Imagine Tom Hanks washing up on a deserted island. Have you seen this one? Well, now imagine that, instead of a soccer ball, he encounters a Cossack psychopath/exotic serial killer named General Zaroff, who proceeds to hunt him like a smarter, crueler Elmer Fudd.
Who wins out? We'll give you a hint: "What's up, doc?"
Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” (or “The Hounds of Zaroff” if you want to be different) is one of the most popular short stories written in English. Ever. Teachers love it, because it's got a classic short story structure and lots of great irony. And students love it, because it's, well, super creepy and weird.
“The Most Dangerous Game” first appeared in Collier’s Weekly in 1924, which is kind of like reading it in the New Yorker today. And people loved it. It even won the O. Henry Prize, a short story award that's still given out today.
Connell's short story career peaked with "The Most Dangerous Game," but his career wasn't over. He went on to write screenplays, even winning an Academy Award for Meet John Doe in 1941.
And his story? Well, it has inspired filmmakers, paintball, The Simpsons, and Gilligan's Island. It was filmed in 1932 just a few years after it was published, and then filmed again after World War II, with General Zaroff as a Nazi. And you know that really popular book with all the kids out to kill each other? Yeah, we think there's a hint of "The Most Dangerous Game" there, too.
But the creepiest parallel of all might be the real-life case of Robert Hansen. In the 1980s, Hansen kidnapped women and released them into an Alaskan valley, where he hunted them to death. Coincidence?
Read the story and decide for yourself.
Leo Tolstoy said that there are only two stories in all of literature: a man goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town.
Well, with all respect to Tolstoy, we here at Shmoop would like to add another: a man tries to kill another man. (Okay, or woman.) And if you look at it that way, there's not much to see here. One man is trying to kill another. Pretty basic stuff, even if the details are inventive.
But there's a lot more going on than a simple horror story. Richard Connell wants us to question the very idea of civilization and what it means to be a civilized human. General Zaroff may have sophisticated conversations, wear formal London-tailored evening clothes, and speak three languages—but he also hunts down other human beings like animals.
And that's partly because he doesn’t see any difference between humans and animals. (Well, that, and he's a nutso psychopath.) He claims that he doesn't hunt other civilized beings: he hunts the “cast-offs” of the world, as he calls them, “sailors from tramp ships--lassars, blacks, Chinese, whites, mongrels--a thoroughbred horse or hound is worth more than a score of them."
Nice, Zaroff. But he raises an important question: what does separate humans from animals? Is it something superficial like a nice suit and a taste for champagne? Or is it deeper, like having a sense of morality or compassion?
Or—consider this—is it the desire to hunt for fun rather than for food?