplished by digitising footage of both Richards and Captain Freedom, grafting their bodies onto digital stunt doubles, then running said digitals through a prewritten script. It would be another twelve years before George Lucas presented audiences with a character that appears in the film as nothing more than a seemingly living mass of pixels, and that went down about as well as a shit sandwich. Of course, the difference here is that in the finished, edited-together fight, the actors really do act out their fights together. María Conchita Alonso‘s character is dispatched with relatively easily (a woman who is 5’5″ at most and appeared to weigh 130 pounds when soaking wet in this film is not going to put up much of a fight against a man who is about 6’5″ and has arms thicker than my legs). But Richards puts up more of a fight, resulting in one of the few, if not only, good action sequences in the film. Just as the real Captain Freedom has been protesting the non-existence of in the game, the simulated fight is actually a fair one when the circumstances are taken into account. Of course, it ends with the simulated Richards dead, the audience trying to reconcile that, and the status quo appearing to be maintained.
Richards even pounds his fist on a desk, exclaiming “damn that Killian”. A bemused Amber (María Conchita Alonso) fails to see the problem, believing that since they have “died” on television, they should be able to go anywhere, do anything. But Richards cuts her off and explains that the powers that be will never let them out of the game’s “zone”, as they cannot afford “it” (he means the implications if someone sees and recognises them). So, as he explains more for the benefit of the audience, the show’s bosses will round up the police, the army, and whomever else wants to come along. Then hunt them down like dogs. “Off-camera, of course”.
Being that the parameters of The real Running Man allow the contestant to run literally anywhere he can get passage to, the setup and climax are obviously a lot different. For one thing, Richards attempts to hide a lot of the time, rather than overtly seek out and battle with his enemies. In one phase, he takes up with a group of black militants, particularly one combination of brothers within it. This small fragment of a resistance brings him (and readers) up to speed on some facts about The real Running Man‘s world. For one thing, the constant cough and respiratory difficulties Richards is experiencing throughout the novel is not just the bronchitis that everyone in the bottom eighty percent of society thinks it is. He is suffering from emphysema. You see, the powers that be are pouring carcinogens into the air as much as they can, requiring the populace to buy “filters” to be able to breathe without developing lung cancer or worse as a result. But like library cards or pretty much anything vital to a healthy democracy, one has to have a “guaranteed” income above a certain amount to even be able to access a place where they are sold. Which of course is funny in a way given that the resistance fighters Richards talk to were able to put one together for a relative using less than twenty dollars worth of materials.
Another interesting point is how the network responds to Richards’ attempts to bring public attention to these things. His video mailings to the network progress at a certain pace. At first, he taunts both the network and the audience, but when he becomes savvy to things like how the poor are being kept as a permanent underclass or the previously-mentioned deliberate pollution, he starts trying to alert audiences to these things. So the network creatively edits his tapes, altering them to say things more consistent with the first phase of his video recordings, only writ a bit larger. Things like how he is going to kill the first cop he sees, and so on. Then they use the audience booing and such to drown him out. Effectively, whilst his message is getting to the network, it is being stifled or mangled into something opposed to what it really is. After watching one instance of this, the elder of the Resistance brothers he holes up with for a while says that he is surprised the network let Richards get away with as many of his words getting onto the television as they did.
After Richards leaves these Resistance fighters, and a safe house goes bad thanks to the owner’s mother, Richards eventually makes his way to an airport by taking a woman by the name of Amber hostage. Amber is not all that heavily described, so it is hard to read about her in the novel without picturing María Conchita Alonso‘s visage to go with it. But where the two characters really differ is in how they behave after the revelation is made to them that the world and situation they are in is not how they think it is. The Amber in The real Running Man is incredibly ignorant, blissfully so, and remains such until right before the end. And even then, it is as if the revelation that the ruling class whose power is excessive to the detriment of all is not nice is one she struggles with. In simplistic films, you cannot have that. In a film aimed at the mouth-breathing action crowd, everything has to be painted in the broadest strokes. The villain has to be killed in a spectacular fashion that does not entail any collateral damage. The hero has to be completely virtuous, as does the love interest. The supporting characters have to either be unremittingly evil or absolutely good.
Which makes it worthwhile to talk about Damon Killian as played in the film by Richard Dawson. It is often said that when one has a film in which the hero’s acting skills are, shall we say, limited, a good trick to alleviate that is to have a villain played by an actor who can lift them both out of that mire to some degree. Dawson is such an actor. The material in the film allows him to act around Schwarzenegger and accomodate Schwarzenegger‘s acting skills whilst making the best uses of his own.
This becomes particularly handy during two sequences. One central to the plot, one a minor throwaway joke. The central to the plot exchange follows the recapture of the Richards character. Richards finds himself in a secure room with a window that Killian sits on the opposite side of. Killian does most of the talking. Richards at first says the one thing the audience is thinking from the start of the scene. “I’ve seen you before,” he says. “You’re the asshole on TV.” Killian’s response is classically superior acting both in wording and delivery. “That’s funny, I was going to say the same thing about you.” That basically begins Killian’s pitch of the show to Richards. Of course, Killian is a used car salesman in his characterisation, and Richard Dawson lays that part on in just the right amount. It is obvious to the audience, even the people in the audience the film is aimed at, that Killian is lying to at least some degree whenever he breathes.
The second exchange is brief, and basically a punchline. At the end of the film, Killian and Richards have one final exchange. Killian tries to rationalise his actions throughout the film, claiming it is all about the ratings and so forth. But there is one last moment where one of the men he thinks he can order to fight Richards on his behalf makes his appearance known. Recall what I said about the real Captain Freedom refusing to adopt the gimmicks before being ejected from the room by Killian. He repeatedly demands that Sven remove Captain Freedom from the room, prefacing the last such demand with “what’s the matter? steroids make you deaf?”. So when Killian asks Sven if he would like to “talk to” Richards, Sven tells Killian in the most indecipherable Swedish accent you can possibly imagine that he has go and score some steroids before giving Richards a polite, smiling nod and leaving. The manner in which Richard Dawson gives the camera a what-the-fukk look after this statement is finished is priceless. That is basically the difference between a competent actor and a really good one. A good actor will find a way to turn just about any situation, even a line that sounds like it is in badly-enunciated German, to the advantage of the film.
So in the end, we have ourselves a novel that was written in about three days and contains what its author estimates to be about three months’ worth of material. And a film that runs for about a hundred minutes. Therein lies the biggest problem with the film, unfortunately. Whilst the producers are obviously keen to exploit the material’s connection with Stephen King, the amount of actual connection to Stephen King the film has is only slightly more than that of The Lawnmower Man, a film King liked so much that he really did sue its makers to have his name removed. Change the names of a few characters, rename the game in the film, and you basically have an entirely different story. But then, you also would not have such an easy means to make money from the film. Given that the film’s admitted production cost was twenty-seven million US dollars, and its domestic box office only slightly above thirty-eight million, its producers probably would have wanted any means of exploitable publicity they could get.
The film’s political message is also a stark contrast to The real Running Man. Basically, the film is pretty much the same as every Republican position during my lifetime. Unrestrained “free” enterprise good, gubmint baaaaad, and so on. Given that much of the present woeful situation we find ourselves in is the result of government and private enterprise comingling (not to mention big-time private enterprise being excused from paying for what they use), and that every quick alleviation of a major downturn in the economy has been due to government intervention, it just does not work.
That is not to say that Paul Michael Glaser‘s version of The Running Man is all bad. It is certainly more entertaining than some films from a similar time. The story, whilst by the numbers, does allow a few ironic moments when the mighty are laid low and the low become mighty, not to mention the aforementioned scenes with comedic irony. But the main problem is that by trading on the reputation of Stephen King and one of his novels, the film creates expectations that it cannot possibly hope to fulfil. Those who have read the novel prior to watching expect a more scathing criticism both of present-day society and our media. Sort of like a RoboCop without the cyborg or robots. Those who read the novel after having seen the film a couple of times just wonder why the hell the filmmakers even bothered purchasing the rights to King‘s work (depending on exactly when the option was obtained, it would have either added a few figures to the budget, or even millions).
Given the frenzy that Hollywood is currently in with remakes, remaking everything it can get its hands on with impunity, it begs the question of when we will see a remake of The Running Man on the marquee. If anyone with the power to make decisions at Home Box Office (or HBO as they are more commonly referred to) is out there reading this, it would be a great coup to properly promote and adapt The real Running Man as a ten or twelve part series for broadcasting. The story that Stephen King wrote is a cracker with plenty of powerful moments. Get a production team that knows the value of respecting the source material (especially in basic tone), and you have a potential ratings bonanza. Whilst it is true that Stephen King‘s name is not the audience magnet that it was in the mid-1980s and most of the 1990s, it is also true that he has a built-in audience numbering in the tens of millions. Television distribution and home video sales would make a however many parts are necessary adaptation of The real Running Man a worthwhile endeavour in many respects.
Also worth noting is that Paul Michael Glaser‘s The Running Man was the last film of any sort that Erland Van Lidth De Jeude worked on. He died in September of 1987. Prior to this film, he had only worked on four others, including the Gene Wilder / Richard Pryor comedy Stir Crazy, which I have not seen.
The long and short of it? If you are looking for a good comedy phrased as an action film, Paul Michael Glaser‘s The Running Man is worth a look. Say what you will about Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s acting, but he does have a sense of dramatic and comedic timing that exceeds many of his contemporaries. And whilst Richard Dawson might seem like a curious choice of villain in an Arnold Schwarzenegger film, he plays the “I am the guy that pulls the strings” bit very well. It is just that if you are looking for a good film adaptation of Stephen King‘s literary work, and believe me, those are few and far between, Paul Michael Glaser‘s The Running Man is definitely not the place to look.