The Running Man is a science fiction novel by Stephen King, published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman in 1982 as a paperback original. It was collected in 1985 in the hardcover omnibus The Bachman Books. In 1987, the novel was adapted into a film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. The story is about a man who competes in a deadly game show. According to King's memoir On Writing, this novel was written in a single week.
The protagonist, Ben Richards, needs money to get medicine for his gravely ill daughter Cathy. Not wanting his wife Sheila to continue to prostitute herself to pay the bills, Richards turns to the Games Federation, which runs several violent TV game shows seen on the Network. Contestants win money by surviving challenges such as Treadmill to Bucks, where a person with a heart or respiratory condition runs on a treadmill, or the self-explanatory Swim the Crocodiles. After rigorous testing, both physical and mental, Richards is selected for the most popular game, The Running Man.
Richards will be deemed an enemy of the state and then released with a twelve hour head start before an elite group of "Hunters" set out to kill him. The contestant earns $100 per hour they remain alive, an additional $100 for each law enforcement officer or Hunter he kills, and $1 billion if he should survive for 30 days. The current record is eight days and five hours. The Network pays civilians for confirmed sightings of the fugitive.
The runner is given $4800 cash, a two-day advance on his winnings, before he leaves the studio. He can travel anywhere in the world, and each day he must videotape two messages and courier them to the TV show. Without a videotaped message, he defaults the prize money, but the Hunters will continue their search. Despite the producer's claims to the contrary, as soon as the Network receives a videotaped message, the Hunters immediately know from the postmark the runner's approximate location. When the runner is caught, he is killed live on TV.
Richards eludes the Hunters long enough to break the previous survival record, first traveling through New York to Boston. In Boston, he is tracked down by the Hunters and only manages to escape by setting off a fire in the basement of a YMCA that kills five police officers and escaping through a sewer pipe. Next he hides in the impoverished Boston ghetto, where he learns that the air is polluted on a massive scale, and that the poor live in appalling conditions, with high rates of asthma, emphysema, lung cancer, and bronchitis. The Network serves as a propaganda machine to keep them docile so they will not revolt against the government.
Richards' next destination is Manchester, New Hampshire, where he disguises himself as an elderly, half-blind priest. Richards manages to evade detection from the Hunters by having his tapes sent through a remailing service. After terrifying nightmares, Richards goes to a safehouse in Portland, Maine. When police close in, Richards is wounded, and hides in a partially finished shopping center.
The next morning, Richards realizes that he only has until noon to mail his tapes directly to the Network; there is no time to use the remailing service. Commandeering a car, Richards takes a hostage and makes his way to an airport. Richards holds a lengthy standoff at the airport, and manages to bluff his way past the Hunters' leader and onto a plane.
Dan Killian, the show's producer, offers to let Richards take over as lead Hunter and informs him that his wife and daughter were brutally murdered ten days earlier, even before Richards first appeared on the show. Richards overpowers the flight crew but is shot, suffering a mortal wound. With his last strength, he overrides the plane's autopilot and sets the plane to fly right into the Games Building, home of the Network and "The Running Man". The last thing Killian sees is Richards in the cockpit giving him the finger as the plane slams into the building.