The Themes of Dystopia, Satire, and Violence in "The Running Man" (1987)

24 August 2023
"The Running Man," a film adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name, released in 1987, stands as a thought-provoking exploration of several prominent themes, including dystopia, satire, and the allure of violent entertainment. Directed by Paul Michael Glaser, the film brought together a creative team that included renowned actor Arnold Schwarzenegger (Predator, Terminator) in the leading role of Ben Richards, further adding to the film's appeal.

Set in a bleak future, the movie takes a critical look at the potential consequences of a society driven by extreme entertainment. The screenplay, adapted from Stephen King's original work, was brought to life by screenwriters Steven E. de Souza and Richard Bachman (a pseudonym for Stephen King himself), whose collaboration ensured that the core themes were faithfully translated to the screen.

"The Running Man" emerged during a period of increasing fascination with dystopian narratives and the rise of reality television. Its success lay not only in its captivating storyline but also in its adept use of satire and social commentary. The film's vision of a future government exploiting violent entertainment to maintain control struck a chord with audiences, serving as a cautionary tale about the dangers of unchecked power and media manipulation.

Upon its release, "The Running Man" garnered attention for its engaging plot and effective portrayal of a dystopian world, which resonated with the public's growing concerns about the influence of media and the erosion of civil liberties. While it may not have achieved the same level of critical acclaim as some of its contemporaries, the film's impact and lasting relevance are undeniable.

The success of "The Running Man" lies in its ability to engage audiences on multiple levels. The film's fast-paced action sequences, coupled with its underlying themes, provided a unique cinematic experience. Arnold Schwarzenegger's portrayal of Ben Richards added a charismatic and relatable dimension to the character, allowing audiences to empathize with his struggle against the oppressive regime.

In retrospect, "The Running Man" has earned its place as a cult classic, praised for its daring exploration of societal issues and its skillful blending of dystopian elements and satire. The film's cautionary tale remains as pertinent as ever, serving as a reminder of the potential consequences of unchecked authority, media manipulation, and society's fascination with violent content.

the running man film poster

Dystopia and Social Commentary

Dystopian Control and Manipulation In "The Running Man," the dystopian setting is characterized by a government that wields absolute control over its citizens. The regime manipulates public perception through fabricated narratives, effectively brainwashing the masses. For instance, the government blames Ben Richards, the film's protagonist, for a massacre he did not commit, which shows how easily information can be twisted to serve those in power.

Surveillance technology is omnipresent in the film's world. Citizens are constantly monitored, leaving no room for personal privacy. This serves as a commentary on the real-world concerns about the encroachment of surveillance on individual rights and the potential for governments to use such technology to maintain control and suppress dissent.

The film underscores the erosion of civil liberties within the dystopian society. Freedom of speech and assembly are restricted, and citizens have little agency to challenge the government's decisions. This mirrors concerns of the time about the potential for governments to trample on individual rights under the pretext of maintaining order or security.

The population's living conditions reflect the stark divide between the ruling elite and the impoverished masses. The poor are subjected to harsh living conditions and limited opportunities, while the government revels in opulence. This portrayal draws attention to the consequences of unchecked power, as well as the dangers of allowing economic and social disparities to persist.

The totalitarian government's hold on society is a key theme. The regime suppresses any form of resistance through intimidation and violence. Ben Richards becomes a symbol of resistance as he challenges the system and exposes its lies. His journey serves as a reminder of the potential for individuals to rise against oppressive regimes, even in the face of overwhelming odds.

Satire and Reality Television

"The Running Man" takes the concept of reality television to a nightmarish extreme. In the film, the game show of the same name becomes a life-or-death spectacle where participants are hunted down and killed by professional "stalkers" while the audience cheers on the violence. This hyperbolic representation serves as a satire of the growing appetite for sensationalism in media. The film exaggerates the reality TV trend to highlight the dangers of pushing entertainment boundaries without considering ethical implications.

The game show's premise revolves around forcing convicted criminals to fight for their lives against ruthless stalkers. This mirrors the real-world trend of exploiting human suffering for entertainment value. "The Running Man" critiques the media's willingness to capitalize on tragedy and pain, underlining the perverse allure of violence and suffering as a means to boost ratings.

The film draws attention to society's voyeuristic tendencies, as people tune in to watch the brutal deaths of the contestants. This reflects the desensitization that can occur when violence and suffering become normalized through constant exposure. By depicting an audience that revels in the suffering of others, "The Running Man" questions the moral consequences of turning such callousness into a form of entertainment.

"The Running Man" was released during a period when reality television was gaining prominence. The film's depiction of a dystopian game show eerily parallels the direction in which media seemed to be heading. This provides a sharp critique of the trajectory of entertainment culture and its potential consequences if taken to extreme levels.

the running man film themes

Obsession with Violent Entertainment

"The Running Man" portrays a society where the government manipulates the population's obsession with violent entertainment as a means of control. By channeling people's attention towards the deadly game show, the government distracts them from larger issues like poverty, oppression, and government abuses. This manipulation reflects how those in power can exploit societal tendencies for violent escapism to maintain control and avoid accountability.

The film also addresses the consequences of a culture that becomes desensitized to violence and suffering. The extreme violence in the game show becomes entertainment, blurring the line between reality and fiction. The audience becomes indifferent to the real human lives at stake, much like how repeated exposure to violent media can desensitize individuals to real-world violence.

"The Running Man" taps into the ongoing debate surrounding the impact of violent media on individuals and society. The film's portrayal of a population that craves violent entertainment for gratification and the government's exploitation of this craving speaks to the potential consequences of saturating media with violence. The film's themes resonate with contemporary discussions on the potential effects of violent video games, movies, and other forms of media on behavior and attitudes.

The film's portrayal of a society where violence is normalized and cheered on highlights the dangers of becoming culturally desensitized to violence. This theme remains relevant today, as modern media constantly bombards audiences with graphic content, potentially numbing individuals to the severity of real-world violence and suffering.

"The Running Man" raises questions about individual and collective responsibility in consuming violent media. The audience's active participation in the game show's violence, despite the victims being real people, underscores the idea that entertainment consumers play a role in perpetuating the culture of violent obsession.

Thematic differences between King's book and the film

While "The Running Man" film adaptation and the original Stephen King novel share common thematic elements, there are notable differences that shape their respective narratives. One key thematic difference lies in the portrayal of the dystopian society. In the book, the dystopia is depicted with greater depth and nuance, allowing readers to explore the intricacies of the government's control and the citizens' struggles in more detail. 

King's novel delves into the psychological toll the dystopian world takes on the protagonist, Ben Richards, and his inner thoughts and emotions are more extensively explored, offering readers a deeper understanding of his motivations and fears. In contrast, the film focuses more on the action and spectacle, streamlined to fit the medium's constraints, resulting in a slightly shallower exploration of the dystopian themes and characters' inner lives.

Another significant thematic difference revolves around the portrayal of violence and its consequences. In the novel, violence is presented in a grittier and more visceral manner, serving as a commentary on the brutality of the society and its impact on individuals. The book delves into the psychological and physical toll that participating in the game show exacts on Richards, offering a darker and more introspective examination of the effects of violent entertainment. 

The film, while still addressing the allure of violent entertainment and its potential desensitization, emphasizes action sequences and spectacle, which slightly shifts the focus from the psychological and emotional aspects of violence to the physical challenges faced by the characters.


"The Running Man" (1987) masterfully weaves together themes of dystopia, satire, and the allure of violent entertainment to create a thought-provoking narrative. Through its portrayal of a bleak future dominated by a totalitarian regime and a society obsessed with brutal reality television, the film presents a cautionary tale about the dangers of unchecked power, media manipulation, and the potential consequences of embracing violent content as a form of entertainment. 

The movie's enduring relevance lies in its ability to stimulate discussions about the ethical implications of media consumption, the limits of government authority, and the delicate balance between freedom and control in a rapidly evolving world.


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About the author Jimmy Jangles

My name is Jimmy Jangles, the founder of The Astromech. I have always been fascinated by the world of science fiction, especially the Star Wars universe, and I created this website to share my love for it with fellow fans.

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