“The Most Dangerous Game” (1932)
(Originally posted on Dec, 24, 2011)
When adapting a literary work, filmmakers are presented with a daunting list of problems not always easy to surmount. Being mindful of the original materials, the adapter must judiciously snip and paste together a generalization of the printed work, and in keeping with the nature of film, often substitute a visual idea for what was internally expressed in the text. Interior monologues may become voice overs, or more precariously, a visual which must carry the thematic foundation of the intentions of the scene as envisioned by the original author. It is a weighty process, and rarely accomplished with complete success. This is not necessarily a reflection of the ultimate capabilities of the adapter (or adapters, as it increasingly becomes something of a team effort) but of the nature of the source material and how it may react in, for the lack of a better phrase, “going Hollywood”. Are novels, especially lengthy tomes such as “Anna Karenina” or “The Brothers Karamazov” by the very nature of their density of substance (disregarding the artistry of the writing itself) practical subjects for the visual Cliff Notes process? What is the proper format for more practicality in the process of cinema adaptation? The novella, the play, the short story? Or is this an impractical discussion, for is the intimately personal “voice” of the author always a more formidable obstacle than the form in which it takes? Is there legitimacy- outside of the desire to exploit a particular literary property – to altering a story to fit the technical limitations of the motion picture? (This is assuming that we agree that the reading experience provides limitless resources when engaged with the active imagination.) Or must we concede that any act of alteration is an inevitable reduction of the original material? Can even a brief short story, containing the skeletal outline for a motion picture be effectively carried to this entirely foreign medium and be reconfigured to retain its most consequential elements? And if not, why bother in the first place if the resulting film is a destructive reduction of a worthy vehicle? Or is the cinema better off beholden to the original scenario specifically conceived with cinematic translation in mind; although is not the written script developed in such a way as to concede to a more limited visual vocabulary, and thus condemned to continue to be an act of creative compromise?
In adapting Richard Connell’s celebrated short story “The Most Dangerous Game” there is not a question of judicious exclusion (at less than 8500 words, the story is far too brief to necessitate the use of editorial pruning shears) but of expansion sensitive to the philosophical musings at the heart of the tale. Retaining the trichotomous structure as written by Connell, the first two sections of the story are literal recitations of reasoned, yet equally arrogant, perspectives on the nature of hunting prey, but approaches an important point of philosophical antagonism when the views expressed by General Zaroff travel beyond Rainsford’s rationale and this paradoxical turn causes Zaroff to initiate the third section of the story: the hunt, in which both characters’ skills are put to the fullest test. The irony of this third section is that while Rainsford fends off the encroaching progress of Zaroff, he does so with the use of skills brought to bear from experiences on his own hunting expeditions. Is the lesson here that the killer may only be equipped to survive being the victim, if he himself experienced the kill before? The story ends with a final line that is both chilling in its immediacy (we are spared an important fatalistic climax to get to this point) and a haunting ambiguity as to its insinuated interpretation. Has Rainsford succumbed, even momentarily to a modicum of the cold homicidal serenity of his pursuer, finding an untroubled satisfaction in this particular conclusion of events?
The antipathy of attitudes becomes clear in the second section of the story where General Zaroff explains the nature of his testing his skills in hunting against captive men, to which Rainsford argues:
“I’m a hunter, not a murderer.” In response, Zaroff coldly reasons:
“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.”
This statement, rather than appearing contradictory, actually coincides with a statement by Rainsford in the opening scene of the story. In discussion with Whitney on the deck of the yacht, Rainsford displays his dismissive arrogance by responding to Whitney’s concerns as to the nature of the suffering endured by the hunter’s prey with:
“The world is made up of two classes– the hunter and the hunted.”
What is especially interesting about this dynamic clash is the profusion of similarities between the two characters. That each is similar in views on killing is quite clear, with the distinctive separation of degrees with which the character follows their own philosophy. Both clearly regard their view as a truism; the difference distinguishing- in Rainsford’s eyes- as Zaroff viewing the world subjectively, while Rainsford would view with a vision of objective truth. But that is a moral naivete on Rainsford’s part, as they both similarly view the word through a subjective view; though in Rainsford’s case, it is a personal code of morality which excludes certain creatures (humans), altering his philosophy as an absolute. Zaroff is the more honest of the two, not allowing for the absurdity of reservations within the kill instinct. The fulcrum of the dissent lies in Zaroff’s characterization of the “most dangerous game”: (The very title of the story a clever play on words, luxurious with meanings.) that animal which has the ability to “reason”. Reason, as clarified in this story, is a characteristic of superiority, but it’s also an innate weakness, as it clouds the mind with moral doubt. An advantage, no doubt appreciated and capitalized on by Zaroff, whose own character is strengthened by the absence of moral doubt, which by all rights might categorize him as insane. However, it is clear the two hunters represent two poles of one mind separated by miniscule degrees. It is that separating point that is of interest and through the surface mechanics of an adventure story, the climactic chase in particular, where both the reader’s and characters views are equally tested.
Now, consider the effect of alterations to this precarious balancing act; what distortions to the intent of the original tale might arise? Happily many of the editorial alterations brought to the story in the process of “going Hollywood” are sensible in the service of humanizing the more strident elements of Rainsford’s character. Severely damaging is the intrusive addition of a female character in what was otherwise strictly a male adventure. This is a significant change, on one hand it would appear to deepen the chasm between the two characters: as Rainsford now has an additional moral obligation to protect his female charge from Zaroff’s perversely announced ministrations as well as grapple for his own survival, and it extends the motives of Zaroff for a bonus of a helpless woman as sexual trophy as a tribute to his now exposed carnal depravity. On the other hand, this is studio cosmetology at it’s most banal, and ruinous to the finely crafted thematic focus of Connell’s work. Hollywood’s dependence on aberrative sexual impulses as a source of violent action has been an overused device over the years, often completely fueling entire genres such as horror films and film noir, and often appears as a convenient scapegoat for writing that would require more intelligent introspection.
Much of this detracts from the purpose of the original story; certainly from its focus. First of all, the inclusion of a woman, into what was up to this point a gender specific tale, dilutes the direct frisson between Rainsford and Zaroff, distracting from the immediate philosophical breach which is at the heart of the story, and threatening to cheapen the situation into a woman in peril scenario. Though disguised as a tale indistinguishable by less adventurous readers from a pulp thriller, there is far more to Connell’s story. And while the essence of the story remains intact in the film, the focus is incongruously yanked askew, reducing the meaning of the final hunt segment into simply a jungle chase. (Though admittedly, this entire sequence is breathlessly rendered at the peak of craftsmanship.) So to, the finale feels peculiarly anticlimactic; odd for a film of such pronounced brevity. It begs to put a more human face on what could otherwise be seen as a cold technical exercise between two instinctive killers.
There are additional alterations that merit attention as well. The opening sequence of the story, taking place on the deck of the yacht, transpires between only Rainsford and his companion Whitney, while in the film we are audience to a half a dozen or more characters, many of whom are conversing over cognac. This is an important change in the story and one that actually smartly enhances the themes of the original story. The conversation among Rainford’s companions not only reveals a fair amount of important fair expository information about the young hunter, it even more importantly identifies Rainsford as a member of the rarefied privileged class (important as it the initial bond between Rainsford and Zaroff- here identified not as a General as in the original story, but a Count) a societal strata that further removes the tale from the bounds of reality as perceived by the audience (remember, this was released at the height of the Depression) who might see the tale as a cruel fantasy world inhabited by the unapproachable upper classes. One flawed alteration in dialogue, appreciably changes the philosophy of Rainsford from the original text: instead of expressing: “The world is made up of two classes– the hunter and the hunted”, the line has been changed to “There are two kinds of people, the hunter and the hunted.” This is an extremely significant change as it suggests that Rainsford would entertain the notion of a man being the subject of a hunt, when, in fact, the entire film is a demonstration of his renunciation of just such a mindset.
The opening sequence is subject to an important alteration in the original text, one which is actually a vast improvement over Connell’s version, and that is the method of entrapment of Rainsford on the island. In the original story, Rainsford, accidentally drops his pipe over the side of the ship and falls overboard trying to retrieve it; an action that is the height of writer’s convenience and not a particularly believable action, whereas in the film version, the ship is deliberately run aground and is destroyed due to deliberately misleading buoys set up by Zaroff, thus already demonstrating the evil efficiency with which the protagonist operates in order to fulfill his quota of prey. (Otherwise, he would be at the mercy of clumsy people on boats falling overboard in his general vicinity; not a particularly productive means to an end.)
Befitting the brevity of the original story, the running time of the film is a mere 63 minutes, a seemingly streamlined happy translation of Connell’s work, eliminating the usual Hollywood baggage of excessive extraneous exposition in favor of a tight narrative, when in fact, some apparent Tinseltown flab was unavoidable; the problematic addition to the story’s roster is the inclusion of the two extra characters on the island, Fay Wray’s Eve and her drunken brother Martin. Except to instill a sexually aberrative note into Zaroff’s obsession ( which speaks more of Hollywood’s continued confusion of the primal sexual impulse being inseparable from the instincts of violent primitivism, than Connell’s original conception) there is no compelling argument to be made for either character’s presence in the film. Certainly not the aggravatingly banal antics of the drunken Martin, whose entire character seems mistakenly impressed from a reel from a second-tier high society comedy. Offering no discernible contribution to the narrative, Robert Armstrong’s presence can only be explained, as perhaps can Wray’s as an opportunity to keep both performers engaged until the production of “King Kong” was readied for production. Wray’s performance betrays her roots in silent film which she doesn’t seem able to shake as her performance is continually punctuated by the type of stilted, swooning posturing that was embarrassing in the most primitive of heroine-tied-to-train-trestle serials.
Joel McCrea fares well as the adventurous Bob Rainsford (inexplicably renamed from the original Sanger Rainsford), bringing a likeability to a character who, even though he is the target of a greater evil’s machinations, could have been perceived not only as a professional stalker with a core of heartlessness, but also as an elitist. Physically, he is outstanding for the role, reminiscent in many scenes as a counterpart to such period pulp fictional characters as Kenneth Robeson’s Doc Savage. His nemesis (now) Count Zaroff is handsomely played by Leslie Banks who casts malevolent shadings onto otherwise innocent occasions of formality and elegant politeness. His Zaroff is an accomplished realization of Connell’s protagonist, until the psychosexual manifestations brought with the scenarist’s alterations begin transforming a uniquely interesting character living by a code of self-created moral absolutes, into a figure tinged with motivations reminiscent of the average Hollywood b-movie creep show villainy. The suggestion, in James Ashmore Creelman’s otherwise trenchant adaptation, that Zaroff’s hunting instincts find their ultimate reward in a rape conquest of a female guest is a ludicrous characterization, unfounded in any passage of Connell’s fine story. The shared direction of Irving Pichel, whose participation was mainly in the form of the dialogue director, and Ernest B. Schoedsack, who would subsequently show similar skills in breathlessly paced adventure with the next year’s “King Kong”, (using many of the same production resources as this film, including the famous fallen tree ravine setting) is seamless, with only one awkwardly staged sequence being a climactic bout of fisticuffs which is acrobatic almost to the point of exaggerated comedy. The deliberately truncated finale of the story is changed to show the almost casual exit of Rainsford and Eve as Zaroff rather melodramatically falls mortally wounded into the clutches of his hounds; a rather anti-climactic ending for a generally razor-sharp, spirited thriller with profound thematic implications, that could have been better served by attending to the abbreviated but powerful closing (and line) of the original text.
Keeping in mind that a written tale will be experienced by the most powerful adaptive resource ever conceived- the human imagination- sometimes, no matter how bravely one meets the challenge of adaptation, the result can never match the impact of the original story.