::Literate Blather::
Wednesday, September 06, 2006
Literary Criticism: Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game"
Summary: Sanger Rainsford, a famous big game hunter and author, is sailing to South America to hunt jaguars in the rain forest. As his ship passes the notorious Ship-Trap Island, feared the world over by sailors, he accidentally falls overboard. Rainsford swims toward the sound of pounding surf and washes up on the rocky coastline of the island. But not before hearing the screams of a hunted animal he cannot identify. Rainsford is surprised to find a castle hideaway owned by the mysterious Russian General Zaroff. Zaroff is also a big game hunter, but shares some disturbing news with Rainsford. Bored with hunting animals, Zaroff now hunts other men. Outraged, Rainsford demands to be taken to the mainland. Instead, he ends up in the jungle being stalked by Zaroff. Using his wits and courage, Rainsford manages to turn the tables on the general. In the end, Rainsford kills Zaroff and ends up sleeping in the general’s bed.

Analysis: 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 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

“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

“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 – 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 scarily 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 – in the often stale literature textbooks featured in most high schools – it’s a story that gets kids reading.

Read our literary criticism of Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"

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