Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Stephen King: The Running Man (as Richard Bachman) (1982)

It's 2025, and the United States is a dystopian nightmare. Ben Richards, an unemployed member of the permanent underclass, lives in Co-Op City, where the high-rise projects resemble the dull gray turrets of a penitentiary, with his wife, Sheila, and 18-month-old daughter, Cathy. The baby is seriously ill and Ben has decided to apply as a contestant on one of the Network's reality television (Free-Vee) shows to earn money for medicine.

Richards goes through a series of mental and physical tests at the Games Building, along with hundreds and hundreds of other desperate people hoping against all odds (and risking their lives) to hit the jackpot. Richards does well on the tests and is selected to appear the following week on the most popular show, "The Running Man".

Given a 12-hour head start and several thousand dollars, Richards must elude the show's Hunters for 30 days, who are under orders to kill him. He can go anywhere in the United States, but he must mail back two short recordings of himself back to the Network every day. Failure to do this will forfeit his chance at the grand prize of one billion New Dollars (though he will still be hunted down). The submitted tapes (often altered) are used to further whip the studio audience and viewing nation into a frenzy, howling for Richards's blood. (The Network claims the Hunters are not given the packages' postmarks to track the Runner's whereabouts, but Richards is highly skeptical.) In six years, no one has come close to winning.

In addition to the Hunters, millions of viewers are also on the lookout for the Running Man. The show's host engages in a chilling call-and-response with the studio audience as a distorted picture of Richards (showing him more sullen and simian-looking, with a jeering facial expression) is shown:
"What will you do if you see him on your street?"
"And what are we going to do when we find him?"
The Network has stoked a fear of the underclass and a fear of crime; whether that fear is warranted is irrelevant.

The nationwide frenzy of anger and bloodlust is an obvious allusion to the Two Minutes Hate practiced in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.

In George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Emmanuel Goldstein says: "Proletarians, in practice, are not allowed to graduate into the Party. The most gifted among them, who might possibly become nuclei of discontent, are simply marked down by the Thought Police and eliminated."

Richards volunteers for the reality shows because he is unemployed, having been blacklisted because of his alleged anti-social and insubordinate attitudes and statements. One of the heads of the Network says that "The Running Man"'s main functions are "good theater" and "pleasuring the masses and getting rid of dangerous people". The show is a disturbing conflation of entertainment and law enforcement. The show's producer tells Richards that he "symbolize[s] all the fears of this dark and broken time".


Douglas W. Texter, in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Dystopia: The Culture Industry's Neutralization of Stephen King's The Running Man" (Utopian Studies 18.1 (2007)), calls The Running Man "a very Marxist-oriented interrogation of the American superstructure".

Texter outlines the dystopian maneuvers of the novella:
First, almost two decades before programs such as "America's Most Wanted" and "COPS" appeared, King offered a predictive and trenchant critique of reality police television shows. Second, influenced by Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, King both employed and modified the dystopian convention of using a dialogue between the protagonist and a member of the ruling elite to demystify and interrogate structures of power. Third, The Running Man ends with an incredibly ghastly scene: an eviscerated protagonist flying an airliner into a high-rise office complex. In rendering this scene, King . . . rewrote one of the seminal episodes of American literature: the evisceration of the waist gunner Snowden in Joseph Heller's Catch-22. . . .

Although incredibly violent and derivative of Vietnam War coverage, The Running Man is not really about war. Rather, it uses the techniques of war reporting and game shows in service of assuaging the nation's fears about urban crime.

King describes himself in 1971 (when he wrote the book) as "a young man who was angry, energetic, and infatuated with the art and the craft of writing". He has claimed that he wrote The Running Man in either one week or possibly in an intense 72-hour marathon. In the original introduction to The Bachman Books (1985), King said The Running Man might be the best of the four Bachman novels "because it's nothing but story".

There are several similarities between The Running Man and another Bachman book, The Long Walk. King again works his themes of oppressive government, one man fighting against the system, games of chance, and a loathing of the mob and group think.

Richard's poverty and desperation reminded me of King's comments about how, before he sold his first novel, he would hope that writing money from his short stories would arrive in time to pay for one of his children's antibiotics.

Clues to Bachman's identity: descriptions of rats nesting in a basement and a man on a ledge ignoring the drop are possible allusions to two Night Shift stories. Also, Richards asked to be taken to an airport in King's fictional town of Derry, Maine.

A movie based on The Running Man, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, was released in 1987. The class consciousness and desperation of the novel were gutted and so it bears scant resemblance to King's work. Indeed, Texter believes it was "transformed into the very thing it both predicted and criticized".

The first name of King's pseudonym was taken from Richard Stark, a pen name of Donald Westlake. When asked about the dichotomy between himself and Stark, Westlake said: "I write Westlake stories on sunny days. When it rains, I'm Stark." King has quoted that line when talking about his novel, The Dark Half, which he wrote shortly after his Bachman cover was blown. King is far more pessimistic when wearing his Bachman hat, full of caustic black humour and sardonic asides.


The Network's other shows also tend towards death and mutilation. On "Treadmill to Bucks", contestants with weak hearts and lungs are asked a series of questions and each incorrect answer increases the speed of the treadmill. The other shows are self-explanatory: "How Hot Can You Take It?", "Swim The Crocodiles?", and "Run For Your Guns".

(While in college in 1969-70, King wrote a newspaper column called "King's Garbage Truck". His third effort (March 6, 1969) is a list of some possible new game shows, including "The Brutality Game", a battle between 40 policemen and a studio audience of hippies, pacifists, minorities, and college professors, "The Middle-Aged Game", "The Wife-Swapping Game", and "The Burial Game".)

How real is King's fictional show? Remove the 'killed upon capture' aspect and it sounds identical to a show that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were set to cast and produce more than 12 years ago called "The Runner". An advertisement pitched the show thusly:
Alone and on the run, one citizen - the Runner - must carry out a series of secret missions while trying to evade capture. Pursuing the Runner across the country are Agents, who have at their disposal not only the latest technology to track the Runner's every move, but also the greatest resource on the planet - the American public.
Members of the public were encouraged to register online and help catch the Runner. The prize was one million dollars. The project was axed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.


Texter believes that The Running Man parodies or critiques the American educational system as a whole and standardized testing in particular. Richards's tests (Verbal Comprehension, Visual Logic, and Math Diagnostic), like the SATs, open doors for some people and exclude others. Having each successive test on the next higher floor mocks the idea of upward mobility.

Richards scores high on the tests, not because he is properly educated (he dropped out of trades school at sixteen to get married), but mainly because he reads (a suspicious activity in these times). In going over his scores, Dan Killian, the show's producer, Dan Killian, notes:
In short, you are regarded as anti-authoritarian and anti-social. You're a deviant who has been intelligent enough to stay out of prison and serious trouble with the government, and you're not hooked on anything. . . . [W]e - and here I speak in a larger sense than the Game Authority, I speak in the national sense - view these responses with extreme disquiet.
As Texter notes, the high scores mark Richards for extermination:
First, they [the Network executives] want to know that the trouble-making Richards is smart enough to be a threat to national security. Second, they need to determine whether he's cagey enough to survive for at least a few hours and thus produce entertaining television for the masses. ... To survive even briefly and thus provide entertaining coverage, he must be fast and accurate. The more accurate choices he makes, the more captivating his final destruction will probably be.

The horrifying spectre of air pollution and asthma and lung cancer hovers over the book. The five-year old sister of Bradley and Stacey Throckmorton - two young black kids that help hide Richards from the Hunters - is dying of lung cancer. Bradley is an avid reader and has seen government studies that show the air is excessively toxic. He and Richards share a class identification and a simmering rage towards authority. Bradley: "They gave us Free-Vee to keep us off the streets so we can breathe ourselves to death without making any trouble. . . . Sometimes I think that I could blow the whole thing outta the water with ten minutes talk time on the Free-Vee. . . . People's mad. All they need is a reason."

Richards uses his 10-minute films that he sends back to the Network to educate viewers about the deadly quality of the air, but these are censored by the Network, which plays a different voiceover, spewing various slurs against the Hunters and authority in general. Not many people notice that his mouth and the words are not in synch.

Texter: "King argues that true knowledge about social conditions can come only from self-education and social activism." He also notes that The Running Man was written at a time when environmental degradation was becoming a serious concern. King penned the novel nine years after Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962), two years after President Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (which led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency), and one year after the Clean Air Act was passed and the first Earth Day was celebrated.

The Running Man - like all of the Bachman books - is thoroughly entertaining and packed of the same social/political themes and concerns of more "serious" writers. Even after King was awarded the National Book Foundation's medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2003, his reputation as a junk peddler is so solid as to be indestructible. As Texter sums up: "Stephen King wrote something akin to Nineteen Eighty-Four or Catch-22? Not a chance, most critics would say. He only writes horror that sells terrifyingly well."


At the start of this project, I had decided to skip the Dark Tower series, as it seemed like a genre I would neither appreciate nor enjoy. However, King sees his eight Dark Tower books as the centerpiece of his entire writing career, and I have learned that many of his novels have connections to, and elements of, the Dark Tower in them. The argument has been made that all of King's writing comprises one inter-connected universe, and that perhaps King's dozens of novels are better seen as individual chapters in a huge mega-book he has been writing for more than forty years. So. . .

Next: The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger.


johngoldfine said...

I've never been much of a S. King fan, but for nearly half a century the Richard Stark series has been part of my reading life and a writing inspiration.

Zenslinger said...

A movie based on The Running Man, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, was released in 1987. the class consciousness and desperation of the novel were gutted and so it bears scant resemblance to King's work. Indeed, Texter believes it was "transformed into the very thing it both predicted and criticized".

My little story about the Running Man: I had read the book before seeing the movie. I got into a preview screening full of excited people who did a lot of audience participation. Since everyone else was acting out, I stood up and yelled at the audience in the theater that they were "just like them" in their reaction to the film -- pointing at the screen when the studio audience watching Arnie and Yaphet Kotto get chased around were screaming mindlessly. This got a few chuckles, and passed for a cool move at fifteen.