Reshaped by the Expectation of Death: The Prize of Peril (1983)



In 1958, author Robert Shecky published a short story called The Prize of Peril in which an everyman named Jim Raeder participates in a series of increasingly dangerous reality television shows. The so-called Prize of Peril has the contestant let loose on the streets and hunted by a gang of criminals. If he can survive for a week he will be showered with riches and fame. Unfortunately, the game seems to be rigged and not in Raeder's favor. Shecky's story is fast paced and action-packed and not without a strong dose of biting satire. It was also one of the first sci-fi tales to introduce the concept of a "reality show". It was adapted into two films: Das Millionenspiel (1970) and Le Prix du Danger (1983).

The latter French adaptation is a gritty and mostly grounded action piece that also delves into the political ideology of the dystopian society it depicts. Large media corporations have used a loophole in a suicide law to make shows where people can compete in treacherous situations for prize money. Unemployment is at an all time high so these shows are tempting for the poor and lower class citizens.

One such poor soul is Francois Jacquemand, who is out of work and depending on his fiancee's job to survive. He heads to a casting call and makes the final three. After winning a subsequent game where the three men are pit against each other, he is chosen to participate in The Prize of Peril, the highest rated show on the network. Similar to the short story that inspired it, Jacquemand has to survive for four hours while being chased by a group of armed individuals through the streets of Paris.

The similarities between this film and The Running Man (1987) are hard to miss. Both films feature a maniacal host, elaborate dances numbers, a captive studio audience egging on the proceedings, and eventually both of the protagonists go though a similar arc where they go from a hated contestant to winning the admiration of the fans. The Running Man has an edge on the host character because casting Richard Dawson, himself a beloved game show host in real life, to play an evil asshole is an inspired bit of casting. It's interesting that The Running Man seems to take more cues from Shecky's story than from the Stephen King novella it was supposed to be adapting.

The Prize of Peril takes a decidedly more nuanced approach to the world building, spending much of the first half exploring the ideology that has spawned a society where people play life-or-death games for cash. At one point in the film the TV network is even legally challenged to prove what they are doing is moral. At the end of the day money talks. As a result the narrative feels much more fleshed out and compelling. One intriguing concept is that as Jacquemand makes his way through the city the citizens can help or hinder him as they wish and he communicates with the host of the show by watching various TVs located in homes and public places. The network camera crew follow him around on foot, in cars, on motorcycles, and via helicopter which is dynamic and exciting.

Fans of over-the-top action might come away feeling slightly disappointed as much of it is condensed into the second half of the film, and it's shot in a more muted and realistic way. Some of it can be chalked up to the difference between how European and American films were shot at the time, but it's also because the films are made with different goals. The Running Man is more for entertainment (ironic because the King story is definitely a critique of violence for amusement and spectacle) and The Prize of Peril is dark satire with the action being secondary.

Overall, The Prize of Peril is a nihilistic take on the reality show genre of sci-fi and it doesn't end on a happy note. Perhaps it is a warning that if we go too far for entertainment, if we lose too much of our compassion for our fellow man, we might hit a point of no return and lose everything that makes us human.

--Michelle Kisner