Remember When... 'The Running Man' Foreshadowed 'The Hunger Games'?

Remember When... 'The Running Man' Foreshadowed 'The Hunger Games'?

Nov 12, 2015

 
In a few days, audiences will flock to a movie about a dystopian future where people are hunted and killed on live television for the nation's amusement. (We're talking about The Hunger Games, by the way, not Love the Coopers.) The same thing happened this week in 1987 -- only then, the movie was The Running Man, and the righteous hero who tried to destroy the game from the inside was Arnold Schwarzenegger. 
 
The Running Man actually has several details in common with The Hunger Games. Both are based on novels about oppressive future governments. Both begin with a text crawl that spells out the premise, including the title of the TV show (which is also the name of the movie). Both have heroes who participate semi-willingly in order to protect someone else from being forced into it. Both heroes' main love interests are kind of embarrassing. And so forth. 
 
 
 
But where the Katniss chronicles are deadly serious, The Running Man is campy and satiric, with cheap-looking special effects and a tone of general cheesiness. Schwarzenegger later blamed that attitude for the movie's lackluster performance at the box office, where it made just $38 million (about $80 million at today's ticket prices). There are few universes in which Jennifer Lawrence can out-gross Arnold Schwarzenegger, but we live in one of them.
 
Watching it now, it's easy to see how 1987 audiences wouldn't have taken it seriously as an action film OR as a comedy. It's too cavalier for the former, not funny enough for the latter. What little cleverness it offers (like convicts being given not an attorney but a court-appointed talent agent) is drowned out by the blunt, garish loudness of the whole thing. Which, granted, is a common element of Schwarzenegger movies. But somehow this one was TOO obnoxious.
 
It's a shame, too, because The Running Man benefited from perfect casting in the form of Richard Dawson as game show host Damon Killian. Dawson's nine-year run as the affectionate host of Family Feud -- one of TV's all-time friendliest, most popular game shows -- had ended just two years earlier, and here he was playing against type as a vicious conniver who only pretends to like people when he's in front of a camera. Getting the host of Family Feud to drop the F-bomb was a feat for which The Running Man deserves more credit than it gets, a subversive act unparalleled until Bob Barker beat up Adam Sandler in Happy Gilmore nine years later. 
 
 
Also, while nobody could have known it at the time, The Running Man actually got a few things right about the future. (It's set in 2017-2019.) People have voice-activated appliances and gadgets in their homes, and they buy plane tickets over an Internet-like system through a keyboard attached to their TV. (Remember WebTV?) The strict security and ID-checking at airports is also pretty spot-on.
 
 
 
Thankfully, while reality TV (a term that didn't exist in 1987) has gotten increasingly gross and exploitative, we don't yet have shows in which humans are hunted for sport. We only humiliate them and ruin their lives, and we only do it when they volunteer. So in that regard, the future is better than The Running Man said it would be. But on the other hand, we don't have Richard Dawson anymore, so it's kind of a wash. 
 
 
When The Running Man was released, on Nov. 13, 1987:
 
 
- It made $8.1 million that weekend (or $17.3 million at 2015 prices), enough to knock Fatal Attraction out of first place, where it been for eight weeks. Also in the multiplexes were Hello AgainBaby BoomLess Than ZeroThe Princess Bride, and, still going strong in its 13th week of release, summer hitDirty Dancing
 
- You probably heard some of these songs on the radio (or in your cassette deck) on your way to the theater: "Here I Go Again," by Whitesnake; "Bad," by Michael Jackson; "I Think We're Alone Now," by Tiffany; "Mony Mony," by Billy Idol; and "(I've Had) the Time of My Life," by Bill Medley, from the aforementioned Dirty Dancing. It was a dirty, dirty time.
 
 
- On this very night, Sonny and Cher reunited for a performance on Late Night with David Letterman. Elsewhere on TV, DuckTalesFull House, and A Different World were all brand-new. The air was electric with possibilities. 
 
 
- In the music world, George Michael's first solo album had recently come out, though he hadn't yet. 
 
- On Nintendo, The Legend of Zelda and Mike Tyson's Punch-Out were new games (in the U.S., anyway; Zelda had been out in Japan for a while). The real Mike Tyson was, at this point, the heavyweight champion of the world, and not yet an ear-biting convicted rapist. 
 
 
- The stock market had crashed less than four weeks earlier, leading many economists to fear a Depression would ensue. The economy recovered, but a recession did hit a couple years later. Basically, money is scary.  
 
- A month earlier, a toddler named Jessica McClure had fallen down a well in Texas, capturing all of America's hearts before she was successfully rescued. "Baby Jessica," as she was called, is now a grown woman who has gone 28 years without falling into a well.
 
- Zac Efron and Colin Kaepernick were both less than a month old. Michael Angarano and Aaron Carter both had less than a month left in the womb (different wombs, though).   
 

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