Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - The Running Man


As a fan of both Stephen King and dystopian fiction, I read through The Running Man like a junk food addict eating a whole bag of potato chips - in one day.  It doesn't hurt that the novel is a fast paced read that keeps you on the edge of your seat as you follow Ben Richards on the run for his life.  Even the beginning, where we are introduced to this world Ben inhabits, where everyone has "FreeVees" in their homes given to them by The Network, the one and only television station that now exists and broadcasts mostly reality television shows all day long is fascinating.  You understand why a poor man like Ben would be willing to submit himself to these dangerous games in order to save his daughter, and the whole thing seems just plausible enough to work.  King also manages to say a lot about class and poverty at the same time, and it never feels heavy handed.  If you're a fan of The Hunger Games or dystopian fiction in general, you owe it to yourself to give this one a read.

It's also worth mentioning that this was one of the books King released as Richard Bachman.  You would think he would have tried to make some changes so as not to give himself away though.  The airport Ben eventually ends up at is located in Derry, Maine after all, and there's mentions of the vacationers versus the  locals in a Maine coastal town that is classic King.  It would seem that even when he's trying to hide his identity, King still can't help but throw hints toward his constant readers.

The Running Man film makes some pretty drastic changes to the story, setting, and characters.  Ben Richards is a thin, wirey man in the book, but here he's played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime.  This Ben starts out working for the government but becomes an enemy of the state when he refuses to kill innocent people in a riot.  He's put in prison and manages to escape with a few other inmates, but his attempts to head to Hawaii are thwarted and he's forced to compete on the show.

This show is specifically made for criminals to be punished and killed.  In the book they make the innocent men look like criminals anyway, so this really isn't that big a change.  It mostly just changes Ben's motives since he has no wife or child in the film.  The television network and government also seem much more separate here than they were in the book, as we see that the network doesn't quite have the power to do whatever they like.  However it doesn't really affect the plot much.  It's a shame because I think they had some potential to expand that to something more interesting.

The other main change is that instead of Ben being chased across the country, he's confined to an arena set in the ruins of a city.  I would imagine this was a budget restriction, but unfortunately to me it also takes away a lot of the suspense and tension that the book had.  Making the stalkers/hunters into gladiator/professional wrestling types was an interesting choice, and I like their flashy outfits and outrageous personalities.  The problem is that whenever the time comes to fight them, Schwarzenegger dispatches them far too quickly.  This is also supposedly the first time anyone has ever actually killed a stalker, and I find that hard to believe.  While I knew from the beginning the three former "winners" were going to be revealed dead, it still seems to me like how else could they have won without taking at least one stalker down for the count?  It also seems a little odd when the first two dead stalkers result in stunned silence from the audience, but the third defeated stalker has the audience crying out for Richard to kill him.  The crowd turns to like Richards solely because the plot demands it and not really because of anything he does.

While it may not be the strongest way to do it, I do like that they did make him an inspiring figure to the audiences just as he was in the books.  Schwarzenegger's one liners are in full effect here, and I couldn't help but smile as he pulled them off.  This film is certainly a product of its time, not only because of Arnold but because of the costumes, the hair, and the dance numbers (apparently choreographed by Paula Abdul) but all that gives the film a charm that it might not have if it was made in any other era.

What may be particularly lost on younger viewers of the film is Richard Dawson's performance as Killian.  If I hadn't caught some of his original Family Feud episodes on the Game Show Network, I may not have gotten it either.  Dawson was known to so many as a smiling, sweet man with a jovial sense of humor that to see him turn into a greedy, bloodthirsty villain here was quite a turn.  For a film that makes light of how the people in this reality's version of 2019 don't know about Mr. Spock or Gilligan's Island, it's a shame that Dawson himself is largely forgotten now.

The ending of the film is also a little weak, as while Richards has gotten rid of Killian and the resistance has temporarily disabled the satellites, you know the government's control of the country isn't over by a longshot, and plenty of the other shows are still on the air. This is only the beginning of the revolution, not the end, but we get a kiss between Richards and his love interest and a cheer from the crowd to pretend like everything is fine now.

While the book has greater depths, the film is fairly shallow.  That doesn't mean it isn't enjoyable in its own way, and there is potential there underneath the surface if you're willing to look for it.  If you're looking for a fun action flick with a charismatic lead, this is a good way to spend your time.

I can't help but feel like this book is begging for a new adaptation, one that more closely mirrors the book.  I suppose the only thing that may stop that from ever happening is the ending.  I think most people are still too sensitive about the idea of someone willfully crashing a plane into a building, even though it's been over a decade now.  Still, if that feels like too much, I'm sure they could find another way for Ben to make his final statement and sacrifice against the Games Corporation.  This is a strong, action packed story, and it deserves a stricter adaptation.

2 comments:

  1. Agreed on all counts. Great read, probably one of my favorites from King, and a fun film that’s still so loose that’s I’d love to see a much more faithful adaptation. I know they’ve been batting one around for a while, but it sounds like more a remake of the movie than going back to the book. Have you ever seen Series 7? It’s a fun, twisted film that feels like a nice middle ground between the book and the movie, while bringing it into modern reality tv.

    As for the ending, I don’t think the plane crash is necessary. You just need to have Richard go down in a way that takes the head of the show down with him, and there’s plenty of ways to stage that.

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    1. I feel like it needs to be more than just the head of the show going down – what I like about the book ending is not that it’s a plane crash, but that he’s destroying their entire headquarters. There’s the possibility of the status quo continuing from here on out, but it’s going to take a lot for them to get back up and running again.

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