The Stephen King Project – The Running Man (1982)
About the project
I will be reading all of Stephen King’s books in order of publication (with the exception of The Dark Tower series which I will read together, at the end of this adventure) and writing a review of each. I’ll be looking at the recurring themes, the tricks he likes to use, the way he develops character and the way that his craft has evolved in the 44 years since Carrie was first published.
I first read The Running Man sometime in my teens. I had a paperback collection called The Bachman Books and of course, by that point, I knew that they were by Stephen King. I remembered very little about The Running Man, other than a vague memory of Arnie playing Ben Richards in the film and seeming a very odd choice for the Richards in my head.
On rereading, I wonder if this lack of memory is perhaps because of all the Bachman books, this is the one that seems to me to be least like a Stephen King book. Now, that’s not in any way an insult, it’s just that this story is told at breakneck pace and without many of the touches that I’ve come to associate with King – third person omniscient narration, the occasional aside from the narrator, bird’s-eye views of the plot, anecdotes and backstory about each of the characters …. None of these grace the pages of The Running Man.
The structure of the book plays into the pacing with very short chapters, numbered in a countdown format … Minus 101 and counting… dragging us through to what we know from the outset is going to be a brutal ending. Right from the opening scene, when Richards leaves his apartment, we know that he doesn’t expect to make it back.
The book was written in February 1972, before King sold Carrie, while he was still teaching, and the family were living in a trailer. According to an interview with The Guardian, it was written during the February school break, one week that was filled with snow. He raced through writing the book while taking care of the kids when his wife was at work. That explains the speed of the story and the lack of frills.
Ben Richards is an angry man, furious with the corrupt world that he lives in, the oppression of anyone without money, the lives that are wasted for entertainment in the games and with himself, for being unable to provide for his wife and child. He knows the stakes when he leaves to apply for the games and fully expects to pay with his life.
Reading this book in 2019, one cannot help but look around and wonder if King had some vision of the future when he wrote this. Reality TV may not have reached the excesses of the games – yet – but it definitely seems to be heading in that direction. The world of The Running Man is one where the wealthy stand firmly on the necks of the poor, pollution is out of control and people are dying as a result, while a corrupt government sits back and does nothing. Desperation and disenfranchisement are rife but as long as everyone has their Free-Vee to distract them, then nothing needs to change.
I really enjoyed some of the supporting cast of characters in this book, especially Stacey and his older brother Bradley, the first characters that Richards seems to take much notice of, registering their pain and concerns and moving out of his own head a little. However, the characters are not as well developed in this book as is usual for King. But then, as I said, this one is all story, all racing for the end and the inevitable destruction.
With a lighter touch on characterisation and fewer layers than many King books, I find myself with less to say than usual. Like the other Bachman books, this is bleak and infuriating (if for no other reason than its reflection of the world as it is) with a main character who is less sympathetic than many of King’s other protagonists. It is hard reading in some places, especially towards the end, but it is absolutely worth reading.
Next up, its Different Seasons, with one of my very favourite short(er) stories by King: Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. I’m very much looking forward to revisiting it.
Have you read The Running Man? How do you think it compares to other King books?