"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."

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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...

(The entire section contains 4962 words.)

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