The Running Man
Written by: Stephen King (published originally as Richard Bachman)
Synopsis: The Running Man is set within a dystopian future in which the poor are seen more by the government as worrisome rodents than actual human beings. The protagonist of The Running Man, Ben Richards, is quick to realize this as he watches his daughter, Cathy, grow more sick by the day and tread closer and closer to death. Desperate for money to pay Cathy’s medical bills, Ben enlists himself in a true reality style game show where the objective is to merely stay alive.
When the Hunger Games film came out every man and his dog compared it to Battle Royale and The Running Man. Battle Royale I was familar with, but all I knew about The Running Man was that it was one of the books that Stephen King published under his pseudonym and it was supposed to be pretty good. I made a mental note to check the book out sometime, and when I was looking for books to download for China it popped up in my head and I couldn't think of a better book to read on a holiday.
So it turns out Richard Bachman really is Stephen King's grittier alter-ego. Though I found this book a little clumsier than King's regular style, it had a darkness and an anger which I can't really place in another King book that I've had the pleasure of reading. The anger, typically portrayed through the anti-hero Ben Richards as he runs for his life and the lives of his wife and daughter, had a frantic energy that kept the momentum of the book racing forward, building to an impossible height before the final bang at the end. It was faster, harder and more intense than King usually writes, though many of King's stylistic techniques were retained. It makes for an interesting albeit bizarre read, purely to decipher and try to decide whether you would have recognised Bachman as King when it first came out.
Ben Richards also makes for an interesting character. Though he's only 28 years old, he seems much, much older. But I imagine that was sort of the point. In the lower classes in the future you grow up quick. A 7 year old kid he meets while on the run is the same again, if you retain the innocence and naivety of youth you'll never survive. You need to be cynical, headstrong and independent if you want to keep afloat in a world that doesn't care about you anymore. The America of the future is purely a world for the very rich, the poor are only wanted for as long as they can be placated with dope, work in the factories or volunteer for the free-vee games.
Ben doesn't like his lot in life. He hates that his young wife has to turn tricks to keep their baby girl fed, but it seems he doesn't hate it enough to toe the line and follow orders. He despises the free-vee, and the drug-like effect it has on the lower and upper classes alike, yet it's straight to free-vee that he turns when his baby needs medication. Cynicism, anger and pain boil just below his surface, and once his application to the Games begins he can't keep the lid on it anymore, it keeps spilling over and doesn't stop until the book does. It's a venomous and ugly attitude, and it infects the book and, to an extent, the reader. Though you get swept up in the action of the story, the anger and animosity of this story is hard to forget and makes for difficult reading at times.
So the running man... what is it exactly? Like The Hunger Games and Battle Royale, this is a world that enjoys making certain people suffer live on television. However in The Running Man the games are a volunteer program (for cash) and are comprised of countless games, some more harmless than others, though all designed to humiliate and potentially kill all who take part. After a full day of interviews, tests and countless lines, Ben finds himself picked for the Running Man competition - a competition mainly designed to weed out the most angry, anti-authoritarian and dangerous people in society for a hefty reward. Basically you go on the run, and people who spot you can report you for money, kill you for more money, and watch the TV to see the "hunters" track you down and eliminate you in the most TV friendly way possible. For each hour you remain alive, your family receives more money and if you last a certain amount of time you get to return home to your family. That outcome isn't likely though, in fact, thanks to the power of the television studio, you're basically only going to stay alive for as long as they think will get them the best ratings.
Ben goes on a ripper of a spree. Once he realises how dirty the studio plays, doctoring a picture of his wife to make her look like a disgusting drug-addled prostitute for instance, he fights back just as hard. He's ruthless and calculated in his approach, and his creative (and horrifying) tactics make for riveting reading. Along the way he meets a range of different people, some who want to help, others who want nothing to do with him, all who open his eyes to the horrors of the world outside of his own particular bubble. Even for the upper classes it isn't roses and sunshine. While they have it infinitely better, they're also controlled, drugged and kept in the dark.
Because it isn't aimed at young adult readers, this book probes all of the dark nooks and crannies that The Hunger Games simply couldn't. It's a dark (super, super dark), angry, aggressive and captivating book that, though flawed, deserves to be read if you're a fan of the dystopian televised monstrous games trope, or even if you aren't.