Literature / The Most Dangerous Game

"The Most Dangerous Game" (also known as "The Hounds of Zaroff") is a 1924 short story by Richard Connell.

Rainsford, a hunter of big game from New York, finds himself shipwrecked on an island. He finds a big mansion occupied by Zaroff, a bored old Russian general, who describes his one true passion: hunting. The general tells Rainsford that he only hunts the most dangerous game of all... humans. The full story can be found here.The title has a double meaning, referring both to a "game" or contest between the general and his quarry, as well as "game" in the sense of an animal that is hunted.

The story has been directly adapted for film at least eight times, though only twice under its original title: in 1932, with Joel McCrea as Rainsford and Leslie Banks as Zaroff, and in 2008, with Brian Spangler-Campbell and Mark Motyl, respectively. However, it has been imitated by a vastly greater number of works, and is the source and Trope Namer of the Hunting the Most Dangerous Game plot.

The Most Dangerous Tropes:

  • Affably Evil: More so in the movie than in the book, Zaroff is quite ruthless, but he can be very charming and polite when he's not hunting human beings. In both cases he quickly slides to Faux Affably Evil.
  • Big Bad: General Zaroff, master of Hunting the Most Dangerous Game.
  • Blood Knight: Zaroff wants more dangerous hunts so he chooses to hunt humans to sate his bloodlust.
  • Cossacks: Ivan and Zaroff are stated to be Cossacks by Zaroff himself. This is used to justify their need to hunt.
  • Curtain Camouflage: Rainsford hides himself this way at the very end.
  • Dead Guy on Display: Zaroff keeps the heads of his victims as hunting trophies.
  • Derelict Graveyard: Ship-Trap Island is set up to be hazardous to passing ships so Zaroff has more game to kill.
  • Double Entendre: The title. One meaning is that the actual sport of hunting is the most dangerous game to play, but the other meaning is that humans are the most dangerous game to hunt. (And therefore the most challenging according to the hunter's logic.)
  • The Dragon: Ivan is a mute brute that sticks to Zaroff's side until his falls into one of Rainsford's traps.
  • Duel to the Death: Rainsford and Zaroff square off at the end of the story; the winner gets to sleep in Zaroff's opulent bed, while the loser's body will be fed to the hounds. It's pretty clear that Rainsford wins.
    "He had never slept in a better bed, Rainsford decided."
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Considering everything that happened to him, Rainsford greatly deserves his victory.
  • Egomaniac Hunter: General Zaroff takes great pride that he has hunted everything and has even set up his base on an island that would attract more shipwreck survivors to hunt.
  • Evil Counterpart: Zaroff is what Rainford would be if he had a lot more money and a lot less scruples.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Zaroff casually converses with Rainsford about hunting and killing others.
  • Gilligan Cut: As noted above under Duel To The Death, the last line of the story.
  • Mother Russia Makes You Strong: The reason Zaroff got bored with regular game, and why he finds Ivan so useful.
  • No Challenge Equals No Satisfaction: The whole purpose of both the story as well as the trope in general. The villain is a big-game hunter who got bored with dumb animals and started hunting humans who could present more of a challenge. Then he finds another almost equally-bored big-game hunter who would be even more of a challenge than random sailors who don't know how to really fight back.
  • Not So Different: As Zaroff himself notes when they first meet, Zaroff and Rainsford are both Egomaniac Great White Hunters from refined backgrounds (at least more than common sailors) who are so skilled they find it difficult to find a challenge. The main difference is Rainsford draws the line at hunting and killing people, while Zaroff does not.
  • One Name Only: Whitney and Zaroff have no first names, Ivan has no last name.
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome: The climactic battle between Rainsford and Zaroff. Considering the general badassery of both characters, it can be assumed that it was quite a fight.
  • Psychopathic Manchild: Zaroff, essentially with his whole "I always get what I want" mentality.
  • Rule of Three: Rainsford makes three traps for Zaroff. The first time Rainsford makes a Malaccan man-catcher, which almost kills Zaroff, but the man dodges just in time. The second trap is a tiger pit with sharpened stakes, which succeeds in killing Zaroff's best hunting dog. The third trap is a Ugandan knife trap, which takes out Ivan.
  • Scarily Competent Tracker: As soon as the game begins Rainsford sets out on making the most confounding false trail he can, then covering up his real path. Zaroff finds him anyway.
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: Rainsford's friend Witney and himself. While a fellow big game hunter, Witney at least acknowledges how much it would suck to be the hunted. Rainsford admonishes Witney for being "soft."
  • The Social Darwinist: General Zaroff.
    "I refuse to believe that so modern and civilized a young man as you seem to be harbors romantic ideas about the value of human life... Life is for the strong, to be lived by the strong, and, if needs be, taken by the strong. The weak of the world were put here to give the strong pleasure. I am strong. Why should I not use my gift? If I wish to hunt, why should I not? I hunt the scum of the earth: sailors from tramp ships—lascars, blacks, Chinese, whites, mongrels—a thoroughbred horse or hound is worth more than a score of them."
  • The Sociopath: Zaroff insists that what he does is not murder, it's just hunting... and seems to genuinely believe this.
  • The Speechless: Ivan doesn't say anything but considering his position as Zaroff's brute he may just not have anything that needs saying.
  • The Straight and Arrow Path: Zaroff uses a bow when the hunt begins and in the climax.
  • Summon Bigger Fish: If the hunt has gone for three days with the huntee still outsmarting Zaroff, the general will release his hunting dogs.
  • Teach Him Anger: Rainsford is far from helpless; but when he gets pushed to the limit, he gets mad.
  • There Are Two Kinds of People in the World: Or rather "classes," regardless of species: the hunter and the huntee. Both Rainsford and Zaroff start off with this philosophy, but while Rainsford means humans are the hunters and animals are the huntees, Zaroff includes humans in the latter category.
  • You're Insane!: This is Rainsford's reaction to Zaroff's scheme. Zaroff is unaffected by this accusation.

Tropes particular to the 1932 film:

  • Blackface: A very rare inversion, as the actor playing Ivan the Cossack (Noble Johnson) was actually a black man who wore "whiteface" to play a Cossack. This was easier to do in black-and-white.
  • Canon Foreigner: Eve and Martin, characters that weren't in the novel.
  • The Chick: Eve, who pretty much does nothing but look pretty.
  • Character Tics: Count Zaroff has a tendency to rub his head scar whenever he's excited or thrilled.
  • Disney Villain Death: Zaroff succumbs to his wounds by falling out the window, where his hunting dogs are waiting.
  • Fanservice: Provided by Fay Wray.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: It is implied that Count Zaroff plans to make Eva a Sex Slave after killing Rainsford.
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars: Zaroff has a large scar on the side of his skull, attributed to an encounter with a Cape buffalo. In Real Life, Leslie Banks was permanently disfigured fighting in World War One.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: "That's queer, it's unlocked."
  • Hotter and Sexier: The film, compared with the original story. Sexual deviance is a major theme of the pre-Code movie. Check out the look of naked lust that Eve gives Rainsford while Zaroff is yammering on in the lounge room.
  • Human Head on the Wall: Rainsford finds a human head mounted on Count Zaroff's wall as he searches the mansion.
  • I'm a Doctor, Not a Placeholder: "I'm a hunter, not an assassin!"
  • Love Interest: Fay Wray's character was added for the movie version.
  • Sacrificial Lamb: Movie-exclusive character Martin serves this purpose. He's a drunk, lazy comic relief character whose only purpose is to display how Zaroff's game works and trigger the plot.
  • Sole Survivor: Rainsford is the sole survivor after the yacht he's on wrecks off the shore of Zaroff's island.
  • Tempting Fate: Rainsford, to his friends immediately before the ship crashes:
    "This world's divided into two kinds of people: the hunter and the hunted. Luckily, I'm the hunter, and nothing can ever change that."
  • This Cannot Be!: Zaroff's final words are "Impossible!" before collapsing.
  • The Unsmile: Ivan gives one when Zaroff orders him to greet the new guest.