The Running Man
By Richard Bachman
First printing May 1982
This is one of those cases where the book is very different than the film. The film was made in 1987, five years after the first printing of the novel itself. King disliked the drastic differences so much that he demanded that his name not be used in the marketing of the film at all. This demand was adhered to and we were given what is often touted as one of Arnie’s best movies of that era, alongside with films like Total Recall (1990). However, if you know the true meat of the real story, honestly, he’d be one of the last people that you would cast for this role.
In the novel, Ben Richards is still the main character. But he is a broke man in his late twenties with a wife and an infant child of eighteen months. Times are very hard as the societal setup is very dystopian indeed. The regular people are poor and suffering in ways that one would never want to imagine.
For Ben Richards, he’s going through a particularly rough time. He’s been blacklisted from his own profession, leaving his wife to prostitute herself to try to make ends meet, as he’s unable to find employment. The cost of living is unfairly high and the work and pay are disproportionately unavailable and low to the average man in this idea of 2025. He’s barely able to keep himself together as they scrape by and then their baby girl, Cathy, becomes increasingly ill with the flu. With no money for medication or doctor visits Ben and his wife are forced to watch their baby suffer, unable to provide help or comfort.
The Running Man is a game show on the Games Network. The grand prize is one billion new dollars. There are two kinds of currency, old dollars and new dollars. Old dollars are easier to get but aren’t worth as much as new dollars. It also identifies you as poor when you spend it. Richards decides that with as bad as things are, they can’t really get much worse. He decides to sign up to be a contestant on The Running Man. But the rules are very different than what you might be familiar with.
First of all, the contestant is declared an enemy of the State. He gets a twelve-hour head start before the Hunters, which are skilled assassins (and called Stalkers in the film), are unleashed on him. For every hour that Richards remains alive, avoiding capture or death, he wins one hundred new dollars. He is awarded an additional one hundred new dollars for every Hunter or law enforcement officer he kills while on the run. He is let loose in the city, named Co-Op City, with his twelve-hour head start, $4800 new dollars and a pocket video camera. He is required to send in two video tapes each day of recordings of himself to the Games Network. He can say or do whatever he wants in these messages but if he doesn’t send them in, he’s disqualified.
He gets the one billion new dollars if he can make it an entire thirty days.
But it’s not just the Hunters after him, there is a penalty for being a citizen that helps a Runner and there is an enticing reward for turning him in. Once he signs up and the timer starts, it’s just Ben Richards against the world. An average man running for his life, for money on the hour, just to get out of poverty and get medical treatment for his daughter. And he’ll do whatever it takes.
The way this novel was written is so much more emotional and effective as a novel rather than a movie. While the film was an entertaining movie and I enjoy it very much, when I read this book, I found it was easy to get very emotionally invested in the outcome for Ben. King writes with such expert description the trials and tribulations, the injustices and the crimes, the hardship and suffering endured by Richards and his family, you can’t help but want to take a stand with him and root for him from beginning to end. King creates a classic every man character that is willing to sacrifice anything for his wife and daughter.
The novel still contains the much-enjoyed action and excitement that the film makes you expect, but it is so much better because the novel is incredibly more intense and dramatic. This plot is a genuine underdog story with the main character as the normal average joe trying to be a hero.
The novel is much more psychological, much more intense, darker, more dangerous, realistic violence and realistic characters. This creates a very personal aspect to this story that you don’t get in the movie. This is where the liberties taken by Hollywood not only disappointed Stephen King, but also take away the very essence of what this story is really all about. King wanted to write a story in which the main character was a common man. Not someone who is super athletic and the body builder type like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Ben Richards is supposed to be the kind of character that could be any one of us. Just a regular average citizen struggling to make ends meet and tired of not being able to have access to basic needs like food, water and medical attention. It’s the daily strains of regular life that drive this man to his edge. In the film, even though Ben Richards is presented as the victim and the underdog he definitely doesn’t look like the underdog. However, in the novel, it is plain as day that Ben is no ex-military specialist with unique skills and training allowing him to overtake his few opponents. Instead, he is just a guy that needs money so badly that he is willing to have the whole multi-metro area of Co-Op City on his tail. In the movie, Ben goes through the game with friends. In the novel Richards is on his own from the start. Alone and on the run, trying to avoid death and being hunted down like a vicious rabid dog.
This is a story one could believe could actually happen, with the way this country keeps going, citizens giving up their rights one at a time for the illusion of security and safety. It brings into question how far a parent is willing to go for their child, how far a husband is willing to go for his wife. Now remember, in the novel, this story takes place in 2025. We aren’t quite there with how bad things have gotten. However, in oh, 500 years, if we are still around, life could be like this dystopian tragedy. After years and years of destroying ourselves, lying to each other, hating each other, giving away our rights to the government. We could one day end up in a world where things could be similar to anywhere from Demolition Man to Mad Max to The Running Man.
While in the movie the action is confined to the four quadrants, in the novel the action runs rampant through the city in every direction with every kind of person. Instead of presenting the novel in chapters we have a rather interesting countdown. We start at “Minus 100 and Counting…” and as we go through each scene or “chapter” it counts down to zero. This adds a lot of anticipation. Some chapters are less than a page. Some are several pages long. But, there’s action almost everywhere you turn. Something to make your jaw drop or your mouth utter “No way”, always keeping you on the edge of your seat, eager to turn the page before you have even finished reading it.
In my opinion, although the film is entertaining and a great action flick, The Running Man novel is by far better than the film. This is a novel that is a slightly different side of Stephen King, as he is writing as Richard Bachman, but the essence of King and his style is still very apparent and still makes the novel what I would consider one of his best and most classic pieces of work.