From Book to Screen: The Running Man
One of only two adaptations so far to be based on one of the books King wrote under his pseudonym Richard Bachman (the other is Thinner), The Running Man more than takes creative liberties with the source material. Yet the film is still a popular King adaptation, and among the many 80s visualizations of his works it is perhaps the most quintessentially 80s of them all. It is the next book chronologically after Cujo, which came out the same year, but The Running Man would represent the end of an era of King’s writing. His Bachman name was outed, and after that he would restrict himself mostly to pure horror. Still, it was likely because The Running Man was revealed to be a King novel that it received a film adaptation fairly quickly, due to how popular King was at the time.
King created the pseudonym Richard Bachman for a couple of reasons. First, King wanted to know whether it was truly his writing that made his books successful. A nagging thought in his head was that he had merely gotten lucky with Carrie and then capitalized on that through name recognition. Could he replicate his success under a new name? Second, publishing practice at the time limited an author to one book a year. King could get around that by publishing a second book under a different name, which is what he did with The Running Man since he published Cujo earlier in the year. Whether or not the Bachman experiment was a success is still a matter of debate. The books released under that name were popular, but they never sold as much as the ones written under the King name until the secret was spilled by a crafty book clerk in D.C. King personally felt the name was outed too early for him to get a satisfactory answer.
King wrote The Running Man in a week, which was remarkable even in comparison to his usual fast pace. He described himself as a young, energetic, and angry man who was in love with the art of writing so much that he could throw a novel like this together quickly. Like many of the Bachman Books, The Running Man uses a dystopia-style sci-fi concept. It’s 2025, and the world economy is in shambles, with the United States under the control of a totalitarian corporatist government. With environmental disaster and sickness wrecking the population, work is limited and the poor struggle daily to find a way to make a living. One alternative remains: The Games Network, a government-run game show network that subjects its contestants to brutally violent games, though the rewards can be great if you survive.
This is not unlike The Long Walk, another of the Bachman novels. Perhaps King was channeling a lot of his anger at the world into the Bachman persona, but either way it made for some interesting concepts. Our protagonist winds up on the most popular of the games, the titular one, and has to run away from a group of hitmen who hunt him down across the world while earning more money the longer he stays alive. The grand prize is a billion dollars for surviving 30 days, a feat never before accomplished of course. The details of the game are intricate enough that it makes for a compelling short novel. It takes a fairly nihilistic turn in the end, but it’s a fun read and inspired several video games. One of the more brisk of King’s books, it remains enjoyable today even as we have reached the time period in which the book is set.
The film opened in November 1987, five years after the book. A decent box office success, the film grossed $37 million on a $28 million budget. Critical reviews were mixed. The director, Paul Michael Glaser, had originally declined the job feeling that the pre-production period was too short. But the subsequent director was fired due to falling behind schedule, and Glaser agreed to come on-board. This was much to the chagrin of Arnold Schwarzenegger who felt that Glaser shot the film poorly and robbed it of all nuance.
The Running Man certainly isn’t subtle. Nor is it particularly faithful to the novel. It is instead set in 2019 and alters the details of the titular game show quite a bit. It is now a show where convicted criminals can earn a pardon by battling against a series of gladiators in arenas. The protagonist also goes from a scrawny man to Arnold freakin’ Schwarzenegger, who is a fighting a revolution against the totalitarian government. The world is also far less realistic and gritty than the setting of King’s novel, which feels odd to say. But Glaser’s film revels in its over-the-top 80s nature and embraces goofiness. Schwarzenegger’s character gets in trouble for refusing to fire upon a crowd of innocent children in an opening scene that feels ridiculous even in context.
Despite goofiness, the movie has its charms. There is a satirical edge to the entire affair, attacking reality TV and Arnold’s career by mocking his action-hero catch phrases, including a direct reference to the “I’ll be back” line from The Terminator. The film is quite colorful and not afraid to embrace its fantastical set and costume design. The gladiators costuming and behavior is reminiscent of George Miller or something akin to that. Another part of the 80s aesthetic is the synth score and accompanying dance sequences. The film goes off the rails in a gleeful way.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel like Glaser has control of the absurdity. You don’t know as an audience member whether the film wants you to be laughing. The performances do keep this from teetering over the edge; Arnold always has a winning presence and seems in on the jokes. The highlight is Richard Dawson‘s Killian, the host of the game show. Dawson, a real-life game show host, is wonderfully campy as master of proceedings. Had a lesser cast filled some of these roles, The Running Man might have failed to make a mark as anything other than a campy 80s sci-fi film.
The Running Man is arguably worth at least one viewing. It’s not a great film, but it’s also far from bland or as cheap and lazy as many other King adaptations. The novel itself is definitely worth a read, and might even be enjoyed by those who think King is too long-winded most of the time. While an adaptation closer to the source material wouldn’t be unwelcome, as the central game show concept that King designed was more creative than what the film does, you could do worse than the Arnold movie, and non-King fans will enjoy it depending on their taste for 80s camp. That said, the book can firmly be declared better.
- Ranked #1,296 globally
- 13,688 users have ranked it
- Wins 42% of match-ups
- 7 people have it at #1
- 9/86 on the Stephen King filter
These are my personal rankings for every King adaptation I’ve written about for this series. At the very end, we will see where my Stephen King taste overlaps with the global consensus.
- Carrie (1976)
- The Dead Zone (1983)
- The Stand (1994)
- Stephen King’s The Shining (1994)
- Cat’s Eye (1985)
- The Running Man (1987)
- Cujo (1983)
- The Shining (1980)
- Sometimes They Come Back (1991)
- Salem’s Lot (2004)
- Children of the Corn (2009)
- Salem’s Lot (1979)
- Firestarter (1984)
- Carrie (2013)
- Children of the Corn (1984)
- The Mangler (1995)
- Graveyard Shift (1990)
- Maximum Overdrive (1986)
- Carrie (2002)
- The Lawnmower Man (1992)
- Trucks (1997)