The Running Man by Stephen King (b. 1947) was originally published in 1982 as by Richard Bachman. I read the May 2016 Pocket Books edition. I think this is the earliest King novel that I have read. The Gunslinger was published as a collected “fix-up” novel in the same year as The Running Man was released. The contents of The Gunslinger having come from 1978 – 1981, allegedly. So, splitting hairs about the dating here…
I find it difficult to write about such an exceedingly popular author. I think that this is because I want to be very objective and honest, but that since I have literally been “living through” King’s publishing, the familiarity and yet the unfamiliarity feel at odds. What I mean is, the market/media sensation of King releasing a book has always been, at least, in the background. I have always spent time in bookstores! Nowadays I feel there is something similar with certain authors; maybe Brandon Sanderson, maybe John Grisham, maybe Neil Gaiman. You walk past (What? Who walks *past*…) a bookstore and see a display or a banner with the latest of these authors. Or maybe you see an ad in a magazine or newspaper. Or, more contemporary, ads and headlines all over the Internet. It feels like one always is aware of a new Stephen King release, even when a reader (like myself) does not consider oneself a reader/fan of Stephen King. Its a “big deal” because his fans will be excited and, doubtless, the industry will surge with the (even if only momentary) inundation of the market.
I think I could probably read all of King’s work and still not consider myself a Stephen King reader. I know…….. All of that being said, I would like to gently draw your attention to the fact that it is 2022 and I am talking about how I read a book published by a popular bestselling author released in 1982.
I have, however, seen the movie (several times, I suspect) that was very vaguely-based on this novel. In 1987 the movie with the same title was released starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, other actors of note include: Jim Brown, Jesse Ventura, and Yaphet Kotto. If your referent for all of this is the film, though, you should probably just jettison that. This book and that film are really not related and its best to take them as separate entities. I am given to understand a possible adaptation of this novel is in the works (as of 2021), but who knows what will come of that.
This novel is really straight-forward and heavy-handed. It is really fast-paced and the structure of it (one or two page chapters) is designed to make the pressure of the storyline accessible to the reader. 412 pages of sparsely spaced text written in dialogue and quick, easy sentences does not require much from a reader. This is, after all, a dark-tinted thriller novel.
The main character, Benjamin Stuart Richards, is our unfortunate hero. He is not the robust and mighty Arnold Schwarzenegger. Richards is half-starved, overworked, underslept, unhealthy. He represents the utterly downtrodden and miserable of the lower class of society. Unlike the true lowest levels, though, he has some education, is something of a hard-worker, and maintains a sense of morality. He is also the archtype family man who is willing to sacrifice everything for his family. The main aspect of Richards, though, is his anger. He is enraged all the time – presumably because of and directed at “society,” but maybe even just generally as a personality trait. Life/society has perhaps treated him unfairly, which has also given him a chip-on-his-shoulder and a dose of indignant hostility.
T.V. or Free-Vee is both a symptom and a cause of the downfall of society. Its entertainment and industry and brainwashing and its just insidious and awful. Call King up right now and ask if he still holds that opinion – I think several of his fictions (and that of his son) that were adapted are currently running on our “Free-Vees.” Anyway, a desperate family man makes a choice that starts the story and so we enter into the fugitive plotline. Fox and hound, hound and hare, etc. The Fugitive, by the way, is a really good parallel so let me give you some dates on that. The ABC TV series ran 1961 – 1967 and the notable film starring Harrison Ford was released in 1993. The gimmick here is that Ben Richards is a fugitive on Reality TV.
There is a whole chunk of subplot where we discover corruption and societal distortions regarding air pollution. Seriously, in 2022 it is sobering and frustrating to read about. As far as the novel goes, though, this subplot does a little filling out of the very linear storyline. It gives some characters motives and helps out the novel. Overall, though, it feels like everything else: hammer-style storytelling.
I do not want to ruin the story – every action thriller has some similar elements and those are here, too. These sorts of novels are easy to spoil because of it. Nevertheless, we can ask some basic questions like these: did the main character who tends to hate society accomplish much because of that very society he claims to hate? In other words, how much did he rely on others for his successes? How much was luck? How much was his own skillful strategy? And also, was he, like many action heroes, too invincible, too amazing, too adept? Or just right? Should he have wiped out by chapter four and done or is it plausible that the book is over 400 pages?
I am giving this three stars because I like some of the parts of the book because they did not go the way I thought they might – King did not shy away from having to do the likely result. He did not sell-out, as they say. However, there is a rage and anger to the book that seems too forced. Almost as if King wanted to make us really hate Richards and his attitude rather than have us root for the underdog. I would rather have met the character and made up my own mind.
Also, and this is a frequent thought when I read King, his writing can be so vulgar and crass that it can stomp on the storyline. I can hear the argumentation that when reading a post-apocalyptic-ish story like The Gunslinger or reading a dystopia in which societal struggles on every level show up one expects the very worst of humanity. And I do, but somehow King makes it amplified and sometimes that amplification can be very inauthentic and pasted on.
So, here is a book about a fugitive. Its largely a criticism of “entertainment TV” that is based on economic disparity. King does not, whatsoever, hide from divisions and struggles between gender, race, geographic differences. He takes direct aim at air pollution and its effects on different groups in society. All of this is done with a whole lot of rage. I give it three stars as thriller novel qua thriller novel. Plus, there are a few small elements that were nearly prophetic. Unfortunately, dystopias always feel so angry and their resolution is always a disappointment.