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When Humans Are the Prey: A Plot Made for Every Era

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A young woman awakens in the woods, gagged, confused and afraid. Wandering through the trees and brush, she spots several other people similarly constrained, and together they move toward an open field, where a giant wooden crate awaits them. Inside they find, strangely, a fully clothed pig — and an arsenal of weapons. No sooner have they armed themselves than the carnage begins, and these confused strangers are picked off in a flurry of gunfire, land mines and hand grenades. They’re being hunted.

The opening scenes of Craig Zobel’s “The Hunt” are pointedly free of all but the vaguest exposition, mostly for dramatic effect; it takes some time to figure out exactly who is doing the hunting, who is being hunted and why — and these revelations provide much of the narrative fuel for the controversy-soaked picture. The screenwriters Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof are able to leave their audience in the dark, at least in terms of specifics, because they’re drawing on a story that has become common cultural currency.

Richard Connell’s short story “The Most Dangerous Game” was first published in Collier’s magazine in 1924. This grisly little tale concerned a big-game hunter who finds himself on a remote island inhabited by the character General Zaroff, a wealthy eccentric who has grown tired of stalking wild creatures and instead “had to invent a new animal to hunt”: man.

“Life is for the strong, to be lived by the strong, and, if needs be, taken by the strong,” Zaroff explains. “The weak of the world were put here to give the strong pleasure. I am strong. Why should I not use my gift?”

Connell’s story and the taboos of its underlying idea have proven surprisingly durable in popular culture — and, like the best horror narratives, malleable to the political and artistic ideas of changing times. If the original short story was part of the tradition of adventure fiction so prevalent in the era, Zaroff’s philosophy smacks of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” concept, or at least a misinterpretation of it.

By the time the first film adaptation of “The Most Dangerous Game” hit screens eight years later, Zaroff was being shown in a new way. Released in 1932, this B-movie from RKO Radio Pictures and directed by Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack (the latter would go on to co-direct “King Kong,” using many of the same jungle sets and some of the same cast) was praised by the Times critic Mordaunt Hall, in spite of “its gruesome ideas and its weird plot.”

The adaptation is fairly faithful, with one key alteration: the screenwriter James Ashmore Creelman changed its villainous mastermind from a Cossack general to a Russian count. Heavily accented dialogue emanating from beneath his knitted brow as he creepily roams his luxurious mansion, Count Zaroff seems less inspired by Connell’s text than by Bela Lugosi’s performance in Universal’s 1931 film “Dracula” — with a dash of the mad scientist from the studio’s “Frankenstein” (released the same year).

Whatever the source, Zaroff’s isolation, accent and insanity (the original ads referred to him as a “half-mad hunter”) mark him as one thing above all else: an Other. This idea was made more explicit by the next official adaptation, “A Game of Death” (1945), which transformed Zaroff into Erich Krieger, a Nazi hiding on his own island in the wake of World War II. Subsequent adaptations, like “Run for the Sun” (1956) and “Bloodlust!” (1961), maintained this comfortable structure: a madman, targeting and slaughtering innocents in isolation.

But times have changed, audiences have grown more cynical, and filmmakers’ approaches to this pliable narrative have adjusted accordingly — sculpting the broad strokes and basic ideas of “The Most Dangerous Game” into pointed social commentary and dystopian hypotheticals in which the hunter of man is not a deranged maniac but the State itself.

One of the earliest (and grisliest) such examples is “Turkey Shoot” (1982), from the Australian exploitation director Brian Trenchard-Smith. In a totalitarian state in the near-future, the film’s hunted are social rebels and so-called deviants, plucked from a concentration camp and set out in the surrounding wilderness to kill or be killed by guards and elite “special guests.” The victims are, of course, working class, their struggle contrasted with images of their hunters drinking from brandy snifters and giggling, “Beats the hell out of network television.”

Then again, why not televise it? Paul Michael Glaser’s “The Running Man” (1987), adapted from the pseudonymous Stephen King novel, works from a similar premise: In this police-state future, criminals are promised a chance at pardons if they can outrun and outwit “stalkers” bent on killing them. The spectacle is broadcast on live television, in a game-show format. Those elements also come into play in the Japanese film “Battle Royale” (2000) and the similar (some would say suspiciously so) “Hunger Games” franchise, in which government elites force their lower-class youth to hunt each other for sport — and for everyone else’s entertainment.

But the most effective modern takes are those, like “The Hunt,” that shine the narrative through a prism of class (and, to a lesser extent, race). John Woo’s “Hard Target” (1993) imagines a New Orleans underworld in which ultrarich big-game hunters pay big bucks to stalk homeless veterans. Similar prey sits at the center of Ernest R. Dickerson’s “Surviving the Game” (1994), as a hunting party — including a Wall Street titan and a Texas oilman — hire a resourceful homeless man to be their wilderness guide. Only later does he discover that they’ve paid $50,000 each for a chance to kill him.

When the predators and their prey have only the elements at their disposal — without wealth and influence — the playing field is leveled. That’s the situation facing Crystal (Betty Gilpin), the heroine of “The Hunt,” in a story that connects itself even more explicitly (clumsily, perhaps) to the current political climate.

But ultimately, the latest twist on “The Most Dangerous Game” proves it a timeless story in which a powerful force (be it a rich madman, a hidden Nazi, a fascist government or a wealthy cabal) believes they can violate the ultimate taboo, only to find that morality and civility must prevail. No matter how high the body count may be.


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