“The Most Dangerous Game” is a 1924 short story by the American author Richard Connell. Originally published under the name “The Hounds of Zaroff” it first appeared in a magazine called Collier’s in January of 1924. The story was inspired by the big-game hunting expeditions in Africa that became popular among wealthy Americans in the 1920s.
In the story, a big-game hunter named Sanger Rainsford is traveling by yacht to Rio de Janiero to hunt jaguars when he accidentally falls overboard. After washing up on an island, Rainsford stumbles upon an enormous chateau where a former Russian General lives. Rainsford is initially pleased to hear that the man is a fellow hunter, but before long he realizes that the game that the man hunts is, in fact, people and that he intends to hunt Rainsford himself.
When the hunt beings, Rainsford uses his cunning and several booby traps to ensnare the General’s manservant and his hunting dogs. At the end of the story, Rainsford manages to make his way back to the chateau and challenges the General to a fight which he wins.
The story has been adapted many times to mediums like film, television, and radio. The most significant of these adaptations was a 1932 movie of the same titles starring Joel McCrea and Leslie Banks.
The short story begins on a yacht heading for Rio de Janerio, Brazil. Two men, hunters named Whitney and Rainsford, discuss the big game they are going to be hunting when they reach their destination, the Amazon River basin. Whitney points out an island in the distance and tells Rainsford that it is called “Ship Trap” island and that the local sailors have a curios dread of the place. The men discuss hunting more and whether or not their prey, in this case jaguars, is capable of fearing death. Rainsford insists that they can’t. “The world is made up of two classes – the hunters and the huntees. Luckily you and I are hunters.”
Whitney is in a hurry to pass Ship Trap Island. He feels that the crew fears the island and that it makes them jittery and superstitious. He thinks that they can sense danger and evil emanating off the island like waves. After talking for a while, Whitney finally decides to go to bed for the night and Rainsford intends to finish his pipe before turning in.
Suddenly, off in the distance, he hears three gunshots and the sound of an animal screaming in pain. Rainsford goes to the railing of the deck to look closer and tries to get up onto the rail to get a better look. Losing his balance, Rainsford slips on the railing and falls overboard into the sea. He shouts for help, but no one hears him and he watches helplessly as the yacht disappears into the dark night.
Rainsford decides to swim for the island. When he gets there, he hears another sound of an animal in pain and begins heading toward it. However, the sound is abruptly cut off by a pistol shot. Exhausted, Rainsford heads back to the beach and lies down, immediately falling asleep. He does not wake until the next afternoon when he rises to search for food.
In searching for food, he finds a patch of vegetation where a large, bloody animal seems to have recently thrashed about. He finds an empty cartridge for a rifle on the ground nearby. Following the hunter’s footprints, he eventually comes upon a large chateau. “His eyes made out the shadowy outlines of a palatial chateau; it was set on a high bluff, and on three sides of it cliffs dived down to where the sea licked greedy lips in the shadows.”
Rainsford is shocked. He wonders if the large house may be a mirage at first until he goes through the iron gates and knocks on the door. The man who opens the door is large and uncommunicative. He points a gun at Rainsford and only backs down when another man, General Zaroff appears.
Zaroff tells Rainsford that the big man, Ivan is mute and deaf. Zaroff shows Ivan away and greets Rainsford warmly. He tells him that he has read Rainsford book about hunting snow leopards in Tibet.
Zaroff is a Russian Cossack. He invites Rainsford in for dinner and gives him fresh clothes. Inside the large dining room, Rainsford notices the collection of stuffed and mounted animal heads from all sorts of species that the General keeps. The two men eat a Russian soup called borscht as they talk about hunting.
Rainsford notices that one of Zaroff’s specimens is a Cape Buffalo. Zaroff says that the buffalo charged him and hurled him against a tree. Rainsford congratulates the General on this acquisition and states that he has heard that the Cape Buffalo is one of the hardest animals to hunt. Seeming amused, Zaroff says that this is not true. “Here in my preserve on the island,” he said in the same slow tone. “I hunt more dangerous game.”
Rainsford inquires as to what animal he is referring to and Zaroff is cagey as he tells him of his past hunts in Crimea and around the world. However, after the Cape Buffalo put Zaroff in the hospital, he realized that he was tired of hunting animals and wanted a more evenly matched foe. “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.” Confused, Rainsford notes that there are no animals that are able to reason. Zaroff tells him that there is one that can. Rainsford realizes quickly what he means and become horrified. Zaroff is hunting human beings.
Rainsford is outraged, calling it cold-blooded murder. Zaroff tells him that he only hunts “the scum of the earth” such as sailors, Chinese, blacks, and mongrels. Rainsford asks where he gets the men from and Zaroff tells him that the island’s trap-like nature often provides a stranded ship. Zaroff has also installed a channel where giant rocks with razor-like edges wait to crash ships. He brings Rainsford to the window and shows him the lights on the channel in the distance.
Zaroff tells Rainsford that his hunts are civilized and that he gives the men a few weeks to get into good physical condition before the game begins. He invites Rainsford to hunt with him the next day. Zaroff says that he has about a dozen men in the cellar in his “training school” from a Spanish ship. He says that he suggests to one of them that they go hunting, gives the man some weapons and a three-hour head start and then follows with a small pistol with a short range. If the man manages to elude him for three full days, then he is declared the winner, and Zaroff lets him go free.
Rainsford asks him what happens if a man refuses to be hunted and Zaroff says that in that case, Ivan would deal with him. Ivan was once a heavy for the “Great White Czar” and “has his own ideas of sport.” Zaroff says that the men always choose to be hunted instead. He says that only one man has gotten close to winning and that he eventually had to set his dogs on him.
Zaroff shows Rainsford his collection of heads but Rainsford begs illness and goes away to a room to hole up for the night. Rainsford contemplates what to do as he sleeps fitfully through the night. In the middle of the night, Rainsford hears a distant pistol shot that awakens him.
The next day, Zaroff reappears at lunchtime. He complains to Rainsford that he did not enjoy the hunt as much last night and that he feels a return of his ennui with hunting. The sailors are not as intelligent as he had hoped and hunting them isn’t as exciting as he wanted it to be. Rainsford demands to leave the island as soon as possible. He tells Zaroff that he will not hunt. Zaroff regrets that he is going to have to turn him over to Ivan and realizing the implications of this, Rainsford is shocked again. “You’ll find this game worth playing,” the General said enthusiastically. “Your brain against mine. Your woodcraft against mine. Your strength and stamina against mine.”
Rainsford asks what happens if he wins. Zaroff says that he will cheerfully acknowledge his defeat if he does not find him by midnight of the third day. He will have Ivan boat him back to the mainland. Ivan gives Rainsford food, clothes, and a knife and sets him out into the jungle. Zaroff tells him to wear moccasins, as they will leave a poorer trail and to avoid the southeast corner of the island as there is swamp there with quicksand. Zaroff tells Rainsford that he will not set out after him until dusk.
Once he is set loose, Rainsford begins a complicated, confusing path through the jungle. He intentionally doubles back and crosses his own path to confuse the great hunter. Rainsford then climbs a tree and waits to see what will happen. After darkness falls, Zaroff is not long in finding him. However, the man lets him escape, pretending not to see him so that he can prolong the game.
Rainsford is disturbed that the General managed to find him so quickly. He wanders to another part of the island and decides to make a trap the next night. The trap is called a Malayan mancatcher, and it involves a dead tree being propped up on a living one. When Zaroff happens by, the dead tree falls and clips his shoulder. Rather than being angered, Zaroff is delighted and announces to the darkness that he will have to go get his shoulder seen to but that he will return to hunt soon.
Rainsford waits till Zaroff leaves and then begins running. He runs for hours and eventually happens upon the swamp of quicksand that the General warned him about. Initially, Rainsford steps into the quicksand and must then struggle to get free. When he does get free, he devises another trap. This time, he digs a pit and lines it with sharp wooden stakes before covering it with the brush. After his work is done, Rainsford hides nearby to watch what happens. Zaroff nears and one of his hunting dogs springs the trap and plunges to his death. Zaroff is still not upset by this and compliments Rainsford on the proper usage of a Burmese tiger pit before returning to the chateau again.
The next and final day, Rainsford sees the hunting party with Ivan included in the distance. He fashions another trap by latching his knife to a sapling. The trap springs and manages to kill Ivan. This does not stop Zaroff, who corners Rainsford on the edge of a cliff. Rainsford escapes by jumping into the ocean. Disappointed, Zaroff returns to his house. “Two slight annoyances kept him from perfect enjoyment. One was the thought that it would be difficult to replace Ivan; the other was that his quarry had escaped him; of course, the American hadn’t played the game – so through the general as he tasted his after-dinner liqueur.”
Zaroff spends a few hours reading in his library and then goes up to his bedroom for the night. As he switches on the light he realizes that there is someone else in the room. Rainsford has been hiding in the curtains of the General’s bed. Zaroff asks how he got there and Rainsford admits that he swam. The General congratulates him on winning the game. “Rainsford did not smile. ‘I am still a beast at bay,’ he said, in a low, hoarse voice. ‘Get ready, General Zaroff.'”
Realizing what is about to happen, the General bows and says that one of them will be a repast for the hounds and the other will sleep in a very excellent bed that night. After the fight is over, Rainsford decides that he has never slept in a better bed.
Sanger Rainsford – the protagonist of the story. Rainsford is an American big game hunter who, while en route to Rio de Janiero to hunt jaguars, accidentally falls overboard and washes ashore on an island where a mad General hunts humans for sport.
Rainsford is not a stranger to death. By the time he reaches the island, he has been a soldier on the front lines in World War I. Either despite his time as a solider or because of it, Rainsford finds human life to be sacred and is horrified when he learns that Zaroff has been hunting men on his island. Despite the prevailing idea that people of color were not considered to be of the same intelligence and personhood as a white man at that time, Rainsford argues that they are still men and that killing them is cold-blooded murder. At the end of the story, Rainsford manages to kill Ivan, Zaroff’s bodyguard with a clever trap and hides in the General’s bedroom until he turns in for the night.
The two fight and Rainsford wins through some means, killing the General. This ends the story, and the long-term effects of Rainsford’s three days of terror are left intentionally unanswered. Throughout Rainsford’s time being hunted, careful language is used to imply that he now sympathizes with the animals that he once hunted so this leaves his future as a hunter open to interpretation. However, Rainsford’s ability to sleep in Zaroff’s bed after killing him suggests that he may be a more ruthless killer than even he anticipated.
General Zaroff – the antagonist of the story. Zaroff is a former Russian Cossack who now lives on a private island where he hunts men for sport.
Zaroff is clearly a psychopath, as he does not value human life but he is also not a raving madman, and he accepts his death with aplomb. His cold, calculating nature makes him perhaps an even more frightening villain and certainly a better and more patient hunter.
Zaroff is a lifelong hunter, who began hunting his father’s prized turkeys as a child and worked his way up to bigger and bigger game until he reached the Cape Buffalo, one of the hardest to kill animals in existence. It was while he was recovering from being attacked by the Cape Buffalo that he had killed that he realized he was no longer satisfied with hunting animals and wished to hunt something that could more evenly match his intellect.
Zaroff obtained Ship Trap Island and created a channel for trapping boats to bring him new men to hunt. His arrogance is astronomical, and he clearly lacks any human empathy whatsoever. Perhaps it was his time at war, or his childhood, or perhaps he was simply born with no humanity, but Zaroff lacks the fundamental empathy that makes someone human. He no longer can make moral judgments (if indeed he ever did) and seems to only have compassion for his hunting dogs, although he does not have much for them either. Zaroff seems to justify his killing by brushing off the men he is hunting as the “scum” of the earth, that is, people of color and sailors on poor ships. His inability to see the Spanish and black men that he hunts in the story as human is a key sign of his psychopathy.
He does not even seem to value or fear for his own life, as he is delighted to find that he has met his match in hunting Rainsford and faces his own death stoically in the end.
Richard Connell Biography
Richard Connell was born in on October 17th, 1893 in Poughkeepsie, New York. His father was a newspaper reporter who later became a congressman. Following in his father’s footsteps, Connell began working as a reporter as a young man at the Poughkeepsie News-Press where his father had worked at one time.
Connell began attending Georgetown University but took a year off in 1910 to work for his father as a secretary after the older man won his seat in Congress. Two years later in 1912, Connell’s father died suddenly. Richard returned to college but began a course at Harvard University instead of Georgetown. At Harvard, Connell was the editor of The Harvard Crimson and The Harvard Lampoon.
In 1915, Connell graduated from Harvard and began working as a journalist, full-time. Shortly afterward, however, the United States entered World War I and Connell enlisted in the army and served with the 27th New York division. He spent a year in France and ended up editing the camp newspaper Gas Attack. After the war ended, Connell returned to the US and married Louise Fox in 1919. Later that year, he sold his first short story.
Throughout the 1920’s and 30’s, Connell created and sold the bulk of his work, most of which were screenplays. Starting with his novel, “The Mad Lover” in 1927, Connell saw modest success but not much critical acclaim throughout his writing career. Though he wrote over ten screenplays, Connell is perhaps most famous for his short story, “The Most Dangerous Game” (1924) an action-packed thriller that is still regularly adapted today.
In the mid-1920’s, the Connells moved to California and Richard began working regularly as a screenwriter. Several of his short stories were made into silent films in the 1920’s and at the end of the decade in 1929, his first story was made into a movie with sound.
Connell regularly worked with other screenwriters to help adapt their vision as well. In 1941, the movie “Meet John Doe” was nominated for an Oscar for best story and had been developed by Connell. In 1945, his screenplay for “Two Girls and a Sailor”, a musical comedy, was also nominated.
Connell was still working as a writer when he suffered a heart attack on November 22nd, 1949 and died quickly. After his death, his stories continued to gain life and “The Most Dangerous Game” in particular continues to be adapted to this day.