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Literature / The Most Dangerous Game

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"I wanted the ideal animal to hunt," explained the general. "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.'"
"But no animal can reason," objected Rainsford.
"My dear fellow," said the general, "there is one that can."

"The Most Dangerous Game" (also known as "The Hounds of Zaroff") is a short story by the American author Richard Connell, first published in Collier's magazine in January 1924.

Sanger Rainsford, a hunter of big game from New York, accidentally falls from a yacht just as it's sailing past a certain large Caribbean island with a sinister reputation. Managing to swim ashore, he finds a big mansion occupied by Zaroff, a bored old Russian general, who describes his one true passion: hunting. The general further tells Rainsford that he has grown bored of hunting animals, and only enjoys Hunting the Most Dangerous Game of them all: humans. (The story's title carries a double meaning, referring both to a "game" or contest between the general and his quarry, and to "game" in the sense of an animal that is hunted.) And Rainsford has just become his next prey.

The story has been directly adapted for film at least eight times, though only twice under its original title: in 1932, starring 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. Zaroff, a 2019 Franco-Belgian graphic novel, continues the story with Zaroff as the Villain Protagonist facing off a against a group of Irish Mafia hitmen lead by a previous victim's daughter.

The full original story can be found here.

The Most Dangerous Tropes:

  • Action Survivor: Rainsford is a big game hunter, but has never been in anything like the danger in which he finds himself after getting marooned on Ship-Trap Island. He has to use everything he knows about tracking and trapping to keep Zaroff from getting too close and, if possible, ensnare him instead.
  • Baddie Flattery: Zaroff is consistently impressed by Rainsford's skill and knowledge, praising him when one of his traps takes out Zaroff's best hunting dog and expressing extreme respect when Rainsford manages to sneak back into his mansion and confront him in his bedroom.
  • Bad Samaritan: Zaroff has rigged his island with signal lights to mark out a channel where there are only jagged rocks, so that he can trick ships into crashing and find new victims for his hunts.
  • Beard of Evil: Zaroff rocks a Van Dyke.
  • Big Bad: General Zaroff is the master of Hunting the Most Dangerous Game- growing bored of hunting animals, he hunts humans instead. When Sanger Rainsford gets stranded on his nearly deserted island, Zaroff decides to make him play his sick game, as the prey, and challenges him to survive for three days.
  • Blood Knight: Zaroff wants more dangerous hunts so he chooses to hunt humans to sate his bloodlust.
  • Boomerang Bigot: Played for a cheeky laugh:
    Zaroff: Ivan is an incredibly strong fellow, but he has the misfortune to be deaf and dumb. A simple fellow, but, I'm afraid, like all his race, a bit of a savage.
    Rainsford: Is he Russian?
    Zaroff: He is a Cossack. So am I.
  • Closed Circle: Rainsford gets stuck on an island that's deliberately cut off from the outside world, ensuing no easy escape from Zaroff.
  • 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-Meaning 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 he 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. The last line makes it 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 Rainsford would be if he had a lot more money and a lot fewer scruples.
  • Face–Heel Turn: One interpretation of the ending is that Rainsford, having killed Zaroff, has gained a taste for hunting the most dangerous game himself.
  • Faux Affably Evil: More so in the movie than in the book, Zaroff is quite ruthless, but he can be very charming and polite until he converses with Rainsford about hunting and killing others.
  • Gilligan Cut: As noted under Duel to the Death, the last line of the story skips the duel entirely and cuts straight to its aftermath. Rainsford has won.
  • A Glass of Chianti: Zaroff sips from a glass of wine while explaining his passion for hunting human prey to Rainsford over dinner.
  • A Good Way to Die: Having been cornered in his own bedroom for a Duel to the Death, Zaroff grins and takes the possibility of loss in stride.
  • Go-to-Sleep Ending: The story ends with Rainsford having bested Zaroff in a Duel to the Death and rewarding himself with a good night's rest in the general's comfortable bed.
  • Great White Hunter: Rainsford is a big game hunter and those skills are put to the test when he becomes the hunted.
  • Hates Everyone Equally: Zaroff mentions he doesn't care what race somebody is; to him, they're all prey.
  • Human Head on the Wall: Zaroff mentions he has "hunting trophies" from the people he killed, and offers to show them to Rainsford.
  • Hunting the Most Dangerous Game: invoked Trope Namer, General Zaroff has spent his life hunting every kind of animal imaginable and has grown bored of his hobby. To keep his interest in hunting, Zaroff resorts to hunting the most dangerous game of all: humans.
  • Husky Russkie: Ivan; also, Zaroff.
    "Ivan is an incredibly strong fellow... A simple fellow, but, I'm afraid, like all his race, a bit of a savage."
    "Is he Russian?"
    "He is a Cossack," said the general, and his smile showed red lips and pointed teeth. "So am I."
  • I Don't Like the Sound of That Place: Ship-Trap Island. As the story opens, Whitney describes the name as "suggestive", and says sailors have a morbid fear of the place.
  • In Harm's Way: Zaroff tells Rainsford that ever since early childhood, he has only felt truly alive while hunting, pitting his wits against those of his prey. Increasingly bored with animals, he has turned to hunting humans, the most dangerous prey of all.
  • Irony: A big game hunter who dismisses his friend for empathizing with those they hunt (as he figures "who cares how the animal feels?" and "hunters have the right to do whatever they want to the hunted") gets trapped on an island with another big game hunter who has decided to hunt him. Rainsford manages to win his life, though whether he learned from his experience is left open.
  • It Amused Me: General Zaroff doesn't hunt people that he hates; he does it for fun.
  • Just Toying with Them: Zaroff catches up to Rainsford after day 1, but blows a smoke ring in his direction and walks away. Afterwards, Rainsford ups his game by setting traps.
  • The Killer Becomes the Killed: The fate of General Zaroff. Overlaps with Hoist by His Own Petard and Laser-Guided Karma.
  • Little Useless Gun: Zaroff handicaps himself with one for his most dangerous game.
  • Man of Wealth and Taste: General Zaroff wears suits from one of London's finest tailors, and dines on borsch, filet mignon, and red wine at a table set with the finest linen, crystal, silver, and china.
  • Mirror Character: 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.
  • Morton's Fork: Rainsford is faced with a fairly impressive non-choice. Either he submits to the hunt, and likely be killed like an animal, or Zaroff will have Ivan torture him, most likely to death.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • One Name Only: Whitney and Zaroff have no first names, Ivan has no last name.
  • Pants-Positive Safety: When Ivan brings hunting supplies to Rainsford, he keeps one hand on his revolver, cocked and tucked into a sash around his waist.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: Zaroff tells Rainsford that he joined the Army, as was the custom for aristocrats' sons, and rose to the rank of general, but he would have joined it even had he come from a modest background, as he has always had a zeal for fighting and killing. He's a Cossack, so Truth in Television.
  • Psychopathic Manchild: Zaroff, especially 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, then lets him go.
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: Rainsford's friend Whitney and himself. While a fellow big game hunter, Whitney at least acknowledges how much it would suck to be the hunted. Rainsford admonishes Whitney for being "soft."
  • Shout-Out: When Zaroff thinks he has won the game, he hums "Un Bel Di" from Madame Butterfly. Appropriately, it's a song about watching the horizon to see if a ship will come in.
  • The Social Darwinist: How General Zaroff justifies hunting people.
    "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 is deaf and mute.
  • Summon Bigger Fish: Zaroff owns a pack of hunting dogs and has no qualms about bringing them into play if needed.
  • Survival Mantra: Rainsford keeps himself sane through three straight days of the Count hunting him by chanting “Nerve, nerve, nerve, nerve!”
  • Tastes Like Friendship: When Rainsford washes ashore on Ship-Trap Island, Zaroff insists on serving him a drink, then dinner, during which they talk about their shared passion for hunting. Though it becomes much less amicable once Zaroff describes his "most dangerous game".
  • Teach Him Anger: Rainsford is far from helpless; but when he gets pushed to the limit, he gets mad.
    "I am still a beast at bay," he said, in a low, hoarse voice. "Get ready, General Zaroff."
  • Tempting Fate: Rainsford laughs off the yacht's crew's jumpiness about Zaroff's island.
  • There Are Two Kinds of People in the World: Or rather "classes," regardless of species: the hunter and the hunted. Both Rainsford and Zaroff start off with this philosophy, but while Rainsford means humans are the hunters and animals are the hunted, Zaroff includes humans in the latter category.
  • Villainous Valor: Zaroff's monstrous egotism and addiction to hunting are somewhat tempered by a genuine sense of hospitality and sportsmanship, however warped. And while he does have every advantage in the hunts he arranges, when it looks like his prey might be getting the better of him, he's excited and energized rather than angry and petulant, showing that these qualities are genuine Evil Virtues rather than some kind of front.
  • War Is Glorious: According to General Zaroff, a veteran of the Czar's army who commanded a division of Cossacks and felt a rush of exhilaration whenever he was on the battlefield with a gun in his hand directing his troops.
  • We Can Rule Together: Zaroff wants Rainsford to hunt with him, and only decides to make him the game after Rainsford refuses. An alternate take is that he was always using a Deadly Euphemism.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: Rainsford begins the story thinking the animals he hunts have no feelings, and if they do, who cares how they feel? They're just animals. Then he meets a Social Darwinist Egomaniac Hunter who measures humans and animals equally...
  • Wicked Cultured: General Zaroff wears tailored suits, appreciates fine food and wine, reads philosophy from Marcus Aurelius, and hums Madame Butterfly to himself after Rainsford appears to have got the better of him. Emphasized in the film.
  • Worthy Opponent: Zaroff views Rainsford, a fellow hunter as one, especially as Rainsford starts getting the better of him.
  • You're Insane!: This is Rainsford's reaction to Zaroff's scheme. Zaroff is unaffected by this accusation.

Tropes particular to the 1932 film:

  • Adaptation Name Change: Rainsford's first name is changed to Robert.
  • Affirmative Action Girl: Eve isn't present in the original story.
  • Age Lift: The closest we get to a stated age for Zaroff in the original short story is "past middle age", telling us he is an old man at least. As portrayed by a forty-two year old Leslie Banks, he is younger.
  • Ailment-Induced Cruelty: It's implied that Zaroffs head injury from a caped buffalo caused some damage to his mind, eventually leading him to conceive the idea of hunting humans for sport. He can occassionally be seen stroking the scar on his head throughout the movie, usually when he gets excited about the hunt.
    "One night as i was laying in my tent with this... this head of mine... A terrible thought crept like a snake into my brain. Hunting was beginning to bore me!"
  • Aloof Big Brother: Martin, of course he tends to enjoy a glass in front of his sister Eve.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Zaroff is changed from a general to a count.
  • Asshole Victim: While it's hard to call Martin an asshole, he is an obnoxious, unintelligent drunk who's hard to feel too sorry for when Zaroff finally offs him.
  • Big "NO!": By Rainsford at the climax, when he notices the supposedly humbled Zaroff reaching for a Luger.
  • Blackface: An inversion (very rare for the era), 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. Also a rare non-comedic example of a black man in whiteface (compare White Like Me's film examples).
  • Canon Foreigner: Eve and Martin, characters that weren't in the short story.
  • Character Tics: Count Zaroff has a tendency to rub his head scar whenever he's excited or thrilled.
  • Clothing Damage: Rainsford and Eve have a little bit of this while being hunted.
  • Devoured by the Horde: Combined with Just Desserts and The Dog Bites Back. Zaroff ends up succumbing to his wounds just as he's perched on the windowsill attempting to snipe Rainsford and Eve, resulting in him falling below to be eaten by his hunting dogs.
  • Disney Villain Death: Zaroff succumbs to his wounds by falling out the window, where his hunting dogs are waiting.
  • Fair-Play Villain: Subverted, as Zaroff still tries to kill Rainsford after he has won.
  • Fanservice: Provided by Fay Wray and Joel McCrea, who both show off their physiques in attractively tattered clothing.
  • The Film of the Book: Made eight years after the short story was published.
  • Girly Girl: Eve, who pretty much does nothing but look pretty. However, she is the first character to notice something is off about Zaroff's island and the circumstances that got everyone stranded there, even before Rainsford admits as much.
  • 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 I. The original short story makes mention of that specific hunt having resulted in the fracturing of Zaroff's skull, so logically, there would be such a scar.
  • 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!"
  • Kick the Dog: Count Zaroff, as a matter of routine, locks his "prey" in his trophy room for a few hours in order to scare them enough to flee him.
  • Large Ham: Count Zaroff crosses this line a few times, mainly whenever he's excited about hunting or bragging about how he's killed previous "game" in the past.
  • Love Interest: Fay Wray's character was added for the movie version.
  • Open-Door Opening: The credits play over the door to Zaroff's fortress.
  • Rule of Three: In the film, Zaroff had hunted and killed two sailors before Martin. And along with Ivan, there's two more henchmen; an unnamed, knife-throwing Tartar, and another, unnamed Cossack (who reference materials called "The Scar"). And besides Rainsford, two others had survived the yacht's sinking before being killed by sharks.
  • 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."
  • The Straight and Arrow Path: Zaroff uses a bow when the hunt begins and in the climax.
  • 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.