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?
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).