THE YEAR: 1987
THE DIRECTOR: Paul Michael Glaser
THE WRITER: Steven E. de Souza (screenplay), Stephen King (novel)
THE CAST: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Conchita Alonso, Yaphet Kotto, Jesse Ventura, Richard Dawson
How many directors does it take to transform a Stephen King novel into a science fiction action vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger? Five, apparently. Through the years, despite the changes in leadership, The Running Man has remained a classic in Arnold’s catalog. But what happened behind the scenes? And how does the film hold up now?
Well let’s race to the rewind button and see what we find…
Initially, The Running Man was to be directed by George P. Cosmatos, fresh off of a Sylvester Stallone double shot of hits, Rambo: First Blood Part II and Cobra. When Cosmatos wanted to make the film more claustrophobic, setting it inside of a shopping mall, the film’s producers let him go. Two other directors were brought and either met a similar clash of creative differences or just left on their own. Finally producers landed on Andrew Davis, who had recently worked with another big action hero, Chuck Norris, in Code of Silence. Davis helmed the film right up into production, however in just eight days had run the film over budget by roughly eight million dollars. Davis was promptly relieved of his duties.
Television director Paul Michael Glaser was brought in as Davis’ replacement with the goal of getting through the shoot efficiently and keeping remaining budget overruns to a minimum. This caused a lot of frustration for star Schwarzenegger, who felt that the themes of the script would be lost. Time seems to have proven that Glaser did have a firm grasp on what was trying to be accomplished in the script, especially when watching interviews where he’s looking back on the project.
Pre-production for The Running Man wasn’t all problematic though. In fact, the project had a very welcome surprise. Unbeknownst to the producers when they had purchased the rights to the original novel, author Richard Bachman was, in fact, Stephen King, who was indisputably one of the biggest authors at the time, and, of course, a legend at this point. Even though Stephen King insisted that “Richard Bachman” get the official credit for the source, once King had admitted to his alter ego it became a selling point for producers. The Running Man novel had already been re-issued under King’s real name by the time the movie version was set for release.
Looking back at the film itself is something special when you put it in context of today’s media. In the eighties television was becoming (to some) a concerning part of the culture, and The Running Man and other films of the time certainly played to themes surrounding that. In the case of this film, being taken to a macabre extreme. While the inspirations came from game shows, when you look at the growth and domination of reality television over the past fifteen years or so, the events of the film feel much more imminent, and frighteningly so.
The obvious thing with The Running Man is the many similarities to The Hunger Games. While people often cite Japan’s Battle Royale with being the inspiration for The Hunger Games (read as: often accused of cribbing the story) due to the plot of teens hunting and killing each other, The Hunger Games owes a lot more to The Running Man and its grand televised spectacle broadcast to the impoverished masses by the wealthy elite in a dystopian future. While any “man being hunted by man” story owes its themes to the short story turned film The Most Dangerous Game at its core, these elements distinctly came out of The Running Man. Of course, Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins readily denies any ties to either potential source and writes it off as coincidence. We’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.
Also, the movie inspired the competitive sports game show, American Gladiators.
The Running Man took many liberties with the original Stephen King/Richard Bachman novel in its adaptation. The novel takes place all across the United States and over a much longer time period. It turns the main character into public enemy number one, rewarding the public for phoning in tips, leaving Ben very much alone in his quest to survive. It’s much more grounded in reality. Ben’s reasons for being on the show are quite different as well, trying to provide for his family. How would a film in that vain have performed versus the spectacle of the Schwarzenegger film?
THE BIG QUESTION:
Should a remake of The Running Man be made that sticks closer to the actual book?
Let us know in the comments below!
The film does remain a lot of fun, especially if you love your action cheesy. The action is wild and over the top, and it’s laced with quotable one-liners. As eighties and analog as it is, the themes becoming more relevant as the years have gone by have helped The Running Man age quite well. Worth a watch for sure.