In the story, the protagonist Ben Richards, needs money for medicine for his gravely ill daughter. He walks to a TV studio where he can try to qualify for any number of violent TV contests where contestants win money if (or for how long) they manage to survive their appointed task - such as a heart-attack prone person running a treadmill. Richards is selected for the most elite of these games, The Running Man.
To play the game, Richards is deemed an enemy of the state, and then released to the outside world. There, he must evade so-called "hunters" (essentially gladiators) for a month - earning a small amount of money for each day, and a billion dollars should he manage to survive the entire month. The contest has no set arena, so the 'runner' can travel anywhere in the world, if he can arrange anonymous transport. The hunters are aided by members of the public, who receive cash for providing information on the whereabouts of the runner. Additionally, the runner must videotape messages daily, which are mailed to the TV show.
If the runner is caught he or she is killed live on TV. The hero of the book ultimately ends his game by flying a plane into the headquarters of the TV network that operates the game, gaining his revenge on the corporation, but dying in the process.
The story has a similar theme to another of King's books written as Bachman, The Long Walk. While far less violent, some draw parallels between The Running Man and current 'reality-based' shows such as Survivor, Fear Factor and the like.
The book has also been filmed as The Running Man (1987), directed by Paul Michael Glaser. The lead role of Richards is played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The film is significantly different from the novel. In the movie, Richards is a military prisoner who escapes his confines, and is then captured, to be forced onto the game The Running Man. The movie's contest takes place in an arena formed by earthquake destruction, with several 'runners' competing together. The hunters in the movie resemble professional wrestlers, with fancy costumes and nicknames.
Some of the surviving contestants in the movie version ultimately discover and join a force fighting against the evil network, and the movie ends much more upbeat than the book, with the good guys defeating and killing the bad guys. Like many adaptations of King's works, this translation to film was not considered artistically successful by many critics.