The Running Man Novel Essay


maybe someone else would pay some dues before it was all over
The Running Man
Publication Information
  • written as Richard Bachman
  • 1983
  • New American Library
  • 219 Pages
  • A Novel Critique

    In the prefatory essay for the 1985 anthology The Bachman Books, King states that The Running Man may be the best of the four initial Richard Bachman novels: "it's nothing but story," he comments, "and anything which is not story is cheerfully thrown over the side." For the most part, King's assessment proves out: written over a period of seventy-two hours, The Running Man is generally propulsive. Without a pause for anything approaching depth, however, this style works both for and against the novel. King's usual adeptness at characterization is largely absent. While we sympathize with Ben Richards at the book's center, it is hard to identify with him. Though engaging, he remains an enigma. Minor characters are drawn so broadly that they verge on stereotype. These issues threaten to trap The Running Man in an odd, paradoxical stasis. The book's micro-chapters and episodic nature, however, save the momentum - any time King's narrative shorthand threatens to bog the story down, a new section begins to speed things along.

    The Running Man is an anomaly among Stephen King books - even under the Bachman name - as being his only full-length experiment with science fiction. Firestarter and Under the Dome use science fiction elements to tell stories set in the "real world," and while The Tommyknockers and Dreamcatcher deal with extraterrestrial threats, both are essentially horror novels. Even The Long Walk, which The Running Man echoes to a degree, is vague about its genre.

    By its second paragraph, The Running Man has established a specific future year as its setting, and attendant science fiction language adds credence. Ben Richards and his family in the Orwellian Co-Op city, where the quality of life is bleak at best. Food, medicine, and other necessities of life are outrageously expensive, but Free-Vee is available - mandatory, even - in every Development apartment (though it is, for now, acceptable to occasionally turn it off). Game shows with names like Treadmill to Bucks and Dig Your Grave prevail, the most popular being The Running Man. Unable to afford medicine for his sick daughter, Ben Richards tries out for The Running Man and, after a series of tests, is accepted.

    Richards's only goal in The Running Man is survival. The show pits contestants against Hunters whose mission is to find and kill him. Additionally, citizens with information as to contestants' locations are paid, in essence setting Ben Richards against the world. The longer he lives, the more he is paid. If he lives thirty days, he receives one billion dollars. The record for survival is eight days.

    So Ben Richards runs.

    The episodic nature of the novel The Running Man reflects the nature of the show The Running Man: we are voyeurs watching snippets of Ben Richards's journey. The opening paragraphs keep us at an even further distance, as Richards is seen only through his wife's eyes. (Approaching characters through others' viewpoints is a King staple, utilized well in It and The Dead Zone, among others; here, though, it only underscores Ben Richards's role as an interesting cipher.) The sense of speed and urgency are accentuated by the chapter headings; the first reads "Minus 100 / and COUNTING," with the number decreasing over each successive chapter. The countdown device is important to almost all the Bachman novels: the classroom clock in Rage, decreasing numbers of contestants in The Long Walk, dates in Roadwork, pounds in Thinner, and digital time in The Regulators all serve the same function.

    Midway through the novel, Richards stumbles across two young boys named Stacey and Bradley, who wake Richards up to larger societal problems. It is here that The Running Man achieves some deeper allegorical resonance, becoming something of a commentary on classism (again bringing to mind 1984) and ecological concerns, later explored more deeply in King's Under the Dome. The final pages find Ben Richards, shot in the belly, hijacking a plane and flying it into the Games Building, destroying it and killing himself. It is the epitome of a Richard Bachman ending: violent and bloody, with the protagonist destroying himself. Whether Richards's sacrifice has lasting repercussions is unknown, though unlike Charlie Decker and Barton Dawes, Ben Richards chooses to eliminate the cause of his misery instead of just the symptoms. As his plane collides with the Games Building, all the Free-Vees in the vicinity go white.

    The Running Man finds King deftly constructing a credible science fiction environment, which works both literally and as allegory. Aside from his concerns about pollution and classism, King also paints the literate Ben Richards as unusual. In a world dominated by Free-Vee, books are an anomaly; here, then, The Running Man is as much indebted to Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 as 1984. In spite of this pedigree - and King's attempts at imbuing The Running Man with a deeper social conscience - The Running Man suffers. Hasty characterization and caricature work against the book, as do the sheer number of racial and sexual crudities, which distract from the story rather than adding realism. Regardless of its swift pace and a satisfying conclusion, The Running Man is the weakest of the seven Bachman novels.

    THAT WAS THEN…

    I first read The Running Man in the fall of 1985, when the Plume omnibus edition of The Bachman Books was published. I was nineteen years old and laid up with torn ligaments in my ankle, an unfortunate lacrosse injury. I read a lot of books that autumn.

    I remember The Running Man because I tore through it in a single day sitting outside in my parents’ screened-in back porch, a November breeze sighing in the trees that bordered our yard, falling leaves dancing just out of my reach.

    Feeling sorry for myself was something I rarely did, but I remember my mindset that day, and if I wasn’t slipping into a dark hole of self-pity, I was pretty damn close. I was just coming off my sophomore year in college, a year that saw me earn All American status as a lacrosse midfielder and a scholarship to a Top 20 Division One university.

    I had worked hard my first two college seasons to overcome a nagging knee injury, and now my ankle was a mess and I was hobbling around on crutches. It felt like I couldn’t catch a break.

    Of course, I knew better, and it didn’t take long for common sense to make an appearance and kick me in the ass. A lot of things contributed to the quick rebound: my own stubborn nature, the support and encouragement of family and friends and teammates, and books like The Running Man.

    As a lifelong fan of “man hunting man” stories such as “The Most Dangerous Game,” I knew that The Running Man was my kind of book just by glancing at the overly brief jacket copy:

    Welcome to America in 2025 when the best men don’t run for President. They run for their lives…

    Cheesy as hell, but that’s all I needed. 

    Sitting back in my favorite patio chair, bum ankle propped up on a picnic table bench, I flipped to the opening page of The Running Man—and entered another world. A dark and dangerous world set decades in the future.

    The story wastes little time. In a short opening chapter, we meet Ben Richards and his wife, Sheila, and their sick baby, Cathy. We learn about Co-Op City and Development apartments and the Free-Vee. We learn about the game shows; not The Running Man, not yet, although it’s hinted at, but shows like Treadmill to Bucks. We also learn that the Richards’ – and so many others – exist in complete desperation and hopelessness, and that Ben Richards is determined to do something about it.

    By the end of that first chapter, Richards is already out the door and on his way—and so are we as readers.

    It’s been thirty years – my God, that felt strange to write – but I still remember my two immediate reactions to the start of The Running Man:

    Firstly, I loved that the book was broken down into 101 short chapters – long before James Patterson started utilizing this device – and that they were laid out in a countdown format. Talk about a built-in “ticking clock”!

    Secondly, the prose was very different from other Stephen King books I had read and even The Long Walk, the only other Bachman book I’d read at the time. The writing was sparse and straight forward. There were very few stylistic flourishes or lengthy descriptive passages or long asides into character backstory.

    In fact, The Running Man was all story. All forward momentum. Reading it was like riding on the back of a blazing bullet. Once it left the chamber, there was no stopping it and all you could do was hang on for dear life. (All of which made perfect sense when I discovered a short time later that King had written the novel in a single week!)

    I have one other very clear memory of that initial reading, and it involves the deaths of Richards’ wife and daughter. I was blindsided by the development – especially the casual reveal by Dan Killian – and I was pissed. I recall thinking: No way, it’s gotta be a dirty trick.

    And when I read this gruesome passage, I was downright convinced it had to be. No one could be this cruel.

    Then, a final scrapbook picture: a glossy eight-by-ten taken by a bored police photographer who had perhaps been chewing gum. Exhibit C, ladies and gentlemen of the jury. One ripped and sliced small body in a blood-drenched crib. Splatters and runnels on the cheap stucco walls and the broken Mother Goose mobile bought for a dime. A great sticky clot on the secondhand teddy bear with one eye.

    No one could be that cruel, right?

    Ummm, wrong.

    Thanks, Steve. Thanks a lot.

    It would be years before I would forgive him. Well, at least until his next book came out.

    * * *

    THIS IS NOW…

    How can you go wrong with a paperback featuring a glaring Arnold Schwarzenegger wearing some kind of gaudy, skin-tight jumpsuit on the front cover?

    Well, when the book is a movie tie-in edition of The Running Man and you’re reading it for the fourth or fifth time, you can’t.

    I’ve always liked The Running Man quite a bit, despite its sparse prose and unrelentingly grim nature. Or perhaps I’ve always liked it because of its sparse prose and unrelentingly grim nature.

    I’ve even forgiven King for killing off Richards’ wife and daughter. It was the only way the story could have ended the way it did; I know that now.

    The Running Man has always been labeled as Science Fiction, but it’s clearly a pulp adventure novel set in the future. Completed in a week, King described the novel as “a book written by a young man who was angry, energetic, and infatuated with the art and the craft of writing.”

    It’s an honest and accurate description. The Running Man is most definitely an angry and energetic book. It’s also a frighteningly prophetic one.

    Who else was reminded of today’s ever-expanding – and boundary- and good taste-shattering – glut of reality shows when they read about the Games Network? We’re not hunting or killing desperate game show contestants yet, but we’re sure as hell torturing them and subjecting them to moral and physical dilemmas unheard of just a decade ago. And who knows what the next decade or so will give birth to?

    Who else had a flickering thought of our recent Presidential debates or the recent urban riots when listening to Bradley rail against a corrupt government and poor living conditions and a brainwashing media?

    Was there a single reader among us who didn’t immediately flashback to the tragic events of September 11, 2001 when reading the climatic scene at the conclusion of The Running Man? I know I did.

    And how many of us thought about the popular series, The Hunger Games, when we first read about the “Hunters” and the rules of The Running Man game show? I’m pretty sure Suzanne Collins did.

    It’s downright eerie when you stop and think about it. It might have only taken King a week to churn out The Running Man, but it appears he had a crystal ball sitting on his desk right next to his typewriter.

    One final note: I’ll admit that, after numerous re-readings of The Running Man, I’ve found very few new observations to make about the book. It’s just not that kind of layered story.

    So, it was a nifty surprise, that upon my most recent revisiting, I found myself especially captivated by King’s supporting cast of characters—young Stacey and his brother Bradley, the “immensely fat” Elton Parrakis and his backstabbing, scarecrow mother, Virginia, hostage Amelia Williams, and Chief Hunter Evan McCone and Executive Producer Dan Killian.

    This time around, it felt like it was as much their story as it was Ben Richards’—and that’s the beauty of a Stephen King book. It’s like sitting down and visiting with old friends. It’s like coming home again.

    * * *

    SCARIEST SCENE…

    In “…Minus 063 and Counting…” Ben Richards and Bradley sit in the dark in a small back bedroom and talk about the harsh truths of the world they live in—poverty, disease, pollution, government corruption, corporate greed, the Have’s ruthless suppression of the Have Not’s.

    Bradley has the final say in the conversation just before Richards drifts off to sleep, and his words cut right to the dark heart of it:

    “People’s mad,” Bradley said. “They’ve been mad at the honkies for thirty years. All they need is a reason. A reason…one reason…”

    The Running Man was first published over 30 years ago, and sadly most of what Richards and Bradley discuss in this scene still holds true today—especially Bradley’s haunting words.

    “People’s mad. All they need is a reason.”

    That’s my definition of scary, folks.

    FAVORITE SCENE…

    This one appears at the end of “…Minus 001 and Counting…”:

    Killian looked up from his desk and stared into the wall-to-wall window that formed one entire side of the room.

    The twinkling vista of the city, from South City to Crescent, was gone. The entire window was filled with an oncoming Lockheed TriStar jet. Its running lights blinked on and off, and for just a moment, an insane moment of total surprise and horror and disbelief, he could see Richards staring out at him. His face smeared with blood, his black eyes burning like the eyes of a demon.

    Richards was grinning.

    And giving him the finger.

    “—Jesus—” was all Killian had time to get out.

    Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker. Sweet revenge.

    (The scene where Ben crawls out of the manhole covered in dirt and seven-year-old Stacey thinks he’s the Devil runs a close second.)

    FAVORITE LINE…

    My favorite line in the book comes courtesy of that little firecracker, Stacey, talking about his older brother, Bradley:

    “You kill me an he’ll make you shit in your boot an eat it.”

    Maybe not the most sophisticated sentence in the novel, but I dig it a lot.

    SCENE THAT STILL MAKES ME CRINGE…

    The shocking reveal that occurs at the end of “…Minus 014 and Counting…” still breaks my heart:

    Richards tried to speak, could say nothing. The dread was still in him, widening, heightening, thickening.

    “There’s never been a Chief Hunter with a family,” he finally said. “You ought to know why. The possibilities for extortion—”

    “Ben,” Killian said with infinite gentleness, “your wife and daughter are dead. They have been dead for over ten days.”

    A killer scene, folks—and one that caught me completely by surprise.

    CHARACTER I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO…

    I’d love to know what happened to Ben’s hostage, Amelia Williams—and based on this passage from near the end of the novel, I’m not the only one:

    Amelia Williams cried steadily in her seat long after the time when all tears should have gone dry. He wondered indifferently what would become of her. She couldn’t very well be returned to her husband and family in her present state; she simply was not the same lady who had pulled up to a routine stop sign with her mind all full of meals and meetings, clubs and cooking. She had Shown Red. He supposed there would be drugs and therapy, a patient showing off. The Place Where Two Roads Diverged, a pinpointing of the reason why the wrong path had been chosen. A carnival in dark mental browns.

    START DATE – August 4, 2015

    FINISH DATE – August 9, 2015


    The complete list of the books we’ll be reading can be found on the Stephen King Books In Chronological Order For Stephen King Revisited Reading Lists page. To be notified of new posts and updates via email, please sign-up using the box on the right side or the bottom of this site.

    Related

    Richard Bachman, Richard Chizmar, Stephen King, The Running Man

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