The Most Dangerous Game
Author: Richard Connell
Published on January 19, 1924 (Collier’s magazine)
The Most Dangerous Game
Directors: Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack
Screenplay: James Ashmore Creelman, story by Richard Connell
Born in 1893, Richard Connell was screenwriter, a novelist, and an author of at least 300 short stories, which appeared in magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. While Connell’s literary career was varied and vast, his later works would pale in comparison to his short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” for which he won the O. Henry Memorial Prize. Its enduring legacy is evident, as no less than 15 writers and filmmakers have adapted its premise. From Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity to 2016’s Hounds of Zaroff to the episode “Open Season” in Season 2 of Criminal Minds, the story of General Zaroff continues to confound and unnerve us. Connell manages to connect to that part of our psyche that fears an all-powerful torturer, while at the same time reaching the deepest part of our instinct for survival.
It was in July 1969, that the Zodiac sent his first cipher in different parts to three newspapers. The cipher, or cryptogram, came to be known as the 408 cipher, for the total number of symbols and letters it contained. Solving it soon after its publication would be a Salinas, California couple named Donald and Bettye Harden. It remains the only of four Zodiac ciphers to ever be solved. Its text is chilling, but provided investigators with an insight into the serial killer’s personality. In it, the Zodiac says, “I like killing people because it is so much fun it is more fun than killing wild game in the forest because man is the most dangerous animal of all.”
Pairing the cipher with the eyewitness accounts of Cecelia Shepard and Bryan Hartnell during their attack at Lake Berryessa on September 27, 1969, who reported a man wearing a black hooded outfit strikingly similar to the one that actor Leslie Banks wears as Count Zaroff, it would lead investigators to consider whether the killer was a film buff. Further, it would implicate suspect Arthur Leigh Allen, who told investigators that the story had “made a lasting impression on him.”
“The world is made up of two classes—the hunters and the hunters.”
Richard Connell’s short story propels us into General Zaroff’s twisted universe. A former Russian General, Zaroff considers himself perfect in the sport of hunting. He has tired of hunting animals, which possess only instinct, not reason, and so resorts to hunting people in an attempt to satiate his appetite.
Connell’s lyrical sensibilities shine with lines such as, “…trying to peer through the dank tropical night that was palpable as it pressed its thick warm blackness in upon the yacht.” His clinical description of hunting is frightening, especially once it’s clear to the reader that what is actually being hunted are humans, not animals. The story unfolds at a lightening pace, yet Connell does so while managing to create fully evolved characters with intriguing motivations and attributes.
Screenwriter James Creelman adapted Connell’s story into a thriller that has stood the test of time. Creelman takes great liberties, adding characters and transforming events, which only supports the fact that the strength of Connell’s story is its harrowing premise. Unexpectedly gory for the time, the film shows Zaroff’s trophy room of horror complete with severed heads and bodies.
Directors Ernest Schoedsack and Irving Pichel bring together each element seamlessly. From the use of shadows to underscore the tension, to the orchestral arrangement that amplifies the conflict to guiding Joel McCrea, Fay Wray, Leslie Banks, and Robert Armstrong as they deliver compelling performances.
Connell’s short story is an excellent example of what makes a strong narrative – a protagonist whose naivety about the evils of the world becomes life threatening, who must then overcome extreme odds, a complex opponent, intense conflicts, and continuous revelations that keep the audience in suspense. It’s a story ripe for interpretive discussion, while at the same time surprisingly shocking. The fact that it was coopted by a deranged killer doesn’t diminish its artistic achievement and its lasting popularity only reinforces Connell’s success as a storyteller.
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