How Not to Teach “The Most Dangerous Game”

The first lesson I remember teaching in high school was the Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” one of the most idiotic short stories ever written.  Not only does plot pull the plug on your “suspension of disbelief,”[1] but also the prose is as bad as grammatical prose can be.

For example,

“You’ve good eyes,” said Whitney, with a laugh, “and I’ve seen you pick off a moose moving in the brown fall bush at four hundred yards, but even you can’t see four miles or so through a moonless Caribbean night.”

Girls and boys, this is called exposition, background information, and, of course, no one talks like that.

“Hi, Judy, your balding husband of twelve years has arrived home after teaching high school English to a group of high achieving, mostly upper-income adolescents who live in and about the city where the Civil War began!  How about rustling me up a Heineken, stay-at-home mom, since it’s 1985 and feminism hasn’t kicked in yet down here?”

Actually, the late Lawrence Perrine put the story first in his text Literature, Sound, and Sense to demonstrate why commercial fiction shouldn’t be taken seriously.  Of course, most of the kids liked the story before I began my butchering.  You got clearly defined good and evil, not to mention “Malay Mancatchers” and “Burmese Tiger pits.”  My method was to mock the story in the mode of stand up comedian, to act out some of the scenes.

The plot goes like this. Sanford Rainsford, an American big game hunter, is talking on a yacht in the Caribbean about how he has no sympathy for the prey he pursues.  Happily, in an act of idiocy that could land him a Darwin Award nomination, he falls overboard.

[After hearing gunfire,] Rainsford sprang up and moved quickly to the rail, mystified.  He strained his eyes in the direction from which the report had come, but it was like trying to see though a blanket.  He leapt upon the rail [as if that would help] and balanced himself there, to get greater elevation; his pipe, striking a rope, was knocked from his mouth.  He lunged for it; a short, hoarse cry came from his lips as he realized he had reached too far and had lost his balance. The cry was pinched off short as the blood-warm waters of the Caribbean Sea closed over his head.

As he swims toward Shipwreck Island, he hears more gunplay, and we’re treated to perhaps the most ludicrous dialogue prompt in the history of world literature:

“Pistol shot,” muttered Rainsford, swimming on. [Here I pantomime an Australian crawl, and as my head emerges from the water I mutter “pistol shot” and then continue swimming].

As it turns out, Shipwreck Island is the home of proto Bond villain General Zaroff, a Russian aristocrat so cartoonish he makes Boris Badenov from Bullwinkle look like Fyodor Paviovich Karamazov.

Rainsford makes it to the island, manages to sleep on the beach until “late afternoon” and begins to engage in Cartesian interpretations of physical nature:

“Where there are pistol shots, there are men.  Where there are men, there is food,” he thought.

He discovers some human footprints that lead to General Zaroff’s compound.  Oddly, Rainsford loses confidence in his powers of observation, like maybe he’s flashing back on some windowpane acid he dropped back at Yale after WW1.

“Mirage,” thought Rainsford. But it was no mirage, he found, when he opened the tall spiked gate.

Whew!

At the door he’s greeted by Ivan, Zaroff’s henchman, “ a gigantic creature, solidly made and black-bearded to the waist.”

ZZ Top meets Andre the Giant.

Rainsford is conducted to a room where “Ivan had laid out an evening suit.”  As he puts it on, Rainsford notices “that it came from a London tailor who ordinarily cut and sewed for none below the rank of duke.”

Oh, those were the days.

Zaroff serves Rainsford a vague meal consisting of unspecified “cocktails” and “a particularly well cooked fillet mignon.”  Was it cooked to perfection or cooked well done? Who knows?

As it turns out, the tables are turned on Rainsford.  Zaroff’s hobby is hunting human beings, i.e., “the most dangerous game.”

When Rainsford voices outrage at the concept of hunting humans, Zaroff replies, “I refuse to believe that so modern and civilized young man as you seem to be harbors romantic ideas about the value of human life.”

Boo! Hiss!

The game doesn’t seem all that fair to this non-hunter.  Ivan supplies Rainsford with hunting clothes, food, and a knife whereas Zaroff gets a pack of hounds, Ivan, and an armory of high-powered weaponry.  If Rainsford manages to elude his predator for three days, he’ll be placed “on a the mainland near a town.”  Zaroff adds, “I will give you my word of honor as a gentleman and sportsman.”

So now the fun really begins.  As Zaroff tracks Rainsford through the jungle, Rainsford engages in the very un-Darwinian habit of talking out loud to himself.

“I will not lose my nerve, I will not.”

Cat and mouse. Rainsford fashions a “Maylay man-catcher” and – the highlight of the story for me — a Burmese Tiger Pit.

Rainsford “stepped back from the quicksand a dozen feet or so, and like some huge prehistoric beaver, he began to dig.”

A Beaver!  Why a beaver?  Remember studying about pre-historic beavers the size of mastadons? I don’t.

Of course, good triumphs over evil. Trapped at the end of the story, Rainsford jumps off a cliff, presumably to his death.

Here’s how it ends.

When the general and his pack reached the place by the sea, the Cossack stopped. For some minutes he stood regarding the blue-green expanse of water. He shrugged his shoulders. Then be sat down, took a drink of brandy from a silver flask, lit a cigarette, and hummed a bit from Madame Butterfly.

General Zaroff had an exceedingly good dinner in his great paneled dining hall that evening. With it he had a bottle of Pol Roger and half a bottle of Chambertin. 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 thought the general as he tasted his after-dinner liqueur. In his library he read, to soothe himself, from the works of Marcus Aurelius. At ten he went up to his bedroom. He was deliciously tired, he said to himself, as he locked himself in. There was a little moonlight, so, before turning on his light, he went to the window and looked down at the courtyard. He could see the great hounds, and he called, “Better luck another time,” to them. Then he switched on the light.

A man, who had been hiding in the curtains of the bed, was standing there.

“Rainsford!” screamed the general. “How in God’s name did you get here?”

“Swam,” said Rainsford. “I found it quicker than walking through the jungle.”

The general sucked in his breath and smiled. “I congratulate you,” he said. “You have won the game.”

Rainsford did not smile. “I am still a beast at bay,” he said, in a low, hoarse voice. “Get ready, General Zaroff.”

The general made one of his deepest bows. “I see,” he said. “Splendid! One of us is to furnish a repast for the hounds. The other will sleep in this very excellent bed. On guard, Rainsford.” . . .

He had never slept in a better bed, Rainsford decided.

So that’s it. Rainsford puts on his pajamas and falls asleep in Zaroff’s bed.

The end, no contemplation of what he’d just experienced.  Let’s hope he loots the joint or at least cops that duke grade tuxedo.


[1]This is Coleridge’s term for our willingness to allow magic carpets to defy Newtonian physics for the sake of the story. However, we readers (or movie watchers) will tolerate only so much.  Cf. Mystery Science Theater 3000.

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