Film * Paul Michael Glaser * T.V. Dystopia * 1987
Watching this for the first time in a long time, I think the most striking thing about this movie is not only how different it is from the book, but how well it manages to capture the spirit of the novel despite the vastly different way in which the story is told. I’m not going to go into all the many (many) differences here since they’re mostly superficial, but there is one significant change. Look, I get it, Arnie was a strange choice for Ben Richards. That said, he totally works in the context of the movie, which is to say that the film’s version of The Running Man – the show within the story – is constructed to be a better movie visual. In the book, contestants are volunteers and are set out in the world at large. We don’t really see the Hunters chasing Richards, just his reaction to their presence. The show takes place over the course of many days, and is largely constructed of videos filmed by the contestant themselves. In this sense, a scrappy, resourceful guy like Ben Richards makes sense. He’s getting by with his cunning and intelligence in addition to his ability to make allies with his own people.
Meanwhile, the movie is doing something much different. The Running Man here is less an extended chase and more a traditional gladiator match (with that smooth 80s veneer). There are set parameters to the arena, even though it is comprised of a devastated section of the city. The Hunters of the book are Stalkers here, and are the features of the movie. There is a firm three hour time limit, and there are cameras everywhere. In this situation, a dude like 1987 Arnold makes a lot more sense. And that’s the whole point of the movie. If something like The Running Man was going to manifest, it would look a lot more like what we get in the film than what “Bachman” presents in his novel. It’s livelier, glitzier, and is simply better television. Especially by the standards of the day.
If that’s the major difference between the film and its source material, the more important understanding is that thematically they’re basically the same thing. This Running Man dystopia happens a little sooner, 2017, after the collapse of the world economy. It should also be noted that I watched this on the evening that Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee for President of the motherfucking United States and suddenly this looks plausible as hell. Oh god, now that I think about it in this context it looks inevitable. Trump is going to win and turn the clock back to 1987 and institute a dystopian nightmare based on game shows from the 1980s. Oh god it’s happening oh no oh no oh no.
Okay! Shake it off, everything is FINE. The hell was I talking about? Right, so the dystopian set up is pretty much the same between the book and the film. The idea is that the structures of civilization began to crumble and collapse and a repressive police state arrested this slide by instituting iron-clad order at the barrel of a gun. So far, so dystopia. Also intact is the book’s sense of class warfare, which I would argue is at the heart of The Running Man, regardless of medium. I think it’s helpful to take a look at the movie’s more streamlined approach to making this point, however, so let’s do that.
The problem with imagining a proper American dystopia is that, due to the vast size and variety of the land and population, it is difficult to picture a way to fully implement a hard totalitarian state. Yet size isn’t a determining factor, as I imagine China might illustrate. The real difference is in our beginnings as a rebel colony that decided independence and freedom were going to be the hot buzzwords which defined not only American government, but the mindset of the American population. Somehow, the fact that said freedom and independence only applied to a small segment of people didn’t seem to matter in the long run. It’s the attitude that defines the United States, and most political arguments tend to boil down to how particular policies and attitudes affect that freedom and independence. As an American I’m obviously biased, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I’m also pretty sure that’s what is going to make this place difficult to properly oppress barring a massive apocalyptic event. It’s hard to institute a police state if part of your populace has, like, all the guns, and another is willing to happily throw themselves in front of the repressive machinery and post that shit on Twitter.
The Running Man, then, attempts to craft a dystopian vision that skirts around this difficulty by rallying around what we have in common, which was apparently a monolithic means of cultural hegemony. That’s a fancy way of saying “that idiot box done gonna rot your brain, kid.” This is implemented in the book as “Free-Vee,” which is to say mandated, government-backed mono-vision. This distinction is less clear in the movie; in fact it just seems like Killian’s show is subject to ratings failures the same as anything else, despite having a connection with the government. That said, as mentioned above, the film does a better job of creating the perfect 1980’s dystopian game show. Really, though, this scenario only works in this time frame. Something like a Free-Vee wouldn’t make sense now, a year before this is all supposed to unfold, because pretty much all of our information is freely disseminated on the internet. The Running Man is a product of its time, though, so I’m not going to take away its dystopia points because it didn’t imagine the future properly. The film manages to imagine a solution to another of the American dystopia problems: the middle class.
The way the book deals with our social structure is pretty clear. There is a mostly invisible dominant class, a slightly larger, sedate middle-class, and a vast population of poor people. The film obviously doesn’t have the luxury of spelling this out, but does a pretty good job of showing the various social groups and how they interact with the dystopian nightmare world they inhabit. Fairly often we get establishing shots of the Blade Runner-esque Los Angeles, complete with mobs of frothing poor people betting on the results of the show. Meanwhile, the actual audience of the show is comprised of the duped middle-class, who happily swallow lies so that they can avoid troubling their conscience (and perhaps score a sweet home version of The Running Man). Yet the way the film handles the dopey middle-class rubes is perhaps less elegant than in the book. Mostly I’m thinking of the airport scene in which Richards is trying to escape to Hawaii and manages to fudge his way through security because some obnoxious old cranks start bitching and airport security is like, whatever and just waves them through. Honestly, if that’s how you run your totalitarian police state, it deserves to get overthrown because a beefy guy quipped some ridiculous one-liners on television.
Look, I know. I’m taking The Running Man way more seriously than it takes itself. Whatever, I like this thing in large part because I’m a sucker for stupid 80s action movies. I’m a product of my time. That said, there is an element of disquiet in how this movie is structured. There is the largely invisible 1% who run things to their benefit. There is an unsettlingly large amount of people who live in poverty and are quite unhappy about it. And then there’s the middle-class, who despite having all manner of technological and material comforts are still generally unsettled and constantly looking for distraction, which the power-players are more than happy to provide. The path to an American dystopia is difficult, but at the very least The Running Man demonstrates that there is a foundation to the idea.