The Running Man
Written as Richard Bachman
New American Library / 1983 / 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.