Book Review

The Running Man by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman)


Rating: ★★★☆☆

I grew up watching (somewhat age inappropriate) Arnold Schwarzenegger films – films such as Commando, Predator and The Running Man.  As such, I was keen to see how the film of The Running Man compared to the novel by Richard Bachman, a pseudonym used by Stephen King.

Set at some point in the near future, Ben Richards is out of work and down on his luck.  He and his wife struggle to scrape by, their circumstances made worse by their baby girl, who is ill and desperately needs medicine and a doctor.

Television broadcasting is dominated by Network Games, who produce a variety of game / reality TV shows which offer contestants (most of whom are desperate for cash) the opportunity to win money in strange and dangerous ways, if they can survive the ordeal.

Seeing no other option, Richards puts himself forward as a contestant.  Following a series of rigorous physical and mental testing, he is assigned to the gameshow The Running Man – the network’s biggest show which commands the prime time spot.  Contestants on The Running Man have to evade capture by the Hunters for as long as possible.  The longer they survive, the more money they earn.  If they die, the money goes to their family.  Given a twelve-hour head start, they have to run for 30 days, at which point, they win.  If captured, they are killed.  The record survival time is 8 days.  Can Richards survive this seemingly impossible feat?

I found the novel to be very different to the film.  Some character names are the same, and both feature dysfunctional societies, but that’s where the similarities end.  Whilst the film saw Arnie and friends running through a space that seemed specifically designed for the show, the novel has no such playground.  Here, contestants can run anywhere – the whole country and beyond (if they can escape without being spotted) is their oyster.  Not only does Richards have to avoid the Hunters, he also has to avoid citizens, who are rewarded for any sighting of Richards that will let the Hunters know where he is.  This is a true cat and mouse game, and the odds are stacked very much in favour of the cat in this scenario.

The society that Bachman has created is probably my favourite aspect of the novel.  In this near future dystopia, pollution has built up to such levels that the lower classes, who can’t afford air filters and similar devices, are often made ill by the very air they breathe.  Society is becoming increasingly violent, something that the game shows seem to be actively encouraging.  I found it to be an all too plausible totalitarian state, where the economy is a shambles and the government has no qualms about covering up their mistakes and lying to the general population.

First published in 1982, this novel precedes the current vogue for reality TV by a good few years.  Whilst we don’t have anything so brutal, nor are we quite so addicted to such shows, the novel is eerily prescient in showing how popular such shows might be.  Let’s hope that’s all it predicted correctly.

The Running Man in a quick, entertaining read, and can be read whether you seen the film or not (and irrespective of whether you enjoyed it or not), given how different it is.

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