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 Richards: "Want some coffee?"

Donahue: "No."

Richards: "Sure you do." (breaks Donahue's head open with the coffee maker)

Ben Richards desperately requires money to get medicine for his ill daughter, Cathy. To stop his wife Sheila from continuing to prostitute herself to pay the bills, Richards turns to a state-sponsored television network, which runs several TV game shows that put contestants at risk of severe injury or death. 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 an extensive screening process, Richards is selected for the country's most popular and dangerous game, The Running Man.

After being declared a public enemy on the show, Richards is given $4,800 cash and a pocket video camera and turned loose. His family will win $100 for every hour he stays alive; if he can survive for 30 days, he wins the grand prize of $1 billion. He also gets a 12-hour head start before the network sends out a team of trackers known as "Hunters" to find and kill him. He can travel anywhere in the world, and each day he must videotape two messages and courier them to the TV show. Without these videotaped messages, he loses 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. Viewers can earn cash rewards by calling the network with tips on his whereabouts. To date, there have been no survivors - and the producer frankly states that he never expects there to be any.

The story, written by Stephen King under his Pen Name of "Richard Bachman", is better known for its film version with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Richard Dawson, which turned the story into one of a Blood Sport played by condemned criminals, and Richards' reason for entering the contest changes -- he was framed for a massacre that he was actually trying to stop.

The book provides examples of:

  • Affably Evil: Killian tries to be this, but winds up coming off as a condescending Jerkass instead.
  • Big Bad: Killian.
  • Bittersweet Ending: When Ben Richards with his last ounce of strength flips the aeroplane into autopilot and crashes it into the Games Network skyscraper. Also, the few allies Richards makes in his journey are heavily implied to die, his warnings about the mega corps poisoning the air being the cause of all the cancer spreading among the low class citizens are censored, and his wife and daughter are revealed to be dead since the beginning of the hunt.
  • Bread and Circuses: The Running Man gameshow provides a large amount of money for the contestant's family, attracting men in a desperate situation who would otherwise get political. Also, a large part of the game involves encouraging the populace to report any sightings of the contestant for a monetary award. And obviously, the show keeps the citizens entertained.
  • Crapsack World: Oh so much. A future Dystopia that is slowly dying of both pollution and its own corruption. The government and the Games Network provide the sadistic games shown on the "Free-Vee" in order to keep the rabble content and docile. Anyone who dares stand up is blackballed from any work if they're lucky. If they're unlucky they're forced to take part in the aforementioned Deadly Games or simply hunted down outright.
  • Deadly Game: The eponymous Running Man, along with other wholesome family entertainment such as Treadmill to Bucks, a trivia game where contestants with heart or lung problems must answer questions while running a treadmill and trying to avoid passing out or dying.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Richards. In spades.
  • Dying Moment of Awesome: Ben crashes his plane into the network tower, killing those responsible for the show.
  • Dystopia: Similar to the one seen in The Long Walk.
  • Flipping the Bird: Big time.
  • Healthcare Motivation: Richards's reason for entering the contest.
  • Late Arrival Spoiler: In at least one re-issue edition, King writes a foreword that gives away the ending,
  • Littlest Cancer Patient: Richards's daughter has an illness severe enough to spark her father's Healthcare Motivation and Richards meets a young lower-class black boy with a sister who is dying of lung cancer, due to the air pollution.
  • Twenty Minutes Into the Future
  • What Do You Mean Its Not Symbolic: The book mocks reality television show like Hard Copy that demonize people to make the audience hate them.
  • Word Association Test: Richards gets one of these when he's trying out to get on any game show he can.
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