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The Most Dangerous Game

by Richard Edward Connell

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"The Most Dangerous Game": Spare, but Not Simplistic

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Richard Connell's short story "The Most Dangerous Game" is fairly well known to American audiences even if his name is not. Connell began writing professionally in 1919 and continued to do so until his death thirty years later. He was a prolific writer, and his more than 300 short stories appeared in such respected American magazines as the Saturday Evening Post and Colliers, and were translated into foreign languages. He was a commercial success, publishing in a span of 15 years four novels and four short-story collections. The Saturday Review of Literature, commenting on Variety, the collection of stories in which "The Most Dangerous Game" was reprinted, found the stories "easy to read, [with] all displaying facility and versatility."

Several of Connell's early stories were well-received critically—"A Friend of Napoleon" and "The Most Dangerous Game" won the O. Henry Memorial Award for short fiction in 1923 and 1924, respectively. Yet after these first critical successes and despite his ongoing commercial success, Connell never earned much acclaim from his peers. The New York Times said of Connell that "the very tricks which have given him a large and remunerative public have continued to rob him of the critical rewards which come to a man of his talents if he devote them to a shrewder and more critical study of the contemporary scene."

Connell began working as a screenwriter in Hollywood in the 1930s. Soon, he was devoting the great majority of his time to that genre and, after 1937, he published no further novels or story collections. Many of his short stories, however, were made into popular movies; "The Most Dangerous Game" was first filmed in 1932. Both the story's action and its ability to function as escapist entertainment are preserved in the film. These elements of the story in particular explain why it has been adapted many times since that first production.

With only two main characters and a straightforward narrative, "The Most Dangerous Game'' is basically a spare story. This does not mean, however, that is a simplistic one. Connell's careful work turns a plot that could be deemed unrealistic into a story that compels the reader to breathlessly share Rainsford's life-or-death struggle. One of the qualities of the story that makes the reader aware of its deliberate structure is the opening scene, which uses violent imagery in its language while chronicling the violent events happening off in the distance. Rainsford, while safely aboard the yacht, hears an abrupt sound and then three shots of a gun. This is his introduction to General Zaroff's hunt. As he falls from the boat's railing, he again hears the "cry [that] was pinched off short as the blood-warm waters of the Caribbean Sea closed over his head." Rainsford, now steeped in a metaphorical pool of blood, again hears the cry: "an extremity of anguish and terror.'' The sea has become a place of violence, and the island, which represents his only chance for safety, promises more of the same.

When Rainsford reaches land, the narrative turns from the more subtle indications of what awaits him to blatant symbols all readers can recognize from horror books and movies. Rainsford's desire to find safety and civilization is so great that he does not fully comprehend the oddity of the island, including the evidence that a hunter has shot a "fairly large animal ... with a light gun." He doesn't notice what is obvious to the reader: that the island is a place of true Gothic terror. In the "bleak darkness" he comes upon a "palatial chateau" with "pointed towers plunging upwards into the gloom." The mansion is "set on a high bluff and on three sides of it cliffs dived down to where the sea licked greedy lips in the shadows.'' There is a "tall spiked'' gate at the front of the house, and a large door "with a leering gargoyle for a knocker." This is the typical haunted house, with an evil madman lurking inside, as well as dark secrets and a brutish henchman.

Once Rainsford enters General Zaroff's home, the narration becomes subtle again, and it takes Rainsford some time to understand the nature of Zaroff's hunt. The reader, as before, picks up on authorial clues. Zaroff declares that Ivan is "like all his race, a bit of a savage,'' then confirms that both he and Ivan are Cossacks as "his smile shows red lips and pointed teeth." During dinner, Zaroff studies Rainsford, "appraising him narrowly.'' Zaroff is an obvious predator, toying with Rainsford like a cat plays with a mouse before finishing it off. Once Rainsford discovers that Zaroff hunts humans, Zaroff begins exhibiting more predator-like behavior. When Rainsford asks how he gets his victims, Zaroff demonstrates a button that causes lights to flash far out at sea: "They indicate a channel ... where there's none." After the ships crash against the rocks, Zaroff simply collects the men who have washed up on the shore.

Zaroff also demonstrates the predatory trait that will dominate his hunt with Rainsford: his delight in keeping his prey dangling until the moment of the kill. Because of the pleasure this brings him, he allows Rainsford to think he is safe, showing him a comfortable bed to sleep in and giving him silk pajamas. Though his decision to hunt Rainsford seems to be a spontaneous decision—"General Zaroff's face suddenly brightened," and he says "This is really an inspiration"—his mind is clearly set on the idea the night before. He had already told Rainsford how he starts the "game": by suggesting to one of his "pupils"—who he has physically trained for the hunt—that they go hunting. Only moments later he says to Rainsford, "Tomorrow, you'll feel like a new man, I'll wager. Then we'll hunt, eh? I've one rather promising prospect—"

Ironically, Zaroff's belief in his invincibility as a hunter weakens him and causes his defeat. Though Zaroff wants to hunt humans because they have the attributes of an ideal quarry—"courage, cunning, and above all, [the ability] to reason"—he underrates these very abilities. He sees them only as necessary to enhance his fun, not as something that could cause a prey to actually escape him. Three times Zaroff chooses not to kill Rainsford, but save him "for another day's sport," taunting him all the while. This cat-and-mouse method, however, comes at a high price. Each time Rainsford fights back, he causes greater damage: first he injures Zaroff; then he kills one of Zaroff's dogs; and finally, right before he escapes from Zaroff by jumping into the ocean, he kills Ivan.

Zaroff also loses to Rainsford because of their differing perceptions of the rules of the game, and in their differing beliefs as to whether or not the hunt is a game. Zaroff thinks it is; Rainsford doesn't. They both know that Rainsford is playing for his life, but that is the only point on which they agree. Zaroff responds to Rainsford's attempts to trap him as if they were puzzles set out for his amusement. He doesn't recognize that Rainsford is actually trying to kill him and instead delights in identifying the traps—"Not many men know how to make a Malay man-catcher. Luckily for me, I too have hunted in Malacca"—and in seeing which of the men has earned a point—"Again you score,'' he tells Rainsford. Because it is a game, played according to specific rules, Zaroff would expect Rainsford to adhere to the bargain and return to civilization but never speak of the hunt that takes place on the island. He is such "a gentleman and a sportsman" that he can conceive of no other ending should Rainsford not die at Zaroff's own hands. But Zaroff never realizes that the game Rainsford plays is far more serious and has equally high stakes for both of the men involved. Thus Zaroff's words when he finds Rainsford in his bedroom—"You have won the game"—no longer have any clearly defined meaning. Rainsford, who will triumph, instills in the game rules with a whole new significance. He remains a "beast at bay'' until the almost unfathomable occurs: the prey kills the predator.

The Adventure Genre

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As is the case with most authors who make their mark (and livelihood) in the genre of adventure fiction, Richard Connell (1893-1949) deals in easily recognizable stereotypes rather than fully-developed, introspective characters. His primary interest is in crafting fast-paced stories of manly deeds, not [Henry] Jamesian studies of interior life. This being the case, it is not surprising that most of his fiction has disappeared from sight, replaced by more modern treatments of more modern stereotypes. One story, however, "The Most Dangerous Game," has escaped this oblivion. What is it that kept this particular story from disappearing? Despite its apparent weakness in character development and often wooden dialogue, the story has two great strengths, both of which contribute in equal measure to its long-term success. The story is an extremely successful example of the adventure genre, and the stereotypes Connell uses to create the dynamic balance from which its action springs evoke allegories which remain relevant today.

If, as Poe writes in his review of Hawthorne's Twice Told Tales, the principal identifying attribute of the short story is that it may be read in a single sitting, a good example of the form will necessarily provide a study in economy. As a subset of the short story form, the "short adventure story" genre demands even more economy. Not only is there no space for tangents, there is no room for introspective brooding, either. The action is the story, the story the action. Success in this genre depends entirely upon sustaining a level of suspense that makes the always surprising (and yet always eagerly anticipated) outcome gratifying. Taken together, these demands for economy and action insist that a good example of the short adventure story will necessarily have tremendous internal continuity. That is, the story will push toward its final outcome at every level and everything not related to that outcome will be eliminated. With this in mind, one can begin to examine some of the structural devices Connell uses to such great formal success.

If the story is internally consistent, one should expect that even its title would have a strong connection to its outcome. The title of "The Most Dangerous Game" represents a microcosm of the entire story's action. Though this may not be entirely obvious at the outset, a closer look makes the title's apt, formal, elegance clear. "Game" is both something played and something hunted. The most dangerous game (to play) is therefore (to hunt) man.

Read this way, the title is suggestive, but not yet robust enough to support the development of the tight, well-built story Connell crafted. Had he stopped here, Connell would have described Zaroff's island before the arrival of Rainsford. In General Zaroff's world, there exists a hierarchy of dangerous game animals, with the Cape Buffalo at the top. But Zaroff is too good a hunter for this game, and even the Cape Buffalo is overmatched.'' [T]he ideal quarry," Zaroff explains, "... must have courage, cunning, and, above all, it must be able to reason." Once the ability to reason enters the equation, necessitating a turn to man as quarry, Zaroff discovers that all men are not equally endowed with the skills necessary to be—or play—the game. He also discovers that a hierarchy of dangerous game men exists, with Spanish sailors at the base and only ''the occasional tartar'' at the peak. Until the arrival of Sanger Rainsford, this is a static system: Zaroff still has not lost.

This title, however, has still more to yield. The double-entendre suggests that the story will be a parable of the divided self: if man is the most dangerous game, the most dangerous ''game man'' is the one most like the hunter—that is, like the self. The primary opposition between General Zaroff, a refined but amoral Cossack, and Sanger Rainsford, an equally refined but slightly more moral New Yorker, therefore, has less to do with which individual will win the game than with the dramatic possibilities of pitting a younger version of the "great white hunter" against his older self. On the other hand, Zaroff and Rainsford are simultaneously more than opposite sides of the same self, for they represent ideologies in opposition. If the premise behind the title provides the course upon which the contest between younger and older self will be run, their ideological conflict provides the impetus for both to participate in the game.

This final point may be somewhat obscure. Assume that Rainsford was persuaded by Zaroff's arguments to join in the next day's hunt. Rainsford's collaboration would have undermined the story's plot, muddying the waters enormously. In order to arrive at approximately the same outcome— Rainsford deciding "he had never slept on a better bed" after dispatching Zaroff—Connell would have had to craft an interior self of sufficient complexity to allow Rainsford to participate in the hunt,
repent of his participation, and provide retribution. His retribution would still have had the same moral component—otherwise he would be morally indistinguishable from Zaroff—but the fact of his own participation in a manhunt would make Rainsford's moral position shaky. (This scenario is less implausible than it might at first seem. Recall that at the story's end Rainsford is completely untroubled by having hunted and killed Zaroff. However much the reader's desire to see Zaroff punished may vindicate the specific act of killing him, Rainsford has nonetheless played Zaroff's game of "outdoor chess" to the end and is, by all appearances, quite content with the outcome.)

Given the above, one can be certain of several things. First, that Rainsford's internal reversals would both take time in the telling and demand other internal context to be effective, the story would therefore be considerably longer. This change in length and focus would violate the genre restrictions I discussed earlier. The second consequence would be that Rainsford's sleep would not be untroubled. This sounds like a minor point but turns out to be rather significant, indicating out of necessity that the story has become a journey from extroverted innocence to introspective experience. Finally, had Rainsford joined the hunt, the parable of the divided self underpinning Connell's plot would no longer fit. In the adventure genre, though one may struggle with character, character is destiny. The younger self may slay the older self, but only in order to make room for the younger self in the older self's abode. Rainsford's refusal to hunt men is therefore as essential to the plot's denouement (outcome) as is his proven ability as a hunter of animals.

The final structural device to examine, then, before looking at the story's allegorical dimensions,
is the dynamic balance of similarity and difference separating and uniting Zaroff and Rainsford. The reader is provided with little contextual information about Rainsford, beyond that he is on his way to hunt jaguar in Brazil and that both Whitney and Zaroff seem to respect his prowess as a hunter. But Rainsford's skill is evidenced more strongly by Whitney's spoken admiration for Rainsford's almost superhuman marksmanship ("I've seen you pick off a moose moving in the brown fall brush at four hundred yards") and Zaroff's immediate recognition of Rainsford as the author of a treatise ''about hunting snow leopards in Tibet" than by his ingenuity while pursued. Indeed, though he does manage to win at the conclusion, Rainsford's failure to outwit Zaroff in practice forces Rainsford to borrow heavily against this demonstrated experience as a hunter in the eyes of the reader. Similarly, Zaroff's conventional background as a hunter is offstage but his zeal for sport is kept beyond question. (Though the largest, most perfect trophies Rainsford has ever seen hang in the dining hall, the reader never actually enters the trophy room.)

These similarities in interest would not be sufficient to argue for any deep similarity between the men by themselves but, as Connell is at great pains to point out, the similarities do not end here. Not only are Zaroff and Rainsford consummate hunters, they are consummate aesthetes as well. Having stripped off his clothes after falling off the boat, Rainsford has no possessions with which to demonstrate his wealth, but Connell overcomes this minor obstacle by creating in Rainsford a man with no visible means of or need for support, who has no career beyond traveling the world in search of game. Beyond this, Sanger is able to recognize subtle marks of the General's enormous wealth that would escape a poorer man, from being able to identify his borrowed evening suit as "from a London tailor who ordinarily cut and sewed for none below the rank of duke," to recognizing that "the table appointments were of the finest—the linen, the crystal, the silver." The similarities do not end with matters of taste or profession, or even with how well-matched Zaroff and Rainsford are in the field; they extend even to matters of size. It is not coincidental, given that Rainsford will end the story in the deposed General's bed that the General's clothes fit Rainsford well. In the real world, the combined weight of these facts would be written off to coincidence, but there is no room in this genre for the tangential possibilities coincidence implies. One must conclude that Zaroff and Rainsford are, for the purposes of the story, different editions of the same figure.

While their similarities are compelling, it is the degree and kind of Rainsford and Zaroff's differences—differences of both culture and ideology—that drive the story's plot. Given Zaroff's criticism of Rainsford's unwillingness to hunt as "naive and ... mid-Victorian" it is not particularly surprising that one of the ideological oppositions Connell exploits is between Victorianism and Modernism. What is somewhat surprising is that of the two, Zaroff is clearly the Victorian. The description of Zaroff's chateau makes it sound more like a castle—the sort of mid-Victorian monstrosity one would encounter in Gothic fiction, with its high, pointed towers, tall spiked gate, leering gargoyle, and baronial hall suggesting feudal times. And Zaroff's person, with his blood-red lips, Dracula-like teeth, and precise, deliberate accent mirrors his home. Zaroff cites Rainsford's ''experiences in the war—" but, Rainsford cuts him off "—do not make me condone cold-blooded murder." Zaroff here represents the old Europe while "Sanger Rainsford of New York" represents the America of 1924: newly confident in the aftermath of the First World War that it is Europe's equal in might, but not immune to individual suffering. Slightly less stressed, but nonetheless present, is the conflict between American self-reliance and Europe's rigid class systems, or between serfdom and self-reliance. Zaroff's servant Ivan is the incarnation of serfdom: huge, strong, completely obedient, and dumb. By contrast, Rainsford's companion Whitney seems quite clearly to be a hunting partner, an equal.

There is one stereotype heretofore not discussed in this essay beyond an occasional allusion, a stereotype Connell invokes with sufficient originality and force to keep his story read: the ''Great White Hunter." Though the story is set in the Caribbean, this fact seems arbitrary—a plausible stop between New York and somewhere in the Amazon basin. The literary setting—the setting that forms the backdrop from which both the parable of the self divided against itself emerges—is the same Victorian vision of Africa [Joseph] Conrad describes in Heart of Darkness. The air is "like moist black velvet''; the island so "God-forsaken'' that even cannibals would not live there. (Cannibals? On the Caribbean?) Like Marlow, Conrad's protagonist, Whitney's sentences often trail off into silence, saying more by what remains unsaid: "It's rather a mystery—"; "Some superstition—"; "Even Captain Nielsen—." Evil has become "a tangible thing—with wave lengths just as sound and light have." This is not to say Connell is derivative of Conrad—their stories are in entirely different genres—but rather, that Connell invokes a cliched—perhaps stereotypical is a better word—version of Conrad's Victorian vision of Africa. But as soon as Sanger falls overboard, this language gives way to a more robust, more journalistic prose, stylistically nearer to Hemingway than Conrad.

This is a fine point but not a minor one; it holds a key to what may be the story's saving original attribute: the juxtaposition of two historically distinct versions of the "Great White Hunter." Connell describes a contest between the Great White Hunter of his youth—he was born three years after Conrad's journey up the Congo and six years before the publication of Heart of Darkness—and the same figure in 1924. Throughout the story, in prose and image, these two languages mirror the conflict between the respective visions of Africa of the eras they describe. Thus, almost by coincidence, his is a contest setting two dramatically different visions of Africa against each other—the vision behind the scramble for Africa set against the era of great game hunters.

Prior to 1876, Europe's most substantial direct and indirect holdings in sub-Saharan Africa consisted of what became modern South Africa. But between 1876 and 1912, the map of Africa was redrawn. In a series of territorial and diplomatic maneuvers that came to be known as "the scramble for Africa," the territory-hungry countries of Europe (Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain) divided up among themselves the entire African continent, creating arbitrary and artificial boundaries, and leaving only Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and Liberia independent of direct European control. Though the scramble was a barbaric, selfish affair, by the mid-twenties a combination of factors had made a more sentimental, less mercantile view of the era and its conquests possible (e.g., the recent horrors of the European war on one hand and increased settlement and tourism in Africa on the other.) By 1924, the dominant Victorian metaphor for Africa as a place of barbarism and darkness was giving way to the Modern vision of Africa as both a place to test one's manhood and a place of openness and beauty. What this suggests, perhaps, is that an aesthetic of the hunt is at stake, one in which hunters like Denys Finch-Hatton, whom Isak Dinesen (nee Karen Blixen) memorialized in Out of Africa, and Ernest Hemingway provide the prototypes for Rainsford, while Zaroff finds his closest analog in a combination of figures like Conrad's immortal Kurtz and the historical Henry M. Stanley.

Hollywood Plays the Most Dangerous Game

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Richard Connell's story "The Most Dangerous Game," offering a tightly-knit narrative of adventure and melodramatic suspense, would seem a likely vehicle for cinematic adaptation. Of the two main characters, one is ordinary, the other bizarre. The story does not involve much complexity of consciousness; rather, it succeeds as escapist entertainment, and it is therefore well-suited for the Hollywood treatment that was to be made within eight years of its writing. The story was first published in 1924; in 1932 it was produced as a motion picture for RKO by David 0. Selznick and Miriam C. Cooper, directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel from a screenplay prepared by James Ashmore Creelman.

This movie has been much praised for its tight editing and effective camera-work, perhaps with some justification if one considers the hunt and chase that dominates the last thirty minutes. The screenplay makes a few situational changes and invents additional characters, also creating the need for additional dialogue. Like the story, the film begins on board ship, with the characters discussing big-game hunting and a mysterious island off in the distance. The device for getting Rainsford off the ship and on to the island is different, however, since in the story Rainsford loses his balance and falls into the sea, while in the film the yacht is misled by the false channel markers that General Zaroff later mentions in the story. The shipwreck in the movie provides additional excitement during the first ten minutes, the turmoil and confusion of the sinking yacht, the attack by sharks of the survivors, and Rainsford's escape to safety. This is a tolerable extrapolation, awkwardly extended, perhaps, but tolerable. ("Oh, it got me!" says one poor wretch as a shark consumes the submerged portion of his body.)

The changes that mark the next sequences are not so tolerable, however, when Rainsford finds his way to Zaroff's estate. The film was made at the same time King Kong was being shot, the story goes, and attempted to use many of the same actors. Of course, Fay Wray was one of the "stars'' of King Kong, and obviously there is no role for her in Connell's story, so the filmmakers invented one. The invention makes Count Zaroff seem more sinister and more perverse than he might seem in the original story, since apparently the man's sexual appetite can only be aroused after he has satisfied his bloodlust through his murderous hunt—a bizarre aphrodisiac, to say the least. "Only after the kill does man know the true ecstasy of love," the movie character asserts.

The film deliberately elaborates the bizarre and the grotesque, partly, one supposes, in keeping with the movie trends of the times. During the early 1930s Universal Studios began two successful horror cycles—Dracula and Frankenstein —and the Gothic design of "The Most Dangerous Game" seems to imitate Universal trends. Count (not General) Zaroff is played by Leslie Banks, who affects a heavy Slavic accent that calls Count Dracula to mind, as do his evil servants, the mute Cossack Ivan and the Tartar who serves as his manservant. The Count appears to be mad: he clutches his forehead frequently, remembering the wound caused by a dangerous Cape buffalo, his eyes staring insanely as the camera zooms to a close-up, emphasized by the never subtle music of Max Steiner. In the story Connell is at pains to describe the "amenities" of civilization the General preserves at his island hideaway. All the movie can do is to show the Count carefully dressed in his evening suit, sipping champagne and playing a Max Steiner ditty on the grand piano, a piece that sounds like Tchaikovsky copulating musically with Cole Porter, to the advantage of neither.

When the movie Rainsford, played by Joel McCrea, arrives in the Count's drawing room, he is
introduced to two other shipwreck victims, Eve and Martin Trowbridge. Fay Wray is therefore given a brother, a vulgar lush played stupidly for comedy by Robert Armstrong, who makes such a pest of himself that the Count understandably decides to take him hunting before the night is over. The Count says nothing to Rainsford to explain the sport he has "invented," but Eve has been on the island long enough to know that something is amiss. Two other survivors who arrived with her and her brother have since disappeared. She leads Rainsford to the Count's trophy room, where they discover the awful truth about their predicament. The Count then discovers them, and the hunt is on.

It makes dramatic (as well as box-office) sense to involve Fay Wray in the hunt. For one thing, her body becomes the stakes of the game, winner take all if Zaroff is victorious. More important, however, by having the woman with him in the jungle, Rainsford is given a logical excuse for articulating his thoughts. He is therefore able to explain for her benefit (and the audience's) what he intends by the traps he rigs. The difficulty, of course, is that a woman would tend to slow the man down, making his capture all the more easy for the Count.

The film is just over an hour long, and, in my opinion, the expository business that dominates the first half-hour is embarrassingly awkward by today's standards. No one could listen with pleasure to the drunken dialogue that has been written for Eve's brother, and even Joel McCrea as Rainsford is not too interesting a character when he speaks. Being spared bad dialogue, Noble Johnson looks right for the part of mute Ivan, scowling wonderfully. Leslie Banks is certainly well-spoken enough as the Count, but he none the less appears to be a stagey villain, as when his face is lit from below in two clumsy cutaways in the trophy room.

The action of the hunt is effectively filmed and edited, however, and suspense is built through alternating techniques, depending first on a series of crosscutting shots between pursuer and pursued, then, when the dogs are called, a series of low-angle shots of the dogs racing towards and jumping over the camera at ground level, alternating with another pull-back tracking shot of the obsessed Count running toward the camera. Finally, Rainsford and Eve are trapped, cornered. Rainsford kills one hunting dog with his knife and struggles with another until a shot from the Count's rifle drops man and dog into the sea far below, leaving Fay Wray the captive of the sexually aroused Count.

As in the story, Rainsford reappears at the Count's estate after his leap into the sea, but what is suggested by a single line in the story ("On guard, Rainsford...") is expanded in the film to an unforgettably bad fight sequence involving Rainsford, the Count, and two servants, followed by Rainsford's escape with Eve in a motor launch, action worthy of a serial cliff-hanger, and about as artful. The Count, mortally wounded, attempts to shoot an arrow from his Tartar bow at the escaping launch, loses his strength, and falls to his death to the dogs below. This final sequence is unbelievably campy, and yet it is perfectly typical of what might contemptuously be called the Hollywood treatment. In his "complete" guide to TV Movies, Leonard Maltin gives the movie a high, three-star rating, probably because of the much-admired chase sequence. The movie has been ridiculously overrated, but, as an adaptation, I cannot think of a more revealing negative example.

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Critical Overview