The Running Man is a ‘Bachman Book’ - one of the 5 novels Stephen King published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman in the late 70’s and early 80’s to see if his work would sell as successfully without his famous name plastered on the cover.
The Running Man is a gritty sci-fi thriller set in a not-too-distant dystopian future where the poor are viewed as pests that need to be disposed of by the heartless authorities. A key feature of King’s fictional future is the ‘Games Company’, which enlists the lower class in life threatening games for money and the entertainment of the rich.
The protagonist - Benjamin Richards - is one of the unlucky poor folk. He has been blacklisted from working due to his leaving a job that was likely to make him sterile, his baby daughter is dying from flu because he cannot afford medicine and the government does not believe in welfare, and his wife has resorted to prostituting herself to make ends meet. Eventually Ben decides to take matters into his own hands and heads down to the Games Company to try and win his family some money; after rigorous mental and physical tests, he is selected to take part in the most dangerous, challenging and formidable event the company have to offer - The Running Man.
The concept of the game The Running Man is this: after being demonised on TV (or FreeVee as it is called) to rally the public against him, the Runner is set loose and after a 12 hour head start he is pursued by skilled Hunters who once they find him won’t hesitate to murder him. He can go absolutely anywhere in the world, but here’s the catch: the public receive a monetary reward if they spot the Runner and report his whereabouts, making it incredibly difficult for the newly made enemy of the state to get very far. Furthermore, the Runner must send two video tapes of himself each day to the Games Company, or they won’t win any money at all, but will still be hunted. If Ben can survive for 30 days he receives 3 million ‘New Dollars’ - King’s less than imaginative name for future money - but so far this has never happened in the entire history of the game so his chances look slim.
This book is very much about class segregation. King paints a vivid picture of the underbelly of this futuristic America, and the dreadful lives that the poor have to suffer at the hands of a greedy and selfish government. This classic theme makes the story relatable, and King executed it very well. Ben is very bitter towards the authorities and he has no qualms with showing it, making for several quite amusing moments when he displays his rebellious feelings.
The Running Man is an intense story, with the Hunters hot on Ben’s tail and the constant fear that at any moment he could be caught and murdered. To enhance this feeling, each short chapter is headed by ‘Minus 100...and Counting’ and so on until it reaches zero, which is an interesting way to split up the story and adds a sense of urgency. However despite the dangerous and exciting premise - and the fact that it is quite short (my copy was some 200 pages) - to my surprise parts of the story were a bit boring and slow. On the other hand the ending was action-packed, gruesome and immensely satisfying; it boosted my opinion of the novel from ‘OK’ to ‘Wow, that was brilliant!’
In conclusion, The Running Man is a great little read that has a powerful message and good writing; ultimately the slow and dull middle is more than redeemed by an explosive, gory, and truly memorable ending.