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 devotes 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 show[s] 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.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Richard Connell, Published by Gale, 1997.
Rena Korb, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.