The Running Man
Author: Stephen King (as Richard Bachman)
I read this book as part of a larger book collecting the first four books published with Richard Bachman as the credited author. Through those four books, King published two books about men snapping and doing violent things (Rage and Roadwork) and two dystopian future books that revolve around contests where the losers are killed if they stop moving (The Long Walk and The Running Man). I hated the two books about men snapping and really enjoyed The Long Walk. The Running Man was certainly closer in quality to The Long Walk but reading it second I couldn’t help but feel that the whole book had a very familiar quality to it.
For fans of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie (1987), reading the book version is an entirely different story with very few similarities. I found that to be a plus as the story was very unpredictable and I was always guessing about how the book would progress. Gone are the gladiator figures with high tech weapons and costumes, gone is the superhero physique of Arnold, gone even is the arena that the game takes place in. In the original King work, the concept was very different. A man is given a several hour head start and needs to stay alive for 30 days. He can go anywhere and do anything to stay safe, but he must mail in two tapes a day to the games people (which requires him going to a mailbox or post office). Although there are some professionals hunting him, they are normal guys like Ben Richards (the protagonist). The super high rated television program that is the basis for this contest edits the tapes that the people send in, and motivates people to report where the runner is in exchange for cash rewards.
As in the film, the show is a symbol of the oppressive government that lies to the rest of the populace, and the runners are made out to be terrible criminals when they are not actually criminals. Beyond that there is also a bad guy named Killian, and there’s another runner playing at the same time who is not given much story time. Overall I preferred the film version, though whether that’s because I saw it first or because this book reminded me of a less interesting version of The Long Walk I can’t say for sure. There are a few plot points that also didn’t work entirely well for me but they require some major spoilers to discuss.
**Major Spoilers follow**
Richards is basically the ultimate Running Man contestant, per the people that run the games. They decide this after he’s succeeded for 8 days. OK, so nobody’s ever made it for 8 days before and this is some exciting show people watch every night? Also, the show would basically be a news program as the videos runners send in are often devoid of any words or action. It’s not like there’s even a lot of people to interview, as typically the ones who blows Richards cover are taken and interrogated right afterward. The entire thing kind of fell apart for me at that point in terms of a credible future society. At least with The Long Walk there was the possible thrill of an ESPN sports like broadcast for the action. Also, if the games people knew Richards was bluffing as soon as he got on the plane, it seemed very stupid to allow Richards to have additional leverage by allowing the plane to take off rather than making their proposal with the plane still on the ground. (I also find it interesting that Rage is a book that has been pulled from distribution due to its controversial subject matter, while Richards final solution, something very reminiscent of certain tragic events from 2001, hasn’t led to the same controversies.)
**End of Spoilers**
King utilizes a countdown device to title the chapters, beginning at 100 and working his way down to zero. Upon finishing the book I’m not sure why this device was used, and even the choices for where to end certain chapters felt random. The book lacks any interesting supporting characters, as nobody sticks around for more than a few pages to assist Richards; even those that do assist him usually do so with little explanation for why they risk themselves. Despite its faults however, The Running Manworks on some levels because it is pure plot and reads at a brisk pace. Out of the 100 chapters, 98 of them are rooted in desperation or action, with only two short dream chapters that felt slightly out of place with the rest. As a quick read it’s fine, but I also understand why it’s not a book that people mention when discussing King’s best work.