The Running Man (novel)
First edition cover
|Author||Richard Bachman (Stephen King)|
|Genre||Science fiction novel|
|Media type||Print (paperback)|
The Running Man is a science fiction novel by Stephen King, first published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman in 1982 as a paperback original. It was collected in 1985 in the omnibus The Bachman Books. The novel is set in a dystopian United States during the year 2025, in which the nation's economy is in ruins and world violence is rising.
The story follows protagonist Ben Richards as he participates in the game show The Running Man in which contestants, allowed to go anywhere in the world, are chased by "Hunters" employed to kill them.
The book has a total of 101 chapters, laid out in a "countdown" format. The first is titled "Minus 100 and Counting ..." with the numbers decreasing, until the last chapter, "Minus 000 and Counting" (or, in some versions, merely "000").
The Running Man was loosely adapted into a film with the same name, which was released five years after the book in 1987. The film starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as Richards. The film was later made into a video game released on several home computers.
In 2025, the world's economy is a shambles and America has become a totalitarian dystopia. Ben Richards, an impoverished resident of the fictional Co-Op City, is unable to find work, having been blacklisted from his trade. His gravely ill daughter Cathy needs medicine, and his wife Sheila has resorted to prostitution to bring in money for the family. In desperation, Richards turns to the Games Network, a government-operated television station that runs violent game shows. After rigorous physical and mental testing, Richards is selected to appear on The Running Man, the Games Network's most popular, lucrative, and dangerous program. He meets with Dan Killian, the executive producer of the program, who describes the challenges he will face once the game begins.
The contestant is declared an enemy of the state and released with a 12-hour head start before the Hunters, an elite team of Network-employed hitmen, are sent out to kill him. The contestant earns $100 per hour that he stays alive and avoids capture, an additional $100 for each law enforcement officer or Hunter he kills, and a grand prize of $1 billion if he survives for 30 days. Viewers can receive cash rewards for informing the Network of the runner's whereabouts. The runner is given $4,800 and a pocket video camera before he leaves the studio. He can travel anywhere in the world, and each day he must videotape two messages and mail them back to the studio for broadcasting. If he neglects to send the messages, he will be held in default of his Games contract and stop accumulating prize money, but will continue to be hunted indefinitely. Killian states that no contestant has survived long enough to claim the grand prize, nor does he expect anyone to ever do so. Richards simply hopes that he will last long enough to accumulate enough of a prize to secure his family's future.
As the game begins, Richards obtains a disguise and false identification records, traveling first to New York City and then Boston. In Boston, he is tracked down by the Hunters and only narrowly escapes, setting off an explosion in the basement of a YMCA building that kills five police officers. He sneaks away through a sewer pipe and emerges in the city's impoverished ghetto, where he takes shelter with gang member Bradley Throckmorton and his family. Richards learns from Bradley that the air is severely polluted and that the city's poor have become a permanent underclass. Bradley also says that the Network exists only as a propaganda machine to pacify and distract the public. Richards tries to incorporate this information into his video messages, but finds that the Network dubs over his voice with obscenities and threats during the broadcast.
Bradley smuggles Richards past a government checkpoint to Manchester, New Hampshire, where he disguises himself as a half-blind priest. In addition, Bradley provides Richards with a set of mailing labels for his videotapes that will leave the Network unable to track him by their postmarks. While spending three days in Manchester, Richards learns that another Running Man contestant has been killed, and he dreams that Bradley has betrayed him after being tortured. He travels to a safe house owned by a friend of Bradley in Portland, Maine, but he is reported by the owner's mother. As the police and the Hunters close in on the safe house, Richards is wounded, but he manages to escape and spends the night sleeping at an abandoned construction site. The next morning, after arranging to mail his videotapes, Richards carjacks a woman named Amelia Williams and takes her hostage. Alerting the media to his presence, he makes his way to an airport in Derry, Maine, passing through the towns of Rockland, Camden, and Winterport along the way. The police confront Richards at the airport, but he bluffs his way onto a plane past both them and Evan McCone, the lead Hunter, by pretending to be carrying an explosive charge powerful enough to destroy the entire facility. By this time, Richards has broken the Running Man survival record of eight days and five hours.
Richards takes McCone and Amelia as hostages and has the plane fly low over populated areas to avoid being shot down by a surface-to-air missile. However, Killian calls Richards aboard the plane and reveal that he knows Richards does not have any explosives, as the plane's security system would have detected them. To Richards' surprise, Killian offers him a chance to replace McCone as lead Hunter. Richards is hesitant to take the offer, worried that his family will become a target. Killian then informs him that Sheila and Cathy were in fact murdered over ten days earlier, even before Richards first appeared on the show. He gives Richards some time to make his decision. Richards falls asleep and dreams of his murdered family and a gruesome crime scene. With nothing left to lose, he calls Killian back and accepts the offer. He kills the flight crew and McCone, but suffers a mortal gunshot wound from the latter. After having Amelia escape via parachute, Richards uses his last strength to override the plane's autopilot and fly toward the skyscraper housing the Games Network.
The book ends with the plane crashing into the tower, resulting in the deaths of Richards and Killian. The novel closes with the description, "... and it rained fire twenty blocks away."
The Running Man is the last of four books written by King that were published between 1977 and 1982 under the name Richard Bachman, which were reissued in one volume as The Bachman Books (1985). The others are Rage (1977), The Long Walk (1979), and Roadwork (1981). King created "Richard Bachman" to be his long-term alias, not just a temporary writing identity, but his real name was leaked to the media. He based The Dark Half, a horror novel published in 1989, on the outing of Bachman.
Writing the book
According to King's 2002 memoir On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he wrote The Running Man within a single week, compared to his normal 2,000-word or ten-page daily output—so that writing a novel normally takes approximately three months. In "The Importance of Being Bachman", a new introduction to the 1996 edition of The Bachman Books, King describes The Running Man as "a book written by a young man who was angry, energetic, and infatuated with the art and the craft of writing."
In the same introduction King describes Ben Richards as "scrawny" and "pre-tubercular". He observes that Arnold Schwarzenegger, who played Ben Richards in the film adaptation of The Running Man, portrayed the character very differently than he wrote about him in the book, saying that Richards (in the book) was "as far away from the Arnold Schwarzenegger character in the movie as you can get."
- The Most Dangerous Game, a 1924 short story with a similar premise
- Lord of the Flies, a 1954 dystopian novel about a group of British boys stuck on an uninhabited island
- The Prize of Peril, a 1958 short story with a similar premise
- The 10th Victim, a 1965 film with a similar premise
- Battle Royale, a 1999 dystopian novel with a similar premise
- The Hunger Games, a 2008 dystopian novel with a similar premise
- The Runner, a 2016 reality series that implements the core gameshow of the novel, though the "chasers" are only to capture the runner, not kill.
- King, Stephen (1986). The Bachman Books. New York, New York: Signet. p. 923. ISBN 0-451-14736-7.
- King, Stephen as Richard Bachman (1999). The Running Man (Mass market paperback ed.). Signet Classic. p. 336. ISBN 0-451-19796-8.
- King, Stephen (2002). On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (reprint ed.). Simon and Schuster. p. 320. ISBN 0-7434-5596-7.
- King, Stephen (1996). "The Importance of Being Bachman". The Bachman Books (introduction). p. 10.