The Running Man (1987) – WTF Happened to This Adaptation?

The WTF Happened to This Adaptation series looks at Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Running Man, based on a novel by Stephen King

Well, I warned you. Kind of. While today’s story is released with Stephen King’s name plastered all over it, at the time of its release The Running Man was under the name of Richard Bachman, who had some dark stories attached to him. I was planning on doing this for a while but with the news that Edgar Wright is going to tackle the story in a new version that hopefully is closer to the book, it makes too much sense to talk about this dystopian horror now. While it’s a stalwart of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s catalogue of action, especially that range from 1987 to 1991, it’s not often looked at as a premiere Stephen King adaptation. It’s not expressly seen as horror but when it gets boiled down, both book and film, it’s horrific what happens in both stories and what’s going on in the worlds of both medias. It’s a fun watch and has a lot going for it in front of and behind the camera but what does King think of it and how closely does it follow the original source material? Place your bets on which runner will draw first blood as we find out what happened to this adaptation.

The Movie

When producer Rob Cohen bought the rights to The Running Man, he thought he was purchasing a well-received story by a relatively unheard-of author by the name of Richard Bachman and had no clue that Bachman was just a pseudonym for mega author Stephen King. Originally, the script was written a bit closer to the source material and Steven E. de Souza ended up going through 15 drafts of the script before it was decided upon for the final version of the film. De Souza is a bit of a legend in the film industry with credits like 48 Hours, Commando, and Die Hard just to name a few. Before Arnold was attached to the project, the producers wanted Superman himself Christopher Reeve to star as Ben Richards who was a desperate man looking to make a living for his family. At some point during the multiple scripts, the Austrian Oak was brought on and the directors changed from Andrew Davis who would eventually helm actioners like Above the Law and Under Siege to Paul Michael Glaser who was the original Starsky on the original TV show before having a lengthy career as a director.

Jesse Ventura, Yaphet Kotto, Jim Brown, and other wrestlers and athletes would costar with Arnold. Maria Conchita Alonso would also costar and later go on to appear in Predator 2 to fight another version of the alien hunter that Arnold himself took on in the first Predator movie. Probably the most interesting co-star for Arnold is that of the game show host of The Running Man. Originally it was supposed to be Chuck Woolery to tackle the slimy yet effective Killian, but former Hogan’s Heroes star and host of Family Feud Richard Dawson would end up tabbed as essentially the villain of the movie. The film also has a small role for Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac who essentially plays himself a decade before Tom Petty would do the same thing in The Postman. Behind the scenes gives us one of the things the movie has that the book doesn’t have. Harold Faltermeyer on the score. While you may not know that name off the top of your head, you’ve heard his stuff. He is the man responsible for Top Gun, the Beverly Hills Cop theme, and, what my coworker Kier will confirm, the absolute BANGER that is the main theme song for Fletch and its sequel.

While the movie was filmed and completed for the summer of 1987, the distributor and production company moved the release to Thanksgiving weekend to be the only action movie released at that time rather than compete with the other summer blockbusters. This didn’t exactly prove to be a good decision as the movie was made for 32 million and only brought back 38 million domestically with reviews being less than stellar. Roger Ebert called the movie repetitive with all of its action sequences feeling the exact same but called out Dawson as a standout saying he found the role he was born to play. The movie has since been seen as one of Schwarzenegger’s action classics that falls in the middle of his spectacular run from the early 80s to the mid-90s and has been released multiple times on physical media with a 4K being next up.

the running man Arnold Schwarzenegger

The Book

The Running Man was written by Richard Bachman and released in May of 1982 by Signet Books as a standalone release. Bachman also wrote 5 other books between 1977 and 1996 before another final release in 2007. Many of these stories were put together for a collection called The Bachman Books. Richard Bachman is of course also Stephen King or at least the pen name King used when he released some other books because when he was rising in popularity, publishers would only release one book per author per year so as not to bore the public or oversaturate the literary world with too much good stuff. It is the book publishing equivalent to Konami creating the Ultra Games label because of Nintendo’s 3rd party publishing rule but Konami just had too much good stuff to not release a bunch of goodness through two separate names.

The Bachman books, especially the early ones, are, well, just kind of mean. You’ll see later about this story but Roadwork, The Long Walk, and especially Rage which is about a school shooting and was pulled from reprints are all rough even for early era King. As of writing, only The Running Man and Thinner have been made into movies but there has been talk of both The Long Walk and Roadwork being adapted for years. While the name Bachman was proven to be King in 1985, he still used Bachman in the credits for The Running Man and the last two books in 1996 and 2007 were alleged to be “found” works of Bachman. The Running Man is currently being worked into another version for the big screen by Edgar Wright and his wit and writing should create a fun and probably more faithful version of the story.

What is the same?

The story takes place in the future where the world has become a dystopia ran by the totalitarian government and that government uses entertainment as a way to control but also amuse the general public. The economy has completely crashed too. Ben Richards is down on his luck and ends up participating in a gameshow of sorts called The Running Man where he can earn what he is most looking for. The show is broadcast all over and seen by everyone. Ben Richards is released in the game and one of the producers of the show is named Killian. Hunters are released to go after Richards after a short head start but Richards fights back. Killian at some point offers Richards the role of lead stalker. Richards takes a woman hostage who ends up with him for the long run and at the end of the story, Killian is dead, and the general public has been inspired by Richards to stand up and rebel against the oppressive government.

What is different?

It was genuinely hard to write that last paragraph to keep it both vague and factual as this movie, apart from the bare bones of the story, is quite different than the book it was adapted from. Let’s start with the main character and why he ends up where he does. Book Ben Richards has been blacklisted from working in his profession and has a very sick daughter. His wife has become a prostitute to make money for the family but clearly none of that is appealing so Ben volunteers for the game show The Running Man. Movie Richards is put in prison after failing to follow orders to kill unarmed civilians on a military operation. He breaks out of that prison but is captured again and put into the Running Man game forcibly. Richards is all alone on his book journey while in the movie Ben has two of his friends that escaped with him along for the ride and the hunt.

The Running Man (1987) – WTF Happened to This Adaptation?

The game itself is different too. While its clear that there are other games to play in this dystopian nightmare, 2017 in the movie and 2025, yikes, next year, in the book, The Running Man is by far the most popular. The movie has American Gladiators on steroid type stalkers who go in usually one at a time. The contestants have a set number of times to last in a controlled space before they are granted a government pardon and an all expenses paid vacation. The Runners in the book get a 12-hour head start with a camcorder and some cash, can go anywhere in the world, and have to send in tapes daily to prove that they are still out there. They get 100 for each hour they survive, 100 for each officer of the law or hunter they kill, and a grand prize 1 billion dollars if they can survive for 30 days. The host in the movie is Killian who is also a producer but, in the book, he is only the executive producer of the show.

The book almost reads like a hyperviolent version of The Fugitive with Richards getting disguises and really only hoping to survive long enough to get money for his family to live off of and get medication. Movie Richards loses his friends but takes out enough of the hunters and eventually finds the resistance who help him get back into the studio and shut down the game forever while also sending Killian to his death by launching him, quite literally into the game. Book Ben has a much more tragic ending even if he does still inspire the masses to rise up. He lasts longer than any other contestant has but when he is on a plane with the lead hunter, he learns that his family has been dead for a while. He accepts the position of lead hunter unlike the movie version but is mortally wounded when taking control of the plane. With his last moments, he turns off auto pilot and crashes the plane into the television network building killing himself and Killian while ending the game forever.


I would wager that some people still don’t know that The Running Man is based on a book let alone that it was written by a fake name using Stephen King. I had never read it before this video and I’m really glad I chose it. It is shorter than most of his novels and is hard to put down while being interesting and fast paced the entire way through. The movie is another one I grew up on, but I noticed the dialogue is almost too cheesy at times. The score and concept remain great even if they are vastly different from the book. While it’s usually hard for me to go against my own childhood and the movie still mostly holds up, I think the book beats it out in this case and I’m really excited to see what Edgar Wright and Glen Powell make with the new version set to release in the near future. While I prefer the book, I still say check them both out as you can knock the entire set out in one day off. Now, who loves you and who do you love?

A couple of the previous episodes of WTF Happened to This Adaptation? can be seen below. To see the other shows we have to offer, head over to the JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!

Source: Arrow in the Head

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