As zombified pieces of intellectual property from the eighties — Ghostbusters, RoboCop, Red Dawn, Wargames, Commando — turn out the pockets of thirtysomethings, plenty of beloved characters and stories remain unexpectedly entombed. In a sense, the most obvious piece of buried source material to bring to the silver screen is Stephen King’s 1982 novel The Running Man, a hyper violent take on celebrity culture and insta-fame. The Schwarzenegger action vehicle of the same name encased the book in concrete as far as Hollywood was concerned, but it’s time to get out the jackhammer. King’s book is biting commentary on the way entertainment and self-made celebrityhood obscures the problems of the working poor. Bleak, yes — King wrote it under the nom de plume Richard Bachman — but this is the stuff post-modern action films should be made from.
Our protagonist is Ben Richards, who lives in a dystopian, pre-Hunger Games 2025 and has signed on to star in The Running Man, a reality TV show on which he’s given a 12-hour head start then hunted by killers hired by the “Games Network.” Richards earns $100 an hour as long he stays alive, money he intends to use to support his wife and sick daughter, and a billion dollars (the math is fuzzy) if he lives for 30 days. The only catch is that, every so often, he’s got to tape a video diary with a pocket camcorder and mail it to the network headquarters.
That video diary is the twist on the reality show formula missing from, say, Hunger Games or Battle Royale. Where Katniss plays martyr, Richards becomes a celebrity. King needed a way for his Hunters to find Richards in a pre-GPS, eye-in-the-sky world, and tracking the mailing addresses of the video diaries gave him that narrative tool. But, as luck would have it, this plot point also allows the author to capture the Instagram-y Vine-ness of the whole thing. Sure, Richards ends up reviled for his video testimonials — the network spins him as a maniac, but he’s not particularly a cheerful dude to begin with — but mockery never got in the way of mercenary fame.
Once you get over Richards’ somewhat dated vocabulary and old-school tech (who could have seen, in 1982, that phones would take the place of both video cameras and mailboxes?) the book feels incredibly relevant to the selfie age. And the spoiler-wrapped dénouement makes it doubly so. Richards uncovers a sinister government plot to keep air pollution under wraps. Take that as whatever anti-climate science-cum-totalitarian metaphor you want.
Is the ending unfilmable in a post-9/11 world? You could tweak the location and method of villain-vanquishing suicide. Or you could make people cringe. Do we cheer as Richards flips the Network the bird through the windshield of a descending stolen jet? Probably not. We probably post reaction videos.