Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Stephen King Month: The Running Man (1987)

Even more so than dramas like The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me, which are positioned to bolster the author's reputation as a serious writer, The Running Man stands out as the unlikeliest Stephen King adaptation, a testosterone-fueled action movie featuring none of King's familiar settings or themes. It's based extremely loosely on a novel originally published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman (Bachman is actually the name listed in the movie's credits), and while the source material was clearly sci-fi, it also had a strong undercurrent of dread that's entirely missing from the movie. That's because screenwriter Steven E. de Souza and director Paul Michael Glaser take pretty much only the title and basic concept of King's story, involving a dystopian future where killer game shows are all the rage. King's protagonist was a desperate man in need of medicine for his daughter, and his version of the Running Man show involved contestants fleeing all around the world while hunted by skilled assassins, sending in video tapes of themselves every few days.

From that more low-key scenario, de Souza and Glaser build an over-the-top vision of a show that's one part American Gladiators and one part The Most Dangerous Game, as killers with absurd names and even more absurd outfits hunt convicted felons while crowds of middle-class drones cheer them on. The protagonist goes from a dedicated family man to an ex-cop framed for murder, and since he's played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, you know exactly who's going to make it out of this game alive. Most of the movie is typical '80s action nonsense, with horrible one-liners and Schwarzenegger's standard wooden acting. There are some token nods to overthrowing the totalitarian government, but the movie's mythology is ill-conceived and full of plot holes. It's basically just an excuse to watch Schwarzenegger eviscerate bad guys and crack jokes.

The one redeeming element of the movie is Richard Dawson as Killian, creator and host of The Running Man TV show. The iconic game-show host deviously plays with his image as a friendly, avuncular presence by showing Killian as ruthless and bloodthirsty behind the scenes even as he smiles and schmoozes with the bland suburbanites in the audience. Dawson clearly has a lot of fun with the performance (one of only a handful of movie roles in his entire career), and the movie gets some decent laughs out of the contrast between the wholesomeness of the game-show structure and the carnage being doled out. That aside, though, this is mostly just for Schwarzenegger fans, and King's influence is virtually nowhere to be found.

How far to Castle Rock: One assumes that in this dystopian future, quaint small towns have been abolished (it's never mentioned).


Pj Perez said...

I had NO IDEA this was a Stephen King joint (originally). I sometimes wonder why screenwriters bother adapting the "source" material at all.

Josh said...

Yeah, I think most people are unaware of this movie's origins as a King novel, not that it bears much resemblance to the book anyway.