Note: This article contains spoilers for movies with plots that barely deviate from a 1924 short story.
“This girl is one of your poor people, and I guess you guys felt it was okay to subject her to inhuman conditions because there was no chance of it ever hurting you. It’s sort of the sociopolitical equivalent of, say, a suit of power armor around you?” —Rick & Morty, S2 E9, “Look Who’s Purging Now”
Some movies are in poor taste, and it’s easy to explain how: The tone-deaf rom com that treats its female lead like a trophy, the red meat actioner whose every faceless mook just so happens to be brown, anything starring Steven Seagal. Dumb and regressive as they are, they should be made and they should be screened, and they are not worthy of the kind of moral panic that we saw over The Hunt a film originally slated for a September 27 release that Universal has sidelined in the face of howling from, among others, President Trump, ostensibly objecting to the idea of wealthy liberals killing poor people who superficially code as rural conservatives.
If the trailer is an accurate representation of the movie’s premise (I have not and now probably will never see a screener), then it’s a story of snobby rich elites paying for the privilege of hunting down and murdering a hapless group of regular folk, setting up Hillary Swank as the emcee of the bloody hunting season and Betty Gilpin and others as the unfortunate people playing the part of prey. Universal pulled the marketing in the wake of the somewhat-worse-than-normal shootings in Dayton and El Paso in August, but it’s hard not to believe that the presidential badmouthing really led to it.
It’s a frustrating decision for a few reasons, not the least of which that nobody should give any president, let alone this one, the indication that anything he says should affect whether a movie is released. Another reason is that any movie about lower-class people getting killed by rich assholes is going to end with the rich assholes having the tables turned on them, or else it is a badly written movie. Until the inevitable leak that puts it on The Pirate Bay, we won’t really know whether it’s a nuanced thriller or a proudly dumb shot at “champagne liberals” or “arugula elites” or whatever froofy-sounding epithet we’re using now. As it comes from the same studio that gave us Get Out, one is willing to at least entertain the idea it could be the former.
What’s more interesting is why a story that’s been adapted to film over and over again in past decades is having a resurgence now.
Like many of the great journeyman writers of 20th century pulp, Richard Connell is far less well-known than his one high-profile success. Published in 1924, his short story “The Most Dangerous Game” told the story of a hunter, Sanger Rainsford, who is shipwrecked in the Caribbean on his way to hunt jaguar. There, in language that vividly recalls late-Gothic works like Dracula, he encounters the foreboding castle of General Zaroff. At first Zaroff invites Rainsford in to tend to his wounds and feed him, but soon enough the general reveals that Rainsford is to participate in Zaroff’s favorite pastime: hunting people for sport.
Rainsford is cheerily informed he’ll leave the island alive if he can survive three days without Zaroff killing him. Man, you see, is the most dangerous game, and a jaded old hunter like Zaroff will accept no lesser thrill. He toys with Rainsford—at one point standing directly under the tree the desperate man is hiding in but pointedly not looking up.
It’s not a level playing field, of course, because real competition is only fun if you’re good at it. Zaroff is good at owning lots of hunting dogs, employing flunkies who do his bidding, and having ranged weaponry. The thought that the unarmed Rainsford stands any sort of chance against him is laughable, but so is the thought that Zaroff is any sort of predator without rigging the game in his own favor in every way. In RKO’s 1932 film adaptation, as in the story, Zaroff has just enough time to congratulate his former quarry on surviving before Rainsford pays him back thoroughly.
The story doesn’t just recall Dracula in its setting and framing—the unaware gentleman wandering into the lair of the beast who wears the finery of nobility. It also frames the monster as a plutocrat totally convinced of his own entitlement and superiority. Attila’s blood flows through Dracula’s veins, the mad count rants at the captive Harker. The difference between Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel and Connell’s short story is the Gilded Age that lies between them: The heroes at one point muse that it’s great they have the money to hound Dracula to the ends of the earth, but Rainsford is framed as another of the idle rich who has the tables turned on him.
By the time of the RKO adaptation in 1932, the world was three years on from Black Tuesday and in the throes of the Great Depression. The Zaroffs of the world, so sure they should be in charge of everything, so opposed to even the slightest accommodations for workers who complained about things like having a work week that let them sleep and wages that let them afford food, had sent the whole global economy off a cliff.
“I see,” [Zaroff] said. “Splendid! One of us is to furnish a repast for the hounds. The other will sleep in this very excellent bed. On guard, Rainsford.” . . . He had never slept in a better bed, Rainsford decided. —“The Most Dangerous Game,” by Richard Connell
It’s hard to figure out how those detractors of The Hunt didn’t get up in arms about Ready or Not, which is another movie about ridiculous rich people forcing a lower-class person into being the prey in a pointless hunt. Marrying into the family is Grace (Samara Weaving), whose husband Alex (Mark O’Brien) hasn’t told her that there is a non-zero chance that her participation in the clandestine wedding night ritual will mean pulling a card that dooms her to be hunted for sport by the rest of the family.
The Le Domas family, it turns out, made a pact with a guy who is definitely Satan, and it allows them to keep their money and cushy lives so long as they agree to draw a random card that could possibly maybe once in a while instruct them to murder the new family member. Grace is understandably not happy about this, but one feels even more sympathy for the family’s maids, all of whom are accidentally murdered by the fecklessness of the Le Domas family or, in one case, their fancy house’s dumbwaiter.
All the pretenses about the game being some tradition not to be deviated from fall apart pretty quickly when Grace starts kicking the shit out of them, of course. But even with their security cameras, hired goons, weaponry and an estate with spiked perimeter fences, the Le Domas family’s ineptitude proves one of the deciding factors in her survival.
All the while, Grace and the other more level-headed characters insist that this is all unnecessary, and that it’s plainly stupid to believe that an actual Satanic plot is in the works. The wrinkle at the end of the movie, of course, is that the Le Domas family really can’t just walk away from their stupid cult murder game. But, like the last-minute subversion at the end of Get Out, the real message of the film is that crucial moment when you think they could have.
Just like Zaroff, there’s no bargaining that will save them in the end, either.
If there’s a sheen of defensiveness about The Hunt on the part of those who sympathize with the party in power, we should really ask ourselves why. Why is this story about cruel game hunters getting their comeuppance causing such a stir? Why does a narrative about the inherent unfairness of a game whose rules are set by the oldest and richest players rankle so? Why does a story about the rich and powerful being shown to be total dolts raise so many hackles?
I guess it’s hard to say, but I think those who know why don’t need to point to The Hunt to articulate it.
Kenneth Lowe must have courage, cunning, and above all, must be able to reason. You can follow him on Twitter and read more of his writing at his blog.