In a world beset by a collapsing economy, the US media conspires with the government to keep the population in check with a combination of heavy-handed policing and a steady stream of vapid reality TV shows. Meanwhile, one of the most powerful men in the world is the host of a reality TV show.
Sound familiar? That was 2017 conjured by campy action thriller The Running Man when it was released 30 years ago.
Sci-fi commonly reveals hidden truths about society. So, it makes you wonder: what else could this dystopian vision say about the world we live in today? If we look at where we are in 2017, what can The Running Man tell us about our changing politics, media and technology?
Criminals are made to compete in violent television game shows for entertainment
Directed by Paul Michael Glaser, the film depicts a broken America where criminals are made to compete in violent television game shows for entertainment. The most successful of these is the titular Running Man, in which convicts attempt to survive three hours in a sprawling arena populated by gladiator-esque “stalkers”. If they win they go free – but of course, nobody ever does.
The film was adapted loosely from Stephen King’s novella of the same name, first published under his pseudonym Richard Bachmann in 1982. Both stories take place in a dystopian future America, but they share few other similarities, with the events in King’s tale unfolding in 2025, eight years later than the 2017 setting of the film.
In King’s novel, Ben Richards is a desperate man driven by financial hardship to compete in the deathmatch, hoping only to accumulate enough prize money to lift his family out of poverty before the hunters kill him. Transferred onto screen by writer Steven E de Souza, Richards is recast as a military hero betrayed by a corrupt system. In place of a pulp novel that kicks against the brutality of capitalism, Glaser’s film is a satire of the medium itself – attacking the violence and spectacle of mass-market entertainment, while knowingly offering viewers the very same thing.
Are we really as barbaric as Souza and King imagined? In the real 2017, there is certainly a market for suffering as entertainment. While few would admit to wanting death on their screens, TV producers have realised there is a desire for evermore extreme viewing – whether it’s watching people starve on desert islands, or eat kangaroo testicles in a faraway jungle.
Likewise, there’s no denying that many people’s appetite to see justice meted out is as strong as ever. In Souza and Glaser’s vision, a game show finds success – and maintains the political status quo – by satisfying the oppressed population’s desire for retribution, using “enemies of the state” as proxies for this ill-will.
Like the audience of The Running Man, many feel justified in venting their indignation on social media
The regular spasms of viral outrage that punctuate social media suggest we’re not much better. From Harambe the gorilla to Cecil the lion, many people seem to love a story with a villain to direct righteous anger towards. They might not want to see the people behind these stories killed, but don’t seem to mind if their lives are ruined in the process. Like the audience of The Running Man, many feel justified in venting their indignation, and they are having too much fun to stop it.
The technology portrayed in Glaser’s vision of the future holds up well in parts, particularly when Richards buys flights to Hawaii using something that looks a lot like a prototype internet. Appliances in his brother’s apartment are voice-activated, a feature starting to creep into our own homes. And prisoners are restrained by electronic tags – although we’ve yet to attach explosives to our own version of these.
This year is also expected to bring further tests of the Hyperloop, a new transport technology that fires passengers at high speeds in pods through sealed tubes. Hopefully, Elon Musk’s plan to revolutionise the way people commute will not evoke the same gurning terror Schwarzenegger portrays as he rides a rocket-propelled sled along a tunnel into the game zone.
The heady combination of glamour, fame, money and cruelty that still resonates to this day
Where The Running Man truly endures, however, is in its caricature of American television culture: the heady combination of glamour, fame, money and cruelty that still resonates to this day. Despite its murderous premise, the game show is a tacky, glitzy affair, filmed in front of a live studio audience, interspersed with leotard-clad dance acts and guest appearances from the stalkers. Central to the show is the villainous Damon Killian – played by Richard Dawson – consummate host of The Running Man. He is an effete, calculating man whose chummy demeanour on stage is at odds with his petty and cruel behaviour in private.
Killian might be a game show host, but he has the highest ratings of all time, and a direct line to the president. Celebrity is power. As if almost confirming this, two of the film’s stars used their fame to launch careers in public office in real life: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura became governors of California and Minnesota respectively. (In a strange twist, Schwarzenegger has also taken over from Donald Trump as host of The Apprentice, as the latter prepares to take office in the White House.)
Arguably the closest real life analogue to the tacky glitter and muscle spectacle of The Running Man game show is professional wrestling. In fact, several of the film’s costumed stalkers are real-life wrestlers: Professor Toru Tanaka and Erland van Lidth de Jeude appear alongside Jesse Ventura. On our side of the mirror, president-elect Trump has a long relationship with professional wrestling. He twice hosted the WWE’s Wrestlemania at his Trump Plaza casino hotel in Atlantic City, and engaged in a long-running “feud” with WWE owner Vince McMahon that was as outlandish – and scripted – as any of the antics taking place inside the ring. In December 2016, Trump hired Linda McMahon – wife of Vince and former CEO of WWE – to run his Small Business Administration.
The Running Man certainly isn’t alone in accusing the media of distorting the truth about the world we live in and being in cahoots with the political classes. But it’s notable that while the fictional US lives under the boot of a police state, revolution comes not by overthrowing the Capitol but the network headquarters, as an armed militia seize control of the building and expose the lies propagated by the broadcaster. (Another departure from the book, which ends with the now-unfilmable scene of Richards crashing a jet plane into a skyscraper housing the network headquarters).
The problem of fake news was a key concern in 2016, particularly during the US election where both sides accused the other of media manipulation. Worrying whether we can believe what we read in the news is a trend that looks set to continue in 2017. Chalk another one up to Souza and King.
With all this evidence, it’s tempting to call The Running Man a prescient view of our society 30 years later – minus the actual killing on live TV. But then, neither King nor Souza were attempting to predict the future. The movie and the novel reflect popular concerns of the time – our appetite for the spectacle of violence, our wariness of the media’s power to sell lies, our fear that television is a tool for pacification. These fears, unsurprisingly, turn out to be enduring from one generation to the next.
The Running Man is as relevant today as it was 30 years ago. Perhaps the core message is felt more keenly in an era where a game show host really is set to become the president of the USA. If anything, it proves the old adage: the future will be like the present, only more so.
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