Hunting the Most Dangerous Game of All
Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” has become a staple in high school literature textbooks as the prototype for an adventure story. It’s a story that teachers never have trouble getting the students to actually read. It’s got guns, knives, murder, action, and suspense. We’re not talking about the complex, internal musings of Virginia Woolf here – but a mano vs. mano struggle in the jungle.
The story is simple: A world-famous big game hunter Sanger Rainsford falls overboard his ship and ends up on a tropical island owned by General Zaroff. The former Russian general is also a hunter, but has tired off tracking game. Instead he now hunts men – and Rainsford becomes his next target. In the end, Rainsford kills the general and ends up the victor of their match of skills.
The story raises interesting questions about the ethics of hunting and the nature of violence – although it ultimately fails to provide a satisfactory answer to either question. In fact, it’s not clear that Rainsford doesn’t enjoy killing the general at the end of the story (a reader could easily inferred that he found the kill quite satisfying).
The story, published in 1924, was an immediate success and won an O. Henry Memorial Award for best short story. It is by far the best known work from Connell, a journalist and writer who had a successful, yet profoundly mediocre career after “The Most Dangerous Game” (although he did win an Academy Award in 1941 for the screenplay for Meet John Doe). The reason is staring you in the face. While Connell’s most famous short story has a bucketful of action and adventure – it lacks sophistication and many of the plot points now seem tired and cliché. The writing can also seem unnatural and too rehearsed.
Take the opening:
“Off there to the right – somewhere – is a large island,” said Whitney. “It’s rather a mystery—”
“What island is it?” Rainsford asked.
“The old charts call it ‘Ship-Trap Island,’” Whitney replied. “A suggestive name, isn’t it? Sailors have a curious dread of the place. I don’t know why. Some superstition–”
“Can’t see it,” remarked Rainsford, trying to peer through the dank tropical night that was palpable as it pressed its thick warm blackness in upon the yacht.
“You’re good eyes,” said Whitney with a laugh, “and I’ve seen you pick off a moose moving in the brown fall brush at four hundred yards, but even you can’t see four miles or so through a moonless Caribbean night.”
It’s the last sentence that’s most glaring. Who talks like that? The answer, of course, is nobody. Connell simply pushes too much of the plot into Whitney’s dialogue until he begins to sound like a narrator, rather than a flesh-and-blood character. Much of “The Most Dangerous Game” feels like this. As the reader is being sucked into the story – a misplaced word or a strained piece of dialogue – pulls you right out again. It’s frustrating and a flaw in Connell’s skill as a storyteller and writer.
But what Connell does have here – and why “The Most Dangerous Game” continues to delight readers today – is a damn good concept. It’s the hunter who becomes the hunted. It touches a primal nerve somewhere. The impact of the story is broad having spun off dozens, if not hundreds of imitators in pulp fiction, comic books, TV shows, and films. The list includes: Marvel Comic’s Kraven the Hunter who stalked Spiderman for sport; the computer game Manhunter; TV episodes of Charlie’s Angels, The Family Guy, Johnny Quest, Star Trek, and Dr. Who; films like Hard Target, The Running Man, First Blood, and The Man with the Golden Gun.
And sometimes that’s all you need: a good idea. While “The Most Dangerous Game” isn’t high literature – it’s a lot of fun. And even better it’s a story that gets kids reading.