“The Most Dangerous Game”: Short Story vs. Film
“The world is made up of two classes—the hunters and the huntees. Luckily, you and I are the hunters.” Thus states Sanger Rainsford, the hero of Richard Connell’s masterful short story, “The Most Dangerous Game,” to his hunting partner as they prepare to stalk jaguars in the Amazon wilderness. Ironically, Rainsford is soon destined to experience the fear of the huntee as he must desperately elude his rival, the demented, man-hunting General Zaroff. A lethal contest of what Zaroff refers to as “outdoor chess” rivets the readers’ attention and leads us to question the ethics of hunting. No wonder the much-anthologized and often-imitated tale continues to thrill as much as when it was first published. But when directors Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack worked with screenwriter James Ashmore Creelman to adapt the Connell story for their 1932 film, they were doubtlessly looking for a script that would appeal to a wide range of cinema goers. Seemingly they hoped to make a great story even better. The Hollywood version of The Most Dangerous Game turns a focused, mano a mano duel for survival into an ambitious romantic action drama through three major alterations: an explosive shipwreck, the addition of a female lead, and a raucous conclusion that leaves little to the imagination.
In Connell’s short story, Rainsford arrives on Zaroff’s treacherous island after falling off a steamer and swimming ashore, but the filmmakers decided to make the scene far more spectacular. After Zaroff’s bogus channel markers lure Rainsford’s vessel onto a reef, the boat explodes into flames while crew and passengers are tossed into the water. But rather than settle for simple drowning, the filmmakers have a bevy of merciless sharks attack the hapless humans, and after the obligatory blood-curdling screams (“Ah! He’s got me!”), only Rainsford survives to struggle on to the island. No doubt the filmmakers knew their screen audience would appreciate all the extra gore and sensation, just as today’s audiences would. The hoped-for effect is to start the film off with a bang, literally, and to prepare us for plenty more action to come. In a way, though, we cannot help but be disappointed by the anticlimactic hunt to follow.
Many of us are apt to complain when we see that filmmakers have changed our favorite stories in one way or another—as they inevitably do. Why, we ask, must they make any changes at all? On the other hand, why would we want to experience the very same story over and over, even if through another medium? Half the fun of viewing a film version of a familiar story is in seeing how the plot, tone, and theme have been adapted. For better or worse, The Most Dangerous Game movie is quite a different story from Connell’s original. We are better off for the variety.