Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Most Dangerous Game

"The Most Dangerous Game" [1924]
Written by Richard Connell

The Most Dangerous Game [1932]
Written by James Ashmore Creelman
Directed by Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack

So far in this series, when we have discussed adaptation our primary focus was on plot: Do book A and movie B tell the same story? Do the same characters do the same things? For our reading of the two incarnations of The Most Dangerous Game, it would be more profitable to examine tone and its relation to genre. How do short story and film tackle the subject of hunting humans?

The topic is grim, and the narrative (regardless of medium) is often unceremoniously dropped in the "horror" bin, sometimes to be regaled as one of the "good" examples of this generally reviled class of fictions. But the two "Game"s are hardly horrorshows; while both dabble in the macabre (particularly when dealing with Zaroff's trophy room), the primary aim of neither story nor film is to horrify. The terror which pervades the hunting sequence of "Game" is different than that generated by (and I cite these instances as great exemplars of their type) Sally's pursuit in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Ripley's mad dash through the Nostromo at the climax of Alien. No, the sense of the abject which serves as a traditional litmus test for horror is all but absent as Zaroff chases Rainsford (and, in the film, Eve) through the jungle.

Connell opts to create a thriller. The bulk of his short story involves Rainsford drawing upon all of his hunting skill to rig lethal booby traps for Zaroff. Both men are portrayed as ruthlessly pursuing their goal, the death of their opponent. In particular, Rainsford holds no illusions about the outcome of the game; either he or Zaroff must murder the other. The means of death dealt by the traps aren't pleasant: crushing or impalement. We may cringe once a trap is sprung, but Connell never revels in the ensuing gore. His narrative is a model of economy; stopping to rubberneck over the mangled remains would only detract from the heart-stopping pace of the hunt.

Pichel and Schoedsack cut the two impaling traps, but give us a guided tour of the dreaded trophy room (complete with head in a jar)! Combined with scenes of Rainsford killing one of Zaroff's hunting dogs, it provides a deliciously nasty little taste of pre-Code filmmaking. But, again, the directors aren't out to horrify. In fact, when these gruesome elements are placed within their tropical context, the film is revealed as a jungle action picture. Zaroff and his Cossacks are the Slavic analogues to the African headhunters of any number of adventure yarns. (In one ludicrous moment Zaroff even refers to his people as being "savage." So much for the ethnic warrior pride of Taras Bulba....)

What most stands out to a modern viewer of The Most Dangerous Game is its similarity to the next year's King Kong. Schoedsack, actress Fay Wray, and producer Merian C. Cooper would all reuinte for the giant gorilla move which would be filmed on several of its predecessor's sets. It's hard not to smile seeing Rainsford and Eve race across Kong's infamous log bridge (watch out for the spiders!). Their jog through the Death Fog swamp is replicated by several (doomed) sailors in the Brontosaurus chase sequence from the ape picture. Even the music is similarly composed and utilized.

The story and the film are worth your time, each for different reasons. Check 'em both out, if only so you can see the inspiration for a thousand subsequent B-action movies, notably 1993's Hard Target. It's John Woo directing Lance Henriksen trying to kill Jean-Claude Van Damme! How can you go wrong?

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