Say Your Name Over Two Hundred Times and Discover You Are No One

(The Running Man)

The movies based on the books aren’t a big part of this blog currently, because I’m trying to re-read the books, that’s what I’m concerned with, and in so many cases, the movies based on King’s book’s are practically different entities. So I’m mentioning them when I remember anything about them, but I’m not actually rewatching. I have a vague idea that if I manage to continue the re-read until whatever the end is by that time, and I continue to blog it that whole way, once I run out of books I might take a tour through the movies in the same order.

For this one, though, I wanted to mention the movie upfront, because while I don’t recall every detail, it’s stuck in my mind. It’s stuck because I heavily dislike it, but I’m going to be as fair as I can be here without watching to re-evaluate it.

It’s my experience that many more people are familiar with the movie The Running Man than are familiar with the book The Running Man. It’s understandable — this wouldn’t have been one of King’s big novels anyhow, and it was originally published under the Richard Bachman name. A lot of people don’t realize it’s even a King story, they think of it as an Arnold Schwarzenegger film. That’s another reason I feel the need to bring it up upfront.

It may be fair to think of the movie as an Arnold property, since it’s nothing like the story that King wrote. You just have think of the book and movie as totally different properties that happen to share titles and character names. If you’re only familiar with the movie, you need to read the book, because it is largely a completely different story. This kind of thing makes me wonder if this is one of the reasons why King came up with his different levels of the tower. So many of his stories get changed fundamentally — and sometimes butchered — in the process of adaptation — thinking of them as alternate-universe versions of his stories may be soothing for his mental health. And it’s accurate enough — books, film, and TV are all very different “universes” when it comes to storytelling.

I do actually want to watch The Running Man again. I’ve seen it and I HATED it, at the time, but upon reflection, I think I may have hated it so much because I wanted to see a movie based on the book I read, and the Arnold movie isn’t that. Seen without that expectation, maybe it’s OK? I don’t know. I just remember an overwhelming hatred for both the fundamental and significant changes and the fact that I felt they made something serious into something silly.

The book, on the other hand…

The Running Man, like the other stories in The Bachman Books, definitely still fits into that Angry White Man category of books that Rage and Roadwork belong to. It’s also a dystopia, like The Long Walk. In terms of quality, I’d put it much closer to The Long Walk than to Rage and Roadwork. I was prepared to be disappointed — I liked Rage and Roadwork much less on this re-read than I had previously. But I think if anything, I liked The Running Man more.

Ben Richards is our protagonist and resident Angry White Guy in The Running Man. He’s got reasons to be angry — he’s living in a dystopia. He can’t find work. His wife, Shelia, brings in what she can as far as grocery money by prostituting herself, which we’re informed is a big emotional drain on Ben’s pride, and pride is important to Angry White Guys, so that’s a big deal. But even if there weren’t a pride issue, there’s a survival issue happening here. Shelia is a housewife who streetwalks when she’s desperate. She’s not making much — it’s milk money. Ben and Shelia have a baby, Cathy, and as we open the story, Cathy is sick. She has the flu. Which, in the Kingverse, can be a scary thing — the superflu pandemic decimated the entire world’s population. And for that matter, here in August of 2021, any respiratory illness sounds scary. So that’s a big motivation for Ben to do something.

Here we get a little worldbuilding. It’s the future. It’s still the future, since King set it in 2025, but it was published in 82, and probably written before that, so it was well in the future then. I guess we could still be in a dystopia when 2025 arrives in four years — I wouldn’t rule it out — but it’s probably not going to look quite like King imagines here. Some of it might, though.

The government and The Network are either closely affiliated or the same thing. Either way, your life is being run by TV. Which is Free-Vee here — called so because apparently they’re installed in your home for free, as a matter of course. It’s still legal to turn it off (which reveals that it was nearly made illegal to turn it off) and reminds me a little of the monitors in Orwell’s 1984. In The Running Man, reading books is looked upon with suspicion (as a lifelong bookworm, that surprises me not at all — I think this has been true for my entire lifetime, at least, albeit to a lower level than depicted here) and also, you don’t get a library card unless someone in your household can show proof of making $5000 a year or more. Which sounds like a pitifully low amount, but it must be a lot, since Ben mentions his household didn’t even see $200 the previous year, and he’s not even the most desperately poor person we meet. I don’t think King got the inflation right. Of course, the economy is different too — there are NewBucks and oldbucks, and what you get and where you can spend them seems to vary, but NewBucks seem like the preferable currency.

Anyway, on the Free-Vee, one of the main things people watch are reality/game shows. People with heart problems run on a treadmill while answering questions for a few bucks or until they drop dead on Treadmill for Bucks, which is one of the main examples we get before Ben gets accepted for a show. Ben likes to read and doesn’t like these shows, but he’s eligible to sign up for them, and since he’s essentially been blackballed from other paying work (for antisocial behaviors and defiance to authority) he’s going to do that because his daughter needs medicine.

Ben goes to the place where the Network holds games tryouts and is given physical, mental, and psychological tests, which he passes. We already get the idea that Ben is significantly smarter than the government/Network appreciates, and that he’s smarter than most poor people are assumed to be. He’s apparently also a good physical specimen. And he remains defiant and antisocial, which works in his favor here — the audience, which is everybody, but seems to be geared toward the tastes of the middle class — will enjoy seeing him get the stuffing beat out of him by the authorities that they defer to. Kind of like Cops. So he gets picked for one of the big money shows. Treadmill to Bucks is equivalent to a daytime game show where you maybe go home with a couple of hundred dollars if you’re wildly successful. More likely, you’ll get a lifetime supply of Rice-a-Roni or something. But Ben is picked for The Running Man, where he will be deemed a criminal, given a 12-hour head start, and spend the remainder of his time on the show on the run from the law, the Network’s Hunters, and any private citizen who wants to report him or take a shot at him themselves. He gets $100 for every hour he stays free, an extra $100 for every officer of the law he kills, and a billion NewBucks if he stays free for 30 days. It kind of sounds like the thing in The Long Walk where even the winner doesn’t actually win, but probably just gets shot in private. However, the Network employee he talks to is pretty clear with him that no one has ever won and they don’t expect anyone to ever win.

As Ben starts on his run into exile, he’s also given some advice — stick to his people. Meaning the poor folks in slums and government housing. Which Ben does, at least for the bulk of the time he’s on the run. There’s real “If there is hope, it lies in the Proles,” energy in this story (more Orwell). I’ve already recapped much too much, so I’ll try to spare you the details of Ben’s run, though I will note that it involves a side trip into understanding the seriousness of pollution and its effects. Also, Ben is supposed to send two video clips of himself to the network per day. By postal mail. I had to laugh at him receiving the tape machine that weighed about 6 pounds — can you imagine being handed something like that instead of just using your phone? And not just sending the video via messenger or email or uploading it to the Games website yourself? It’s too funny — I assume King’s ideas here seemed futuristic to him at the time, but in real life 2021, they seem far too archaic for this world.

Anyway, toward the end of the story, after Ben’s cover is completely blown, he takes a middle class woman hostage. He at least temporarily converts her to his way of seeing the world by showing her that the law officers won’t hesitate to shoot her, a hostage (and a middle class white woman hostage at that) if there are no cameras around recording it. She presumably survives their encounter, and it’s unclear whether she’ll repress this information and go back to her life, or become some kind of radical. After hijacking a plane and leaving the ground, he’s contacted via the plane’s Free-Vee by the Network. They call his bluff — they know he doesn’t really have explosives, or alarms would have been set off on the plane. But he’s beaten the record for how long a Running Man has managed to stay at large and done so cleverly (and garnered big ratings besides) so they want to offer him a job instead of just offing him. They’ll make him a Hunter. A chief Hunter, even. (The current chief Hunter is onboard and not thrilled about this, but they don’t care.) When he brings up his wife and daughter, he’s informed that they’re dead, and have been for days. Supposedly the Network didn’t do it. I think we’re supposed to believe that, but I’m suspicious anyway.

After some grappling, Ben agrees. It’s the only thing he really can do at this point — he’s finally left his people and is surrounded instead by their people. He can agree or die. However, as it turns out, he does both. He agrees to get them to back off and lower their guard. Then, as the plane gets closer to its destination, he knocks out one guy with a coffeepot, takes his gun, and shoots everyone else except for his hostage, who he orders to strap into a parachute. She drops from the plane, and if she pulls the ripcord and lives, she’ll be the only survivor here. Ben took everyone else out, but managed to get himself gutshot in the process. Not that it matters, because he’s not planning on making it anyhow. He just makes it close enough to the Games tower to aim the plane into it. Which, if you lived through 9-11 and watched those planes hit the Twin Towers over and over again, is just so unsettling to read. This was written long before that, but still.

The Running Man isn’t really linked to the wider multiverse, though the fear of flu evidenced in the book makes me wonder a bit. But I feel like it has a bit more of a Stephen King feeling to it than the other Bachman Books I’ve gone through so far. It’s still definitely in the Bachman vein, but Ben Richards seems like a very Kingian hero to me. Nominally, I don’t think he’s supposed to be “good” enough to be a Stephen King hero, but in actual practice, Ben Richards comes off as a basically good man. It’s also very Orwellian, almost as if King read 1984 right before writing it. Not that I’m saying it’s copied or anything, it’s very much its own story. But the world and many characters are clearly influenced by Orwell, and I think they’re stronger for it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s