With the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ YA novel The Hunger Games about to hit theaters, Americans are getting more comfortable with the idea of a reality competition in which ordinary kids are challenged to fight to the death. But Collins’ book trilogy, as well received as it has been, did not originate the notion of a dystopia in which innocents are conscripted into a televised battle for their lives: The Hunger Games is part of a long tradition that also includes The Running Man.
Loosely based on a short story by Richard Bachman (a former pseudonym of Stephen King), the 1987 film adaptation of The Running Man stars an Arnold Schwarzenegger at the height of his powers. Serving under a totalitarian government in the distant future of 2017 (!!!), military pilot Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger) is wrongly convicted for firing on an unarmed crowd involved in a food riot. (Yeah, hello, Hunger Games again.) Through a series of events I won’t spoil because, for real, you should see this movie if you haven’t already, Richards ends up getting railroaded into being a contestant on The Running Man, a game show on the ICS TV network that also happens to be the no. 1 series in the entire world, in which convicted criminals battle for their lives against government-trained assassins.
But while The Running Man is unquestionably the biggest draw on ICS, it’s not the only TV series worth watching in a dystopic future America. As we follow the characters through their day-to-day lives — and through the halls backstage at ICS — we get glimpses of the rest of the network’s shows, in the form of enticing promos and beautifully designed posters.
Except … wait. The more we see of these future TV series — which, since they’re going to start airing in five years, might already be in development — the more they remind us of shows we’ve already watched and loved. So before we get all superior about how far community standards will have fallen two presidential administrations from now, we should probably take a long, hard look at ourselves. After all, The Running Man’s sobering vision of a $6 soft drink is already here.
Captain Freedom’s Workout
Premise (established): Legendary Stalker Captain Freedom (Jesse Ventura) puts viewers through their paces in a fun yet challenging exercise program!
Dystopian Elements: The host’s hair is so astoundingly fake that it can only be the horrific style of a hideous future. Also, in his other job the guy is a government-sanctioned assassin.
Contemporary Analogue: The Running Man (the movie) came after celebrities like Jane Fonda and Suzanne Somers started sharing their workouts with their civilian fans, but in our day, trainers have become celebrities in their own right — think of Jillian Michaels or Harley Pasternak. However, given that those people are not openly trying to kill anyone, the closest analogue to Captain Freedom’s Workout is probably Tony Horton’s legitimately murderous P90X.
Climbing for Dollars
Premise (established): Thrill-seeking contestants prove their mettle by climbing a rope as quickly as possible away from a pack of bloodthirsty dogs!
Dystopian Elements: Just try to imagine what kind of abuse the show’s producers must subject these poor dogs to in order to make them so hungry for human flesh.
Contemporary Analogue: Facing terrifying situations in order to win money is only exactly what happens in every episode of Fear Factor that doesn’t involve the ingestion of animal semen.
Premise (conjectural): Subjects who’ve been engaged in seditious activity attempt to plead for leniency by confessing before they are (inevitably) arrested!
Dystopian Elements: In the future, Americans will risk jail time for their reprehensible behavior, instead of being rewarded with millions of Twitter followers and AutoTuned parodies on YouTube.
Contemporary Analogue: Sharing one’s deepest, most embarrassing secrets with a national TV audience might have actually been the official log line for The Moment of Truth.
The Hate Boat
Premise (conjectural): As with the Two Minutes Hate of George Orwell’s 1984, The Hate Boat provides citizens a socially sanctioned context for expressing their rage and bigotry — in this case, a marine vessel in international waters, where anything goes!
Dystopian Elements: Given the potential safety issues, only a corrupt totalitarian government would consider marooning even its most revolting hatemongers in something as dangerous as a cruise ship.
Contemporary Analogue: Welcome to the Neighborhood, in which different kinds of minority families were to have competed to win a house on a street where they’d be surrounded by people who hated them due to prejudice? It never aired, but only because it was 12 years ahead of its time.
Pain: American Style
Premise (conjectural): Citizens challenge their physical limits with feats of strength and endurance! Think you can withstand waterboarding? Prove it, hot shot!
Dystopian Elements: The notion of subjecting ordinary people to physical harm for the enjoyment of a sadistic audience is barbaric, reprehensible …
Contemporary Analogue: … and the premise of Wipeout.
The Running Man
Premise (established): Convicts waive their prison sentences by gambling their lives in a contest opposite highly skilled assassins, with a chance to win their freedom! [INTERNAL MEMO: This is just a cover story for dumb audiences. Convicts who may seem to win their freedom will actually be burned alive, their corpses left — with ID tags still on them — in the basement of the broadcast facility, where no nosy outsiders would ever possibly find them.]
Dystopian Elements: Making criminals fight for their lives for viewers’ entertainment is appalling. Better they should be kept in solitary confinement 23 hours a day, where the rest of us can’t see them and think about what “cruel and unusual punishment” actually means, other than as fodder for all of MSNBC’s non-news programming.
Contemporary Analogue: Pitting a bunch of physically dominant cast members against weaker opponents in a series of athletic challenges that stop just short of mortal combat is known to our generation as American Gladiators. (South Korea actually does air a show called Running Man, though it pretty much sounds like The Amazing Race and no one gets killed in that one either. So far.)
Tara Ariano likes Running Man director Paul Michael Glaser just fine, but believes that Paul Verhoeven’s birthday should be observed as a national holiday.