By 2017, the world economy has collapsed. Food, natural resources and oil are in short supply. A police state, divided into Paramilitary Zones, rules with an iron hand. Television is controlled by the state and a sadistic game show called The Running Man has become the most popular program in history.
Those words scroll across the screen at the start of The Running Man, a 1987 sci-fi action flick that starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as Ben Richards, a police helicopter pilot framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and forced to compete in the deadly game show of the title.
The film was loosely based on the novel of the same name by Stephen King – then writing under his Richard Bachman pseudonym – with Steven De Souza charged with the task of adapting it for the screen.
And boy, did he get a lot right. With 2017 upon us, the real world looks quite a lot like what was predicted in The Running Man, for better, and worse; from reality TV and the Internet to fake news and the merging of entertainment and politics.
We therefore got in touch with De Souza himself to find out about the making of the movie, the clairvoyance of his screenplay, how the ending got butchered, and whether or not a sequel might ever get made.
“It’s strange to be accidentally prescient!” De Souza says of his script, and when it comes to reality TV, both he and King were spot on. There were no reality shows in 1987, but since then The Real World, Big Brother, Survivor, X-Factor, American Idol, The Bachelor, and of course The Apprentice (more on that later) have become some of the most popular TV shows in the world.
And it sounds like both King’s book and De Souza’s script are starting to be used as a template.
“There’s a show over here called Hunted,” explains De Souza. “Which is exactly the same as The Running Man in the book, only without the murder. People are encouraged to spot the contestants and follow them via their electronic footprint. There’s a show called The Runner too, which is being produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. That is also closer to The Running Man of the book than the movie.”
Russia is set to go one better this year too, via a game show called Game2: Winter. The programme will strand contestants in the Siberian wilderness for nine months, with the aim of the game to survive the longest. It will stream 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with everything allowed. Including, apparently, rape and murder. The Running Man’s villainous host Damon Killian would be proud.
“The movie predicts the Internet,” states De Souza, and it does. Kind of. Having broken out of prison early on in proceedings, Richards turns on a TV screen and searches something called the ‘Infonet’ for travel information, eventually buying tickets to Honolulu to make his escape.
“There was a thing called the ‘ARPANET’ at the time I think,” explains De Souza. “But I just made up a term – infonet or something – so I was close, but not close enough to get royalties.”
The Merging of Entertainment and Politics
“The putative head of government in The Running Man is a game show host,” explains De Souza, in reference to Killian, the villain of the piece, played with smiling malevolence by Richard Dawson. In real life, of course, the next President of the United States is Donald Trump, himself a former game show host, who oversaw The Apprentice for a decade.
“The complete merger of entertainment and show business is in the film. In one scene Killian says: ‘Get me the Justice Department’s Entertainment Division.’ There’s another line where he says: ‘Get the President’s agent’, and the current President Elect now has an agent!”
Two of the film’s stars successfully ran for office, with Schwarzenegger serving two terms as governor of California and Jesse Ventura – who plays Captain Freedom in the movie – becoming governor of Minnesota in 1999.
And even though Arnie says, “I’m not into politics, I’m into survival” early on in the film, De Souza says the opposite was obvious on set.
“I knew without a doubt that Arnold had political aspirations at the time,” the screenwriter explains. “I did not know if he actually wanted to run for office, but he was deeply involved in politics.”
And in a weird twist that hammers home the crossover, Schwarzenegger has now replaced Trump as host of The Apprentice. The pair can now be found bickering about TV ratings on Twitter and inspiring Running Man spoofs. De Souza: “Within 10 minutes of that exchange there was a meme going across the internet where people had replaced Richard Dawson’s face with Trump’s, with him strapping Arnold into the rocket sled, and the meme says: ‘This is for saying mean things about me on Twitter’.”
In the movie, Ben Richards says, “The truth hasn’t been very popular lately”, and in real-life that’s very much been the case. “Fake news” became a hot topic in the recent U.S. election, with Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton’s campaigns blaming each other for false stories doing the media rounds. And it’s something that drives the plot of The Running Man, with De Souza stating, “The movie is built on fake news.”
Doctored footage convinces the studio and TV audience of Ben Richards’ guilt, and a similarly fake broadcast results in his accomplice Amber Mendez (Maria Conchita Alonso) being tossed into the game mid-way through proceedings. Doctored footage is also used to fake their deaths, although De Souza claims that particular plot was bungled in post-production, to the detriment of the finished film.
“The Running Man script had a much better ending,” De Souza explains. “One we actually shot, but brilliant studio minds sabotaged it in post. It was the same thing that happened in The Sting. At the end of the movie, the first time you see it, you go: ‘Holy sh*t’ because they have a fight and kill each other. Then the crooked cop says to Robert Shaw: ‘You’ve gotta get out of here, you can’t get mixed up in this’ and everyone runs out screaming. After they all run out, Redford and Newman get up and go: ‘We really fooled them.’ And you realise offscreen, unbeknownst to you the viewer, they planned this.
“That’s what The Running Man was… Captain Freedom kills the girl! I saw a test screening and the audience was stunned that he killed the girl. She dies in Arnold’s arms, and he gets up and beats the living hell out of Jesse Ventura – the most brutal beat-down you’ve ever seen. There were old ladies in the audience of the test screening shouting: ‘Kill him, Arnold! Kill him!’ Because he killed the girl. And then, at the last second Jesse throws Arnold onto spikes and kills him. And the audience lost their minds – they couldn’t believe it. You could hear a pin drop. Then they cut back to the studio and you see the dead body and Killian says: ‘Go to commercial.’ And then they push a button and the digital mask comes off the dead guy and it’s some other poor schmuck. And they say: ‘That was a brilliant plan, using the CGI. Now kill the son-of-a-bitch off camera.’ And he says: ‘Good night folks.’
“So we had a test audience – a handful of people – who said: ‘I didn’t understand the thing at the end.’ Because in a test screening it says ‘Shot missing’ where the CGI should be. So in the incomplete version of it, they didn’t say they didn’t like it – the test numbers were off the chart – but a handful of people said: ‘I didn’t understand how they tricked the home audience.’ So some genius suggests you have the scene where he explains it earlier, so they flipped the two scenes. The problem is, when you see the movie now, you know that Arnold and Maria’s deaths are fake, so during that fight you don’t get excited and your pulse doesn’t rise. But I assure you in the first cut, when you thought that the fight to the death was real, the audience went insane.
“But if you have a sophisticated DVD or Blu-ray player you can put it back in the right order. You have my permission!”
Running Man 2?
The Running Man was made at a time before film franchises were a thing and sequels were king. We therefore never got to see the further adventures of Ben Richards. But with post-politics Schwarzenegger back to making movies, it sounds like there might be a chance.
“There was no talk of it then,” explains De Souza. “But in subsequent years there’s been conversations, and Arnold has mentioned it. Quite recently he said he was discussing the possibility of something that would be both a sequel and a reboot. So anything can happen. But at the time I don’t think he or anyone else was in the sequel business. Back then sequels were not regarded as something you did with major motion pictures, it was B-movies that did sequels.”
As for whether De Souza would want to write a follow-up to The Running Man, be it sequel or reboot, he simply says, “I certainly would.”