Saturday, 14 February 2015

The Most Dangerous Game

It is perhaps a writer’s dream to present an idea that so captures the public imagination that it persists long after they have gone and, as in this case, when the original work has all but been forgotten by the majority of people who came into contact with it. So it is with Richard Connell’s idea of a jaded hunter turning from killing animal to pursuing humans as his new prey.

Connell’s short story ‘The Most Dangerous Game’, also published as ‘The Hounds of Zaroff’ first saw light in Collier’s magazine in January 1924. The story is very simple and perhaps all the more engrossing for that. A famous big game hunter by the name of Rainsford falls from his yacht and swims to a nearby island where he becomes the guest of an émigré Cossack nobleman; General Zaroff. The Russian host was once a hunter like Rainsford, big game hunting was a very popular pastime for the rich in the early 20th century, but now lives in isolation upon his private island. He has, however, concocted a new pastime, hunting the people who have the misfortune to be shipwrecked on his island.

Zaroff makes the mistake of believing that a fellow hunter like Rainsford would be attracted to this idea but is dismayed by the latter’s condemnation. He resolves to hunt the hunter instead. The rules are very simple. The quarry is released with nothing more than a knife and a 3 hour start. If they can evade Zaroff and his hounds until sunrise on the 3rd day then they are free to leave. Of course no one ever has seen that sunrise.

Clearly Richard Connell’s story possesses the necessary traits to capture the imagination of the reader. The hero is capable and morally superior to the villain. Although we might not consider big game hunting as acceptable anymore it was very much a vogue activity for the wealthy in the 1920’s and it should be seen in that context. Zaroff is a foreigner, mysterious and threatening. Two men are pitched against each other in a fight for life in an exotic location. It is an idea that has been revisited many times since 1924.

The original story was expanded to include previous survivors from a shipwreck for the 1932 film version, introducing Robert Armstrong as the play boy Martin Trowbridge and Fay Wray as his wiser sister Eve. Coincidently the pair were also making another film at the same time that would be released the following year; ‘King Kong’. The screenplay, written by James Ashmore Creelman, followed Connell’s story very closely and the introduction of a love interest actually heightens the drama. I recently watched the film and unfortunately it has not survived in a very good state. The soundtrack was degraded but the acting was surprisingly good. There is a fight between Zaroff and Rainsford that looks for all the world as if the directors, Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel, simply told the actors to just go at each other and they certainly did.

At barely an hour long this version was obviously intended to be a ‘B’ feature and it was reasonably successful but the Connells idea was to prove more persistent. RKO returned to it again in 1945 with Robert Wise as the director and produced a more polished version under the name of ‘A Game of Death’. In this outing Zaroff is presented as a Nazi who escaped the end of the fall of the Third Reich.

Trevor Howard, Richard Widmark, and Jane Greer were partnered for United Artists release ‘Run for the Sun’, a reference to Zaroff’s stipulation that if they prey sees the sunrise then they have won the game.
Almost forty years later John Woo used Connell’s idea as the basis for his first Hollywood movie, ‘Hard Target’ starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. The action moves from a tropical island to the jungle of the city, this time New Orleans, and it is the rich who pay to hunt homeless Vietnam war veterans.

Two more film outings have since followed, ‘Surviving the Game’ in 1994 and ‘The Eliminator’ in 2004, and the basic idea of a man being hunted by another as a prey animal has featured in various television shows as disparate in range as ‘Criminal Minds’, ‘Archer’, ‘Gilligan’s Island’ and ‘The Simpsons’. It is clearly a very clever tool for creating tension and excitement within even a larger narrative and often features as the manhunt in various thrillers.

I would not argue that Richard Connell invented the idea of the human hunter hunting human prey, just that he, as a writer, presented it to the public in such a seductive manner that it has remained us in this format ever since and it has remained popular ever since. Connell himself wrote several screenplays, four novels, and was a very popular short story writer but ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ is the one work for which he is most widely known. There are many aspiring and struggling writers today, including myself, I wonder how many of us would like to produce a story that proves to be so influential as that of Richard Connell’s?

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