In 1924, Richard Connell published The Most Dangerous Game, which begins with Sanger Rainsford on board a ship in the Caribbean, heading for South America, where he intends to bag a jaguar. He regards hunting as the “best sport in the world.”
His companion, Whitney, qualifies the statement, saying it is great sport for the hunter; for the jaguar, not so much.
“Don’t talk rot, Whitney,” said Rainsford. “You’re a big-game hunter, not a philosopher. Who cares how a jaguar feels?”
“Perhaps the jaguar does,” observed Whitney.
“Bah! They’ve no understanding.”
“Even so, I rather think they understand one thing—fear. The fear of pain and the fear of death.”
“Nonsense,” laughed Rainsford. “This hot weather is making you soft, Whitney. Be a realist. The world is made up of two classes—the hunters and the huntees. Luckily, you and I are hunters.”
Rainsford falls off the yacht he was on and has to swim to the nearby island, the one that the sailors were afraid of for some reason. He makes it to an enormous structure. Inside, the owner of the place is a General Zaroff. He used to be a military man from an aristocratic family, a Cossack. He explains: “After the debacle in Russia I left the country, for it was imprudent for an officer of the Czar to stay there. Many noble Russians lost everything. I, luckily, had invested heavily in American securities, so I shall never have to open a tearoom in Monte Carlo or drive a taxi in Paris.”
Like Rainsford, Zaroff has an attitude about hunters and the hunted, as something that was meant to be, saying, “God makes some men poets. Some He makes kings, some beggars. Me He made a hunter.” However, he found he had grown bored with just killing animals. “No animal had a chance with me any more…. The animal had nothing but his legs and his instinct. Instinct is no match for reason.”
Zaroff continues, saying he needed a new animal to hunt. “I wanted the ideal animal to hunt…. So I said, ‘What are the attributes of an ideal quarry?’ And the answer was, of course, ‘It must have courage, cunning, and, above all, it must be able to reason.’” Such an animal would be the most dangerous game of all. This idea occurred to him while suffering from a splitting headache, probably the result of the fractured skull he received when he was hit by a Cape buffalo, so there is the suggestion that his madness was brought on by that.
When Rainsford finally realizes that Zaroff is talking about man, he is appalled. At first, it seems that Zaroff is hoping his new companion will join him in the hunt, for he has a bunch of men from a ship that crashed into some rocks and sank, owing to some deceptive lights that lure ships to their doom. But when Rainsford refuses, calling it murder, Zaroff sends him off to his room to sleep, while he proceeds to hunt one of the sailors in the basement.
The next morning, Zaroff tells Rainsford that the man he hunted, a big, strong, black man, who looked resourceful, was nevertheless too easy a prey. Zaroff expressed his fear that even here he was becoming bored. But then an idea occurs to him. If Rainsford refuses to join him as a hunter, he can join him as the hunted. Being a man experienced in big game hunting, he will indeed be the most dangerous of the most dangerous game.
And so, the hunt begins. The rest of the story is of thrust and parry, of the wits of Rainsford versus the cunning of Zaroff. In the end, Rainsford outsmarts the general and kills him.
There have been many adaptations of this short story. I even saw an episode of Get Smart based on it, “Island of the Darned.” Before considering them, let us isolate four features of this story, which will be a guide to determining how closely an adaptation is to the original.
First: The essential feature of this story is that of one person hunting another.
Second: A second feature is the theme of the hunter who becomes the hunted. The man being hunted is a big game hunter, who therefore knows his woodcraft and knows what hunters look for in pursuing their game.
Third: A third feature concerns the motive of the man doing the hunting, a man who has become bored with hunting animals. He can get a thrill only by hunting the most dangerous game, which is man.
Fourth: Finally, the hunter who has become the hunted is arrogant at the beginning of the story. He regards his role as a hunter as just the way things are. And he lacks empathy. It doesn’t bother him to kill animals just for sport. The animal’s life means nothing to him, nor does he concern himself with the any pain and suffering experienced by the animal.
In the 1932 movie based on this short story, all four elements are preserved. Rainsford (Joel McRea) expresses similar sentiments to that of his character in the short story, except that he suggests that the animal enjoys the hunt as much as the man, referring specifically to a tiger he recently killed. When asked if he really thinks he would have enjoyed the hunt as much if he had been the tiger, Rainsford hedges, suggesting it is an idle hypothetical: “This world’s divided into two kinds of people, the hunter and the hunted. Luckily, I’m a hunter. Nothing can ever change that.”
However, he is just a touch less arrogant than in the short story. The Rainsford of the latter is completely contemptuous of his friend’s apprehension regarding the waters they are in, and he dismisses the nervous sailors as just superstitious. In the movie, Rainsford suggests they play it safe and go the long way around, but the owner of the yacht insists they proceed through the channel indicated by the lights. As a result, the yacht smashes into the rocks and sinks. Only Rainsford survives. Still, the Rainsford of the movie satisfies the fourth feature of arrogance and lack of empathy.
There is, however, a variation on the first feature, which is Rainsford has a female companion who is hunted along with him, a woman who is from another ship that sank. She is played by Fay Wray. Her clothes manage to become torn as she and Rainsford run through the jungle, exposing some of her beautiful flesh, much in the way she would lose some of her clothing in another jungle movie she would star in the following year. In fact, in some scenes it appears to be the same jungle. And she becomes the spoils of the hunt, as it were, because Zaroff (Leslie Banks) says that love is best after the kill. In the short story, the knocker on the door is merely a gargoyle, but in the movie, the knocker, as well as a painting on the wall inside, is that of a centaur with an arrow sticking out of his chest as he carries a woman, an allusion to the myth in which Heracles kills a centaur on account of the woman he is carrying away. The centaur perfectly represents the idea of a man being hunted as an animal, and the woman he is carrying as the prize.
A Game of Death (1945) sticks fairly close to the 1932 version. Here too, Rainsford suggests playing it safe and going the long way around, but in this case, the owner of the yacht ends up agreeing with him. However, the change of course occurs too late. Still, Rainsford expresses the same attitude about the animals he hunts as in the original story. Zaroff, the Russian, has been replaced by Erich Krieger, a Nazi. There are other variations from the 1932 version, which render it inferior to the original, but all four features are still present.
Run for the Sun (1956) is said to be a remake of A Game of Death, but that’s only because Russians have been replaced by Nazis in those two movies. In fact, whereas as A Game of Death mostly follows The Most Dangerous Game, Run for the Sun varies significantly from either of those two movies. The feature of the protagonist being a hunter is present, but somewhat understated. Richard Widmark plays a novelist who has lost his ability to write because his wife left him. He has become a recluse, making a living mostly by fishing. There is some reference to his having at one time been a big game hunter, but just in passing. I saw the movie when I was a child and saw it again some years later, in both cases before I had read the short story or seen the 1932 movie based on it. When I did finally become aware of the original story, I thought to myself, “It’s too bad they didn’t use the theme of the hunter becoming the hunted in Run for the Sun.” When I saw it again recently for a third time, I was surprised to find out that Widmark had been a hunter in that movie, so little emphasis is given to that aspect of his personality. In any event, he does not come across as arrogant about his superiority to animals or express contempt for what the animal feels.
Widmark’s plane gets off course and runs out of gas, forcing him to land in the jungle near the house of two men, Trevor Howard, who is British, and Peter van Eyck, a German who claims to be an archaeologist. The library in their house has no books on archaeology, but there is one by Nietzsche, so you know what that means. Sure enough, Howard turns out to be have been a traitor during World War II, and van Eyck is a Nazi. They have been hiding out in the wilderness until they feel safe to return to civilization, for they fear being prosecuted for war crimes. While they are both hunters, the reason Howard and van Eyck end up hunting Widmark is to keep their secret safe from the world, merely self-interest. So, in this movie, we have only the first two features of the original story. Widmark is not hunted for the sport of it, and he is not arrogant or lacking in empathy.
Jane Greer is Widmark’s companion and love interest in Run for the Sun. The women in these adaptations are not helpless females, whose sole function is simply to be rescued, but rather are intelligent and resourceful. They make the story more interesting, more engaging.
In Surviving the Game (1994), there is not even a shred of the Rainsford character in the one played by Ice-T. Instead of a hunter getting a little karma, finding out what it feels like be hunted, we have the ultimate sad sack. He lost his family in an apartment fire and ended up homeless. His only friend and his dog both die, and he is on the verge of committing suicide. So, when we find out he is to be hunted like an animal, it just seems to be so much piling on. Oh, sure, he uses his street smarts instead of any knowledge of woodcraft to outwit them all, and I suppose that he has been given a new lease on life. But the second and fourth features are both missing. The third feature, that of the most-dangerous-game theme, is present, for he is hunted by wealthy men of various sorts for the pleasure of the kill. There are no women of any significance in Surviving the Game, which is just one more mark against it.
In some movies, women are more than just a companion for the man being hunted, but rather play the role of either the hunter or the hunted. In Hounds of Zaroff (2016), there is a male Zaroff, but a woman plays the Rainsford character. More than one woman is hunted in The Woman Hunt (1972). It is a woman who does the hunting in Confessions of a Psycho Cat (1968). As another variation, the hunt sometimes takes place in the city rather than in a jungle or the woods, as in the last one just mentioned and in Hard Target (1993).
And then there are the movies that are so good that they stand on their own, apart from any connection they might have to the original story by Richard Connell: The Naked Prey (1965), Deliverance (1972), and Southern Comfort (1981).
Interestingly, the fourth feature, in which the one being hunted is someone who is arrogant and lacks empathy, is least likely to be present in a remake. Perhaps we today would find such a protagonist too unlikeable for our taste, but I think it is exactly this feature that perfectly anticipates the attitude of Zaroff, who has taken Rainsford’s view of things to the next step, feeling superior to other men and having no sympathy for their suffering when he hunts them.
For example, in Never Leave Alive (2017), an announcer on the radio says that Rainsford is trying to turn over a new leaf after all the trouble he has been in on account of being an alcoholic. To that end, he has started a wildlife preservation campaign. He is referred to as altruistic, as being a philanthropist. When he kills a deer, he donates the venison to charity.
There is a television series entitled Most Dangerous Game (2020). It seems to involve some new kind of broadcasting technology that made me tired just reading about it. It appears to be in the same category as Surviving the Game, in which the protagonist is not a hunter, let alone an arrogant one lacking in empathy. Rather, he is pitiful, having just been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. He has only a few weeks to live and must worry about supporting his pregnant wife and future child. So, he agrees to be hunted through the city, and the longer he stays alive, the more money that is put in his account. I haven’t been able to see it. I’m almost glad.
Finally, we come to The Hunt (2020). It is hard to believe this movie’s release was delayed on account of some shootings that took place in 2019, or that it inspired serious political criticism. Filled with Grand Guignol humor, this over-the-top satire doesn’t take itself seriously, so why should anyone else?
In this story, a bunch of liberal elites in prominent positions get on a roll one day, texting each other about how they are looking forward to the Hunt at The Manor, where they will slaughter a bunch of deplorables, alluding to Hillary Clinton’s phrase, “basket of deplorables,” which she used to denigrate those Trump voters that have views that are “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic.” Athena (Hilary Swank) later explains that she used the word “deplorable” in texting as a polite term for “fucking rednecks,” “gun-clutching homophobes,” “academically challenged racists,” and “tooth-deprived bigots.” It was all a joke, but it leaked and was posted on the internet, fomenting a conspiracy theory known as Manorgate.
As a result, the liberal elites that participated in the thread of text messages all lost their jobs. To get even, they decide they will turn their joke into a reality and hunt down all those responsible for pushing that conspiracy theory, after abducting them and taking them to a place in Croatia made to look like Arkansas, where the Manor is supposedly located. It is left to our imagination as to how they landed that plane in Croatia, removed all those drugged deplorables, and transported them to the countryside, without the government of Croatia knowing about it, a government depicted in the movie as being especially concerned to keep refugees from entering the country.
As the liberal elites prepare for the Hunt, trying to decide who their victims will be, one of those to be hunted is seen in a photograph posing over a rhinoceros he just bagged, and he is selected. He gets wiped out by stepping on a landmine before he gets a chance to expound on any philosophy about the hunter and the hunted, but I suppose the smirk on his face as he poses over the rhino allows us to infer he is arrogant and lacking in empathy for the animals he hunts. Still, his role is so small that this hardly qualifies as satisfying the fourth feature.
The principal hunter, Athena, and Crystal (Betty Gilpin), the only one of the hunted to survive, are both women. And Crystal turns out to have been a victim of mistaken identity, having nothing to do with the internet conspiracy theory. Neither of them has hunted animals, as far as we can tell, but they both seem to have had a lot of martial arts training.
Athena had nicknamed Crystal “Snowball,” an allusion to one of the pigs in Animal Farm, and she is surprised when Crystal gets the reference, though Crystal doesn’t understand what she has to do with that character, suggesting Athena is more like Snowball. Other deplorables are also named after characters in that novel. The farm in that story ends up being called “The Manor Farm,” and there is a pet pig the liberal elites have brought along named “Orwell.” Perhaps the idea is that in Animal Farm, those that claim to be acting for the greater good of all are really in it for themselves, though, as Crystal suggests, that may be just as true of the elites as it is the deplorables.
In most of the previous versions or variations of The Most Dangerous Game, the men that hunt other men are on the far right of the political spectrum. Having the manhunters be liberal elites is disorienting. It is easy to fall into the old habit of thinking that those doing the hunting are fascists. But we are regularly reminded of their leftist attitudes as they admonish one another when someone says or does something that is politically incorrect: failing to use gender-neutral words, being guilty of cultural appropriation, saying things like “those people” when referring to African Americans, and debating whether calling them “black” is almost as bad as using “the N-word.” In selecting their list of twelve people to be hunted, they wanted to include an African American for the sake of diversity, but he didn’t score high enough on the deplorable scale. Just before one of the victims dies, he tells the woman leaning over him, “You’re going to Hell.” But she says she doesn’t believe in Hell because she is one of the “godless elites,” citing a remark from his website, apparently.
And we are also reminded of the mentality of those being hunted. When a woman starts convulsing after eating a doughnut, another one of the deplorables says she must be “dianetic.” Gary talks about the “globalist cucks who run the deep state.” And Don tells Crystal that when this Manorgate scandal breaks wide open, the two of them are going to be on Hannity. He says they will become famous, “just like them two Jew boys that fucked Nixon up.”
On the flight to Croatia, with a dozen drugged deplorables in the back of the plane, one of the liberal elites tells Kelly, the stewardess, who offers him caviar, that he just had caviar yesterday, and he is weary of it. (In the credits, Kelly is also listed as “Not Stewardess,” since the word “stewardess” is now politically incorrect.) When he agrees to have some champagne, she pulls out a bottle, and he asks if that is the Heidsieck. She is puzzled by the question, so he explains: “A German sub sank a ship on the way to Tsar Nicholas II. Couple years back, they found the wreck and a case of the 1907 Heidsieck. They sent a little robot down there to bring it back up. Athena bought three bottles at 250K per. And no one even knows what the stuff tastes like.” But it is just ordinary champagne that Kelly has to offer.
During the climactic fight, Crystal grabs a bottle of the 1907 Heidsieck and throws it at Athena. Horrified, Athena catches it and sets it aside. After Crystal kills Athena, she picks up that bottle and heads for the plane that brought her to Croatia. She gets on board and tells the pilot that everyone else is dead and she wants to go home. She invites Kelly to have some caviar with her. Then she picks up the bottle of the 1907 Heidsieck that no one has ever tasted, puts it to her mouth, and guzzles it. When Kelly asks her how it is, Crystal says, “It’s fucking great!”