Thomas W. Hodgkinson

Hounds of Zaroff

Engelsberg Ideas, February 2024

In the summer of 1981, in the woods of New Hampshire, a bodybuilder shot a stockbroker in the backside. As it happened, the two men in question—Charles Gaines and Hayes Noel—were friends, and the gun contained not bullets but pellets of paint. They were inventing the sport of paint-balling. “I shot him right in the butt and it hurt!” Gaines recalled with a chuckle.

What they also admitted is that, when creating the craze now enjoyed by millions worldwide, they were inspired by the short story The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell. 

The success of an author is usually measured in terms of critical acclaim or commercial clout. Yet there is a third ambition, which few have realised. This involves creating a story-type so vivid that it achieves the status of myth, becoming the point of comparison for all future stories of that kind. Bram Stoker achieved it with Dracula. So did Robert Louis Stevenson with Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. And so, without doubt, did Richard Connell, with his sometimes clumsy, often clichéd, but always utterly compelling 20-page survival yarn. 

When it was published in Collier’s magazine a hundred years ago, early in 1924, The Most Dangerous Game fulfilled the first two criteria of literature. It got printed, earning its author some dough. It was also admired, bagging him an O. Henry Award. Yet even in his grander moments, its author cannot have guessed at the future influence of his Boy’s Own adventure, in which an American big game hunter, washed up on a Caribbean island, finds himself hunted for sport by an unhinged Russian aristocrat named General Zaroff.

There has been a slew of straight film adaptations, of which the best was arguably the first in 1932, featuring British thespian Leslie Banks revelling in a truly bizarre accent in the role of Zaroff. Yet such is the originality of Connell’s story that its reach extends to any tale where humans are targeted for sport. These include the Hunger Games franchise, which saw another instalment recently released, and the TV show Squid Game, which became Netflix’s most watched show ever when it was released in 2021. Then there’s the upcoming Marvel movie Kraven the Hunter, which is due out this August. It’s based on the comic books about a psychotic Russian who declares himself dedicated to hunting down “the most dangerous game”, by which he means man.

Which makes it all the more intriguing to discover that very little is known about the author of the original story. There is no biography of Richard Connell, although he achieved considerable success in his lifetime as a writer of short stories, and of screenplays for Hollywood movies featuring stars such as Hedy Lamarr and Judy Garland. Did he ever hunt big game himself? Did he serve in the First World War, as his hunter hero, Sanger Rainsford, is said to have done? If so, might his experiences in the trenches have inspired his stark tale of man’s inhumanity?

Owing to a cyber attack last autumn, the British Library’s digital resources were down. However, the Newsroom assistant dug me out a microfilm of the only obituary that ran after Connell died in 1949. Using an ancient microfilm reader machine, and an outsize magnifying glass, I squinted at the tiny, faded letters of the few paragraphs in The New York Times.

What I deciphered was a rather cursory account of Connell’s career, but two details stuck out. The first was how he earned his first break in journalism. At Harvard, as editor of the university magazine The Crimson, he launched a coruscating attack on a certain newspaper publisher. Outraged, the man sued The Crimson—but he offered Connell a job. The second was the fact that Connell did indeed serve in France during the War. He spent a year there with the 27th New York Division, during which time he edited the camp newspaper, Gas Attack.

With so little data, what follows has to be speculative. Yet, like a tweak on the dial of a microfilm reader, these details help to bring the themes of Connell’s work into sharper focus.

On one level, The Most Dangerous Game is a classically structured narrative of a man with a character flaw that is brutally exposed by events. At the start of the story, the hunter Rainsford callously declares that animals, being mere brutes, don’t suffer from fear of pain or death. “The world is made up of two classes, the hunters and the huntees,” he asserts. 

Soon, at the hands of General Zaroff, he will learn “how an animal at bay feels”. The Russian reveals that, bored of tigers, he has ingeniously lighted on a more challenging prey. It is the “most dangerous game” of the title: the only animal, in fact, that is “able to reason”. Rainsford gasps, “But you can’t mean—” Alas, this is just what Zaroff means. At first he hopes that Rainsford, as a connoisseur of hunting, will wish to join him. Rainsford hotly refuses. At which, Zaroff has an even better idea. “You don’t mean—” Rainsford exclaims once again.

Yet, once again, this is what Zaroff means. What it means for us, meanwhile, is that we are evidently in the hands of an author who isn’t shy of a cliché. Nevertheless, Connell knows how to ratchet up the tension. The cat-and-mouse game that follows—as Rainsford is given three days to survive in the tangle of jungle on the island, while Zaroff hunts him with the help of a pack of baying hounds and an enormous Cossack named Ivan—is edge-of the-seat stuff. As one judge of the O. Henry Award observed, it made him “sit erect and hold his breath”.

To delve more deeply into the story, I speak to Bryan Senn, author of The Most Dangerous Cinema, an excellent study of all the movie adaptations of the story over the decades. 

“It’s about insanity,” Senn tells me. “General Zaroff is apparently a rational man. He’s always talking about reason and analysis. Instinct is the animal quality. And yet it’s instinct that defines our idea of what sanity is. Logically, there’s little difference between killing a tiger and a human. Yet because we’re a herd animal, our instinct tells us to protect our own.”

He’s right about this, of course, but there’s more to it. The Most Dangerous Game dramatises a clash between a decent American and a depraved European at a particular moment in history, when America was emerging as a superpower, while Europe entered a period of decline. Connell, who got his big career break by challenging an older rival, tells a story of a young hunter pitted against an older. Moreover, like him, Rainsford has seen action in France, we are told. Specifically, he was in the trenches, where the worst of the fighting took place. 

When Rainsford rejects Zaroff’s first offer to join him in the man-hunt, the Russian is bemused. “‘I refuse to believe that so modern and civilised a young man as you seem to be harbours romantic ideas about the value of human life. Surely your experiences in the war—’ He stopped. ‘Did not make me condone cold-blooded murder,’ finished Rainsford stiffly.”

In this story, by a writer who had seen Europe in disarray, the new world confronts the old, and finds it wanting. The hand-to-hand combat that looms can only end one way. 

The influence of The Most Dangerous Game is broader than cinema. It left its mark on literature too. You can see it in Ian Fleming’s Bond novels. General Zaroff’s Caribbean island is an obvious forerunner of Dr No’s Crab Key. Or remember the Goldfinger film, when Bond spots a Korean henchman with a razor-edged bowler hat. “Oh, you must excuse Oddjob, Mr Bond,” says Goldfinger. “He’s an admirable manservant, but mute.” Compare this with how Zaroff introduces his own helper. “‘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.’ ‘Is he Russian?’ ‘He is a Cossack,’ said the general, and his smile showed red lips and pointed teeth. ‘So am I.’”

The Most Dangerous Game looks backward to Dracula—those lips, those teeth!—sharing its exploration of man’s animal nature and anxiety about the perverse private lives of the European aristocracy. But it also looks forward. It embodies the spirit of a muscular, emergent America, which would be best expressed in the spare clean prose of Ernest Hemingway. 

In 1934, Hemingway, a lifelong big game hunter, wrote an essay about deep sea fishing for Esquire magazine, entitled On the Blue Water. It began thus. “There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter.” Clearly, this was an author who had read his Connell.