The Evolution of Rollerball

Let’s face it: most fictional sports created for the screen or page tend to come across as contrived, silly and, well, fictional.

“Rollerball” is not one of them.

The futuristic game of Rollerball has achieved a rare state among fictional creations. In the 1975 movie starring James Caan, the filmmakers were effectively able to convince an audience they are somehow watching a real sport. (In fact, some of the stuntmen and athletes who appeared in the original film actually looked into starting a league and playing for real after the movie was a hit.)

I had always been fascinated that someone could make up an imaginary game that seemed so believable, and over the years I tried to track down the rules and how the game had come about. That it was a dangerous sport which combined roller derby, motorcycle racing and hand-to-hand combat, only added to the appeal.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • 

Rollerball was invented by author William Harrison in his short story “Roller Ball Murder,” which first appeared in the September 1973 issue of Esquire. Mr. Harrison was a professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas and was inspired to pen a “little experimental story” after seeing a fight break out on the court during a college basketball game. The fans went wild, the home team was energized and came back for the win, and afterwards Harrison began to wonder just how violent sports in the future might become.

He pictured men “on a great roulette wheel, dodging huge metal balls fired out of cannons, while they skated around slashing at each other with spiked gloves.” He later added motorcycles and explosions, and imagined what sort of society would encourage such a sport.

The game described in “Roller Ball Murder” is deliberately improbable and over-the-top, with the rules constantly changing to increase the mayhem to the point were it is impossible to survive a game. [Complete RBM rules can be found here.] The sport itself, while central to the action, isn’t the point of the story — this is a cautionary tale about a corporate-controlled future and its corrosive effects on society.

Harrison, who is not a science fiction writer, was a surprised as anyone when his science fiction story sold, and even more surprised when it was optioned for a motion picture. He wrote a treatment for the film, describing the game in greater detail, and eventually went on to write the screenplay.

The sport in the initial script is similar to the one in the short story, with a few basic changes, but still keeping many of Harrison’s original ideas such as multiple balls in play and passengers on the cycles. During preproduction, Harrison worked with Producer/Director Norman Jewison and the set designers, and the screenplay began to mutate to fit the practical needs of filming, and the requests of the movie studio. “Great attention was paid to the game,” said Harrison.

Now here’s where it gets interesting.

According to a speech the writer gave in the late 1970s, the director quickly lost control of the shoot to its star, James Caan, who began to make up his own lines. The stuntmen, some of whom were friends with Caan, began to demand their own lines and even rewrote one of the scenes. The whole set apparently became quite competitive and a “kind of jock atmosphere prevailed.” Even when they weren’t filming, the stuntmen would often play on the track, coming up with their own rules for the game. In the Special Edition DVD of the film, Jewison said the cast played the game over and over until they figured out how it should work.

By the end of filming, much of Harrison’s dialog had fallen by the wayside, and the game continued to mutate beyond his initial design. After the movie was edited, additional voiceovers were created for a sports announcer who isn’t in the shooting script. Eventually, someone in United Artists’ marketing department collected together the various rules to be included in the press kit that went out to the media when “Rollerball” was released in June 1975.

Copies of these “real” rules have been difficult to find and have never been posted online until now. [Complete Rollerball rules can be found here.]

The movie was an international box office hit, and generated a great deal of press regarding the violence it portrayed. ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” did a segment on the movie — and by extension, the growing concern over violence in sports in general — and Sports Illustrated gave the movie a 4-page spread and discussed the possibility of a real league.

Over the years, even as the sets and futurism of “Rollerball” became dated and cheesy, the action scenes of the game were still exciting to watch — and still feel like you’re watching a real sport.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • 

The first rule of Rollerball is: Nobody talks about the “Rollerball” remake.

Okay, well, I guess if I’m going to do a complete history of the game, I have to write about the disastrous 2002 remake.

25 years after the first movie was released, Director John McTiernan decided it was time to update the original. The initial response from the public was “why?” In the intervening years, the 1975 film had become one of those movies that had such a distinct feel, and captured a particular time, most people didn’t think it needed to be “re-imagined.”

However, if anyone could probably pull it off, McTiernan (who had directed both “Die Hard” and “Predator,” two of the best action and sci-fi movies of the past 20 years) was a likely candidate.

It turned out to be an unmitigated mess, a disaster worthy of skewering on “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” The remake was delayed almost a year after test audiences laughed it out of the theater, and when the studio finally dumped it in the dead of winter, it was universally panned — and a certified box-office bomb. Critic Roger Ebert said he would love to see a book about what happened behind the scenes: “My guess is that something went dreadfully wrong early in the production. Maybe dysentery or mass hypnosis.”

It is difficult to take the game presented in the remake seriously, as the filmmakers certainly didn’t. Players are in costumes that wouldn’t make the cut in the pro wrestling world (come on, tutus?) and they don’t even bother to follow the few rules that are presented. [The rules of “8-track” Rollerball, such as they are, can be found here.]

In some ways, the game track in the remake is not unlike the one in the original short story (oval, not round), and the idea the game is made more dangerous to increase audience interest is reintroduced — but there the similarities end. Whereas Roller Ball Murder is an improbable sport, the one presented in Rollerball 2002 is impossible. There is no way the players could perform the actions we see them doing unless they were on wires.

Still, one good thing came out of the remake debacle: it is perfect to show to film students on how NOT to make a movie.

And it did lead to a resurgence in interest in the original movie — and the rules of the game. 

Originally published in 2006, updated in 2016.

“The Mutations of Rollerball” by Willam Harrison, courtesy of the University of Arkansas

Rollerball: Fact Sheet and Rules of the Game, United Artists Corporation

“Return to the Arena: The Making of Rollerball” documentary on the Special Edition DVD release of the 1975 film, MGM’s remake website

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