In 2021, Squid Game took the world by storm. The South Korean Netflix series followed Seong Gi-hun—better known as 456—and others in mounting debt as they played childhood games that included deadly twists and the chance to win a massive cash prize. The games are gruesome, and play out for a tiny audience of the ultra-rich.
Squid Game stands as a unique property, and part of what makes it special is how the show weaves together its various influences. There’s Koushun Takami’s 1999 novel Battle Royale, and a real-life 2009 South Korean auto worker’s strike that was brutally repressed. But there are also other, earlier explorations of the meshing of bloodshed and entertainment that created the environment for these works to prosper.
For Koushun Takami the road to Battle Royale began, at least partially, with Stephen King. By the ‘90s, the author of It, Carrie, and The Shining was the rare writer to become a truly global phenomena. Takami has said that Battle Royale was influenced by King’s 1979 novel The Long Walk, where a totalitarian state forces teenage boys into a murderous power-walking competition.
King wrote both The Long Walk and another dystopian adventure, The Running Man, under a pseudonym, Richard Bachmann. And while The Long Walk was never successfully adapted into a movie, The Running Man was. The 1987 film directed by Paul Michael Glaser is only based on King’s work in the loosest sense, and provided a venue for peak-’80s Arnold Schwarzenegger charm.
Set in the futuristic world of 2017, the movie ditches all but three aspects of King’s work: America has become an authoritarian dystopia, the protagonist is named Ben Richards, and Richards must participate in a lethal state-operated game show called The Running Man. If that sounds somewhat similar, it’s not. King’s Richards is described as “scrawny” and on the verge of tuberculosis. No one in their right minds would look to Arnold to match that description.
By this point in his career, Arnold was a known commodity thanks to Predator, Commando, and The Terminator. In his memoir, Total Recall, he lists The Running Man near the end of a list of ever-higher paydays during this period, with the film earning him $5 million.
“Humor was what made me stand out from other action leads like Stallone, Eastwood, and Norris,” he writes. “My characters were always a little tongue in cheek, and I always threw in funny one-liners… In The Running Man, after strangling one of the evil stalkers with barbed wire, I deadpan, ‘What a pain in the neck!’ and run off.”
These one-liners are at the core of The Running Man. The evil stalkers, in this case Subzero (played by wrestler Professor Tanaka—this movie is full of wrestlers), are part of the game show. They hunt down the runners, who include Richards, William Laughlin (Yaphet Kotto), Amber Mendez (María Conchita Alonso), and Harold Weiss (Marvin J. McIntyre).
These side players aren’t given much to do besides run for their lives and inform Richards of key plot points. Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, briefly appearing as resistance leader Mic, has a larger role.
The societal critiques in The Running Man are broad—Richards is assigned a court-appointed entertainment agent instead of a lawyer, there’s another TV show called Hate Boat instead of The Love Boat, and so on. The movie clearly wants to show a fascinating deadly game show rather than question if enjoying it is wrong.
Far more specific than the moral quandaries is The Running Man’s sense of style. Arnold looks terrific, especially early on in a Hawaiian shirt. The pre-show dancers, choreographed by Paula Abdul, are gorgeously lit and have a sense of cohesion. It’s almost a shame when Arnold gets sent hurtling down a tube to run for his life.
Thinking about why his movies were such successes, Arnold writes in Total Recall that they “were so straightforward. They made sense no matter where you lived.” The Running Man, which fired its director two weeks in before bringing in Glaser, gets a little more complicated. Perhaps a better director could have really pushed its dueling messages of bloodshed and entertainment, or at least offered better bloodshed and more coherent entertainment.
But for an Arnold movie, it’s pretty fun. And “What a pain in the neck!” remains a delightful groaner.
The Running Man is streaming on HBO Max.