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Friday, January 15, 2016

The Running Man

Show of hands, please.

How many of you have heard of The Running Man?

Okay, that's a lot of hands. Now, put your hand down if you think I'm talking about an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.

That's what I thought.

I've talked before about how the film versions of King adaptations like The Shining and The Dead Zone end up becoming so well-known that they have supplanted the book in pop culture. People hear "The Shining" and picture Jack Nicholson with an evil grin on his face or the weird hexagonal patterns on the floor of Kubrick's Overlook. They hear "The Dead Zone" and picture Christopher Walken and Tom Skerrit at the mouth of a tunnel. They might say something like "I haven't read the book, but I've seen the movie" or "I like the movie better" or something.

If you mention "The Running Man", they picture Arnold Schwarzenegger in a gold jumpsuit. If you ask them which was better, the movie or the book, the response is likely to be "There was a book!?"

Yes, much like Die Hard, The Running Man is an action movie (starring a well-known action star) that was based on a book and hardly anyone knows it. In this case, it was based on the fourth Richard Bachman novel, but by the time they started working on the movie, everyone knew who "Richard Bachman" actually was. No matter; Bachman was still man credited by the movie, and since none of Bachman's novels were the monster hits that King's were, few people knew that King had anything to do with this one. Plus, at the time, if Schwarzenegger was headlining a movie, people went to see Schwarzenegger do his thing. Few probably even stopped to wonder if it was based on another work.

Of course, The Running Man movie was only slightly more faithful to the source material than was The Lawnmower Man. Ah-nuld's character shares the name of the lead character from the book, the villain's name is Killian, there's a character called Laughlin, there's a game involved and audiences cheer for the contestant's deaths, and that's...pretty much it. And that's kind of a shame, because this is one damn exciting book. I had a hard time putting it down. It might very well be my favorite Bachman novel yet, though I enjoyed Roadwork on a very different level.

It's the grim, dystopian future of...2025. Yeah, buckle up, 'cause in the next ten years things are going to go to shit. We're gonna start using plastic money called "new dollars", cell phones and tablets will disappear and pay phones will return, internet will not exist, racial animosity will be as bad or worse than in the early 70's and pollution will be so bad in poorer areas that just breathing can give you lung cancer. But on the plus side, we'll have floating cars that are fueled by air.

As you can tell, King tried his hand at predicting the future and got it very wrong. But one thing he did get right; reality television. See, the government runs pretty much everything (seems to be where we're heading so I'll give King this, too) but in order to keep the populace pacified while all their freedoms are taken away (again, seems to be where we're headed), they've provided free television, or FreeVee, to all households regardless of income (ol' Steve utterly failed to predict the internet, which Orson Scott Card actually did) and games are broadcast seemingly round the clock, each one playing to our morbid fascination, much like Survivor, Big Brother and Fear Factor, among countless others, do today.

This is why I was able to buy the premise of The Running Man while having a problem with a similar premise in The Long Walk. Both take place in "the future", both involve games where the only way out is to win or die, but this one struck me as far more realistic. First, the Walk in The Long Walk was viewed as a sporting event, and the Walkers were worshiped like athletes. The Running Man and various other "game shows" in this future are more like reality shows, as I mentioned, where the contestants enter the games almost entirely because they're poor and are willing to sacrifice whatever they've got for money for their families. The contestants are not celebrated. They are made public pariahs, kinda like how Survivor and Big Brother set up "villains" among the various contestants for the viewers at home to root against.

Ben Richards is our protagonist, a dirt-poor industrial worker whose too-honest opinion of the working conditions on his last job resulted in him being blackballed across the city as far as work prospects. His wife is reduced to turning tricks and his one-year-old daughter has pneumonia and may very well die without proper medical attention. Seeing no other options, Ben enters the games. They might be dangerous, he almost definitely won't survive, but whatever else happens, his prize money will be awarded to his surviving family, and Ben can die happy knowing they're taken care of.

The titular game turns the contestant into an enemy of the state and wanted fugitive. He's given 24 hours  (and two day's advance on his winnings) to run as far as he can, and then the game's assassins will set out on the hunt. His goal is literally to survive as long as possible. The longer he survives, the more money he earns, which will be transferred to his wife. If he survives for 30 days, he will be awarded one billion in new dollars. No one has ever made it past five days.

If this sounds nothing like the Schwarzenegger movie, that's because it isn't. The plot of this novel was very loosely adapted, and essentially turned into your basic Schwarzenegger movie; lots of one-liners, over-the-top action, colorful villains, a foregone conclusion that Ah-nuld will win, and no one questioning why a guy named "Ben Richards" has a thick Austrian accent. It was a lot of fun, but the novel is a lot of fun, too, and one thing I've heard from a number of Constant Readers is how much they'd like to see it remade, this time more faithful. I can see why. This might be one of the most immediately cinematic novels I've seen come out of King's canon. Almost nothing would have to be changed. I can even believe we'll be back to heavily polluting, since the government in this story runs everything and large governments are always wasteful and uncaring when the little people get hurt.

One thing that likely would is the racial content. I wasn't sure if I should bring this up, but it's uncomfortably close to reality. See, in this version of 2025, we've got people openly using racial slurs despite one character mentioning that such words are now outlawed. Two characters, one very minor the other small but critical to the plot, openly, and loudly, refer to African Americans using terms I feel sullied even thinking of typing, so I won't. Let's just say that no one actually uses these words in public anymore, even if they do in private, or online. At first I thought "well, this is not how the future will be", and then I thought of how racial relations are right now. Simply put, they're at their worst since the mid-80's.

Sorry, this is about to get a little political.

In the past eight years, old animosities that we thought were starting to be put to rest have sprung up again, and we constantly hear accusations of racism left and right, thrown at anyone whose words can be twisted to have a racial connotation, even if they didn't intend one. One unintended side-effect I've been wondering about is that it might very well be that some people will decide that if they're going to be assumed racists anyway, why not act the part? This is already happening to some extent, with obvious troll Twitter accounts blasting John Boyega for daring to have a major role in Star Wars, so yes, I can believe that in less than a decade we'll have people openly making racial slurs in public. It sickens me, and it sickens me further to realize that this all came back up due to grievance-mongers encouraging the worst in others, all supposedly for a good cause.

Okay, rant over. Back to talking about this book.

I recommend making only the following changes to it: moving the date from 2025 to a date well past that, preferably that adults of today won't live to see, because we're not anywhere near developing air cars. And yes, it's important to the plot that some of the cars can hover. Add cell phones and the internet, which won't be hard at all, and instead of carrying around "tapes" to record messages on, Ben can carry something that looks like a smart phone with something like micro SD cards to record them on.

I'm picking Ex Machina director Alex Garland for this, mainly because he also directed Dredd and I loved the way that film looked. It would be perfect for this film.

For Ben Richards, I specifically did not want an action star. I've seen suggestions (not from Constant Readers) about remaking this with Dwayne Johnson, John Cena or Jason Statham in the lead role, and all I can say is no, no and hell no. This isn't a brainless 80's actioner, this is a taut futuristic thriller. I wanted an actor who can, you know, act. Ben's described as being 28, so I'd prefer the actor be on the younger side. This guy's got to know how to spend the bulk of the movie scowling, growling and generally being a dick and yet have people on his side. Initially I chose Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but my readers made a couple of better suggestions. The argument was that Levitt was a guy who seems like a natural winner, a guy we expect to wind up victorious. Kinda like...Schwarzenegger. This is a good argument, and enough to make me go back and change my pick. After a reader poll split between Levitt and Adam Driver, I picked Driver. A young-looking 32, one thing that strikes me about Driver is how strange-looking he is, without actually being ugly, and I can buy him as malnourished and desperate, no question. As the lead role in a thriller, he's occasionally got to be threatening as well, and that is where Driver's surprisingly deep, resonant voice comes in. Even before he was cast as Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I saw him in a cameo in Lincoln (hey, wasn't Levitt in that, too?) and thought "My lord, he's got an impressive voice. He's going places." Have a look at this picture below and think of him dirty, ragged and on his last legs. It's pretty easy, isn't it?
The guy who runs the games is Dan Killian. He's our primary villain for this piece, and in the movie he was played by America's beloved game-show host Richard Dawson, his role combined with the host of the Running Man as well as its producer. In the novel, Killian is a black man who is best described as affably evil. At first I thought of good ol' Samuel L. Jackson, but I think he'd play Killian as Samuel L. Jackson. I'd prefer to have Killian be a man of impeccable manners and taste with a cold stare. Don Cheadle is my guy for this role. I think he could have a lot of fun with it. He knows how to turn on the ham without adding cheese.
Richards's wife, Sheila, isn't a large role, but as she (and their child) are the reason Ben's doing this (and he thinks of her often. I picture her looking like "white trash" generally looks; like she could be pretty if she took care of herself, bags under eyes, etc. The tired eyes of Portia Doubleday will work well here.
This next role isn't huge, but it's a good role for gimmick casting. Bobby Thompson is the host of the Running Man, a role that in the first film was merged with Killian so that they could have a well-known real life game show host play the villain. Bobby Thompson is described as looking "pretty" and he behaves like the host of a reality show, getting emotionally involved and promising retribution against Richards. I know this guy isn't an actor, but I couldn't resist the gimmick; having Ryan Seacrest play Thompson. Now I considered other well-known game-show personalities like Jeff Probst, Tom Bergeron or even Steve Harvey, who currently hosts the same show that Richard Dawson was best known for hosting. None of them are "pretty" but they'd work. But I like the idea of a blandly pretty guy going all Sunday Morning on Richards.
At one point during his run, Richards realizes that not everyone is eager to help the Studio capture him. Some know what the government is really up to, and one of them is a young gang member named Bradley Throckmorton. Bradley is all tough gangsta act when his boys are around but proves to be very intelligent, well-read and resourceful. He helps Richards and alerts him to the governments' sending air pollution into the slums where they don't have to think about it. This pollution has given his baby sister lung cancer. There's an actor named Stephan James who I think is about to explode in popularity. Even if he doesn't, I think he fits this role incredibly well.
When he starts running out of options, Richards takes a hostage. Amelia Williams, a young socialite who is blissfully unaware of what it's like in the slums, isn't really much of a character, but she does end up helping Richards even when she didn't initially plan to. I think that what will sell this role is someone who knows how to do those wide, horrified, frightened eyes. I hate Glee, but I like Jayma Mays, and I think her giant eyes are right for this part.
But in the end, Richards comes face to face with the Studio's lead assassin, Evan McCone. We're talking about a guy so feared that mothers use the threat of him to get their kids to behave. In person, he's actually kind of small, unassuming, bespectacled and well-mannered. I know few who can do "well-mannered killer" better than Stanley Tucci.
Now for some relatively minor roles. When Bradley has sent Richards off to another city to meet his contact, said contact turns out to be a fat guy who lives with his mentally deranged mother. Elton Parrakis is a smaller but memorable part, and he made me think of Michael Chernus, who I'm only familiar with thanks to Men in Black III.
One role I almost didn't cast was the Running Man's director, Fred Victor, because in the book he has one short scene. However, in the movie we'll likely have several more scenes from within the studio, and thus Fred's role will likely be more substantial. I cast one of those "hey it's that guy" type actors, Kevin Dunn.
Then there's Elton's mother, Victoria. She's described as being rather large, and again, while her part is relatively small, she makes a big impact on the direction of the story. While Rusty Schwimmer probably isn't old enough, she certainly fits the part in every way that matters.
The last role I'm casting is that of Studio Vice-President Arthur M. Burns, mainly because the way he's described is a pretty perfect description of been-there-done-everything character actor Stephen Tobolowsky. It's like the part was written for him.
By the way, an interesting little bit of trivia, which I wasn't sure where to put: this is the first novel in King's canon to mention Derry, Maine. Yep, Derry makes its debut here. Not much happens there, but I thought it was worth a mention.

And so, we have come to the last Richard Bachman novel. Okay, no, it's not the last, but I can't help but think of it that way in my head. The Running Man hails the end of what I think of as the "real" Bachman novels. The next one, Thinner, was actually written in the concurrent present, rather than being an older manuscript polished off years later. However, what I know of Thinner leads me to believe it's a Stephen King novel that he decided to release as Bachman for no real reason. Classic Bachman presents bleak, disheartening stories that in no way can be classified as horror. Thinner is openly a horror story. I feel like I've come to the end of an era. (I've also noticed that Bachman almost unfailingly has all action take place from the hero's point of view. This might be true of Thinner as well, we'll see when I get there, but it's absolutely not true of the first, and for many years the only, Bachman book I ever read, The Regulators.)

Now, if you've looked ahead at the next chronologically published novel, you know what's coming next. If you're a Constant Reader, you know that two versions of this book exist. When I read The Stand, I chose to read the unabridged version only, because I think of that version as the one King truly wanted to write, but was told to cut it back. It's like the extended cuts of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies, I feel like those are the real movies, rather than the edited versions that were released to theaters.

It's different with this upcoming book. This time, it's the first volume of a series, the first time King deliberately planned to write multiple volumes, and he wasn't really sure where he was going with this when he started writing. Thus, the first book is a bit...different than those that follow, both in tone and also with some of the presented information. Later he produced a revised and expanded version that fit better with the narrative he'd created in the ensuing years.

At first I thought I was only going to read the revised version, as honestly that's the version that should be adapted, but later I decided that I wanted to be able to talk about both versions in the post about it, and I haven't read the original version in years. Unlike with The Stand, this original version is a very different, but equally important entity that shouldn't be ignored. I don't know if it's really necessary to read both for the blog, but I really want to, so I'm going to. This means I'll be reading about 516 pages, rather than 300, but that's still not much longer than the average King book. I don't know how long I'll be at it, but it migh be a while before the post is up. It's a big one, so I know you're waiting for it, but I appreciate your patience.

The next post will be more on the skipped stories, and then the Big One (or, well, one of seven big ones).


  1. Never heard of him, but Stephen James looks like he'd make you shit in your boot and eat it. So that works for me.

    I love Levitt as an actor, but I wonder if he isn't a bit too clean-cut for this role. I'd kind of like to feel as if Ben is a bit of a born loser, but one who through sheer effort and determination manages to keep his head above water. At least for a little while. Levitt seems like a born winner to me.

    Cheadle? Perfect. Same goes for Doubleday and Mays.

    I wouldn't have picked Tucci for McCone, but I like it.

    Interesting-to-me fact: this was the first King novel I ever read. I wanted to see the movie, but my mom wouldn't let my dad take me, so he bought me the book. I got to the end and thought, hey, I bet the movie doesn't end like THIS!!! I wasn't wrong.

    I totally agree with you about this being the last "real" Bachman book, by the way.

    1. Glad you like this cast. I'd read on your blog how this book introduced you to King and it was all because you wanted to watch a Schwarzenegger movie. It's a good story, more interesting than my introduction to King.

      I kinda understand how you feel about Levitt, but while he himself feels like a winner, in my opinion several of his characters did not. However, I am open to suggestions, and I took to heart your suggestion that Bradley Cooper didn't work for Bart Dawes. What actor do you feel has that "born loser" feel that Ben Richards would have?

      I still think Levitt's ability to portray unlikable characters and yet retain audience good will fits here, but I will certainly change it if I need to. Could be you have the perfect guy.

    2. Jon Bernthal is the first name that comes to mind. Adam Driver is the second.

      Speaking of Levitt, he's beginning to exude more of an air of born-loserdom simply by virtue of the fact that most of his recent movies have been flops. I think "The Walk" made about thirteen bucks! And it was a very good movie.

    3. Damn, those are some good suggestions. Between the two, Driver is the closest to the right age, but Bernthal is a young-looking 39, and he fits Ben very well. Neither one has headlined a movie yet, but there's a first time for everything.

      I wouldn't worry about Levitt. As Sean Connery says, Hollywood allows three bombs for every hit. He'll be back on top soon enough, and I have this feeling that he'll be an Oscar contender for Snowden.

      I honestly can't decide which of the three would make the best Ben. Perhaps I should put up a reader poll?

  2. I intended to mention in my first comment (but obviously forgot) that I totally agree with your assessment of the book's racial component and its unfortunate continued relevance. What a bummer the world is these days. I'm sure it's all going to be fixed if Idris Elba stars in "The Gunslinger," though, so good times are ahead!

    I suspect that if that element of the novel was included in a new film adaptation, it would need to be goosed a bit so as to be more prominent, so that it felt earned. Or you could probably shift a few things around very slightly and turn it from text into subtext.

    Either way, I feel like this is an A-#1-Prime candidate for a remake. I wouldn't be that upset if they just remade the Ahnuld movie, though. I kind of like that movie, God help me.

    1. Of course, slapping a band-aid on a gaping wound fixes everything.

      I'm seriously considering a post on one of my other blogs about how SJW's are the modern day Salem Witch Hunters. You know; they're convinced that not only is the problem they're sworn to stamp out very real, but also very prevalent, and everyone who isn't them is determined to protect it. In fact, everyone who isn't them is likely an active part of the problem! Well, this isn't the place for that.

      I agree with your assessment that it needs to feel earned. Drawing a distinction between the slums, where this attitude is prevalent, and rich society where guys like Killian rise to power all the time, would also help.

  3. I like your casting, particularly of Ben and of Killian. That works.

    This was a cool review of a book I wish more people would familiarize themselves with. I'm the right age for the film to have dominated the consciousness of people who know the title, but that'll change, I bet, as the years go on. (Tho, like BB, above, I love the film, horrendous as it is. HERE IS SUBZERO! And I'd be fine with them remaking that, as well - just give us one faithful-to-the-Bachman-book version, please, preferably with a screenplay NOT written by King himself.)

    While I was reading this one, I tried to envision the alternate reality where Schwarzenegger made a true-to-the-novel cinematic adaptation, with its uncomfortable-but-sympathetic take on the Black Power/ 60s riots, its violent jihad against the corporate state, its aggressive political incorrectness, and its ending - where the main character commits suicide by piloting a jumbo-jet into the skyscraper offices of The Network... uhhh. Hmm)

    On that level of the tower, did Sylvester Stallone become governor of California?

    1. To some degree, Schwarzenegger might have been okay in that role. He had a built-in sense of outsiderdom; he rarely (if ever) put it to use, but with the right direction, he could have. Imagine if he'd been willing to go those anti-establishment places, and John Carpenter had directed it in the style of "They Live." Yessir, there's a movie I'd have watched.

    2. I liked the first film, too, but I hadn't read the book when I saw it, nor had I read any King at the time. The problem I have with it is that it's just so goofy, whereas the novel is one of the most fast-paced, thrilling novels I've ever read. With not a thing changed it could make for one damn exciting movie.

  4. I just finished the book today, and pictured actors in most of the significant roles. Now that I've read your ideas, there are at least a couple of changed my mind about, but here are my notes anyway:

    I never settled on a Ben Richards, oddly enough, but some of that is due to seeing your vote from a few days ago. I'm with Bryant on Levitt. I usually like him, and couldn't quite put my finger on why, but I'm on a similar wavelength with Bryant in that I think it's important that he not be too pretty or too athletic. Big no to Bernthal for the same reason. The only substantial roles I've seen him in are The Walking Dead and Wolf of Wall Street, but he plays badass types a lot, which I think makes him very wrong for this role. Adam Driver is in my mind the clear winner. He's a little odd-looking, and even though he's now 900 times more famous than he was before December 18, everything about him makes sense as Richards.

    The two picks you made that I'm almost jealous about are Cheadle and Tucci. To be honest, I pictured Keith David as Killian, but that seemed a little too on-the-nose, but then I wondered what if Killian was played by someone we're used to seeing as a good guy, like Laurence Fishburne? But Cheadle takes the cake. You can buy him as a corporate sellout, or anything really. Tucci, if he has a type, I would say is more of a friendly, bookish, and sometimes even a bit effete. The "well-mannered killer" has to be referring to something besides The Lovely Bones, but I don't know what it is. Regardless, I think he could pull off McCone quite well. He's the perfect age where he can be a living legend, and has the right frame as described, as he's not physically imposing at all.

    My other ideas: I think Josh Gad could be really good as Elton, and possibly add some humor if needed, and I pictured Ann Dowd as his mother. Rusty Schwimmer is almost interchangeable with Dowd, however. Since Michael B. Jordan was already cast in your King universe, I imagined Elijah Kelley as Bradley. I don't know Stephan James, but if Race is any good, your bet that we'll be seeing him for quite awhile is probably a good one to make. For Bobby Thompson, I actually pictured Peter Gallagher, although the idea of Ryan Seacrest basically playing a dystopian version of himself would be hard to pass up.

    Jayma Mays could be a really good choice for Amelia. She usually plays down-to-earth, but she's got the Barbie-esque features to be an upper-crust snobbish yuppie type. I didn't even cast Richards's wife, since she's gone after the first few pages. Stephen Tobolowsky I'm always happy to see, although to be honest, I just read the book and barely remember his character.

    Anyway, I'm looking forward to seeing what's next. I'm planning on reading a few of King's eighties and nineties books to maximize the ability to play along. I hope the next one is coming along well.

  5. I went back and changed my Ben to Driver. You and Bryant convinced me.

    I'm less sold on Gad. Elton is a rather pathetic character, and Gad, as overweight as he is, is pretty well-known for playing confident characters. I'm sure he can play pathetic, but somehow when I try to picture him as Elton, I just can't do it.

    I'm plugging through Different Seasons, and the biggest reason why the three big stories from it aren't getting posts is because they all have movies already. Two are undisputed classics that don't need remakes, and the third's adaptation is less than ten years old, and as the story itself is very unpleasant and not something I'm eager to see it remade.

    The last story, though...we'll see.

  6. I think Gad has it in him. This is the type of role that a big lummox in comedy would relish as kind of a transition to something a little more serious. And to be honest, I don't think a little bit of humor (not a ton) would be completely out of place at that point of the story. After that, it's all pretty intense.

    I actually really like The Breathing Method, although I'm not quite sure how to adapt something like that. It's ninety percent drama, but with one major fantastical element thrown in, it's a story within a story, and has a headless (and probably blood-spurting) woman giving birth. Doing that well could be a Hollywood nightmare, which is probably why they haven't tried it in 30+ years.