"A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Dystopia": The Culture Industry's Neutralization of Stephen King's the Running Man

By Texter, Douglas W. | Utopian Studies, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

"A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Dystopia": The Culture Industry's Neutralization of Stephen King's the Running Man


Texter, Douglas W., Utopian Studies


The whole of literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron--they'll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be.

Introduction

In the above epigraph from George Orwell's classic dystopia, Nineteen Eighty-Four, the editor of the Newspeak Dictionary, Syme, proclaims that the Inner Party will transform literary works and their political messages into their polar opposites. In this essay, I'll argue that the American media--what Theodor W. Adorno has called the "culture industry"--have produced just such an inversion through their treatment of a very early novel by Stephen King, The Running Man. I'll trace out a curious phenomenon: the way in which an early and edgy King work was transformed into the very thing it both predicted and criticized--a reality television program featuring a nation-wide manhunt and huge cash prizes.

In Part I, I'll argue that King produced a work employing the tropes of dystopian literature and satire. Despite some scholarship by writers such as M. Keith Booker and Michael Collings hinting that The Running Man has dystopian qualities, no critic has yet fully articulated the kinds of dystopian maneuvers that King made. First, almost two decades before programs such as "America's Most Wanted" and "COPS" appeared, King offered a predictive and trenchant critique of reality police television shows. Second, influenced by Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, King both employed and modified the dystopian convention of using a dialogue between the protagonist and a member of the ruling elite to demystify and interrogate structures of power. Third, The Running Man ends with an incredibly ghastly scene: an eviscerated protagonist flying an airliner into a high-rise office complex. In rendering this scene, King did not merely make his audience queasy and eerily foreshadow the events of September 11, 2001. He also rewrote one of the seminal episodes of American literature: the evisceration of the waist gunner Snowden in Joseph Heller's Catch-22.

In Part II, HI examine the ways in which various iterations of The Running Man have thematically moved away from King's novel. First, King's celebrity prevented the work (originally published under a pseudonym) from being viewed fully as a dystopia. His status fixed The Running Man in a constellation of horror novels and movies. Second, the 1987 movie adaptation of The Running Man transformed a Vietnam-era protest novel into a Reagan-era star vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura. Finally, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon attempted, in 2001, to turn the material of The Running Man into the very thing that it predicted: a reality television show called "The Runner," which featured a nationwide manhunt and huge cash prizes. Thus, within thirty years of its writing and less than twenty from the date of its publication, The Running Man became--in the words of Syme--not only different from what it once was but actually contradictory.

Part I: The Text of The Running Man

In Nightmare on Main Street, Mark Edmundson presents a quickie cultural history of the United States. Employing a kind of pop Freudianism, he argues that contemporary American culture is bifurcated. One strand of culture--"American Light"--begins with the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and ends in the movie Forrest Gump. The other commences with Edgar Allan Poe and terminates in the Gothic worlds of Anne Rice and Stephen King. Of King, Edmundson writes, "His heart's in the right place. But he merely invites his readers to relive their childhoods with him, to take a self-righteous vacation away from the day-to-day immersion in the adult world. He's got nothing much to send them back to that world with, or nothing much that would be likely to help change it" (44). Although this view is slowly changing, it's fair to say that Edmundson delivers the standard critical line on King. …

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