Before watching the movie:
I recall reading the short story in high school, which is probably a very common curriculum element since it’s so widely referenced, parodied, and built upon. Short stories are often the perfect length to be adapted into movies without having to cut or add anything. But then they seem to have added a love interest because of course they wanted a love subplot. I suppose that it was more necessary because of how much of the story would’ve had the protagonist alone without someone to talk to than for time. But also a movie without a love story doesn’t seem to be allowable.
After watching the movie:
Bob Rainsford, a big game hunter and author of books about his adventures in hunting is traveling on a luxury yacht along the coast of South America when the owner orders it on through the channel markers in dangerously reefed water over the crew’s concerns that the marker lights are not where the charts indicated. The boat almost immediately runs aground and takes on water, causing the boilers to explode, leaving Bob the only survivor arriving on the shore of a nearby island. Bob encounters the master of the island and owner of its castle, Count Zaroff, a man obsessed with hunting and great admirer of Bob’s. Zaroff tells Bob that shipwrecks are unfortunately common here, and introduces him to two of his other current guests, Eve and Martin Trowbridge, sister and brother. The two sailors that washed up with them have not returned from when Zaroff invited them out hunting for the only quarry that Zaroff still finds a sufficient challenge for his expertise, a prey which Zaroff will only refer to as “the most dangerous game”. When Martin doesn’t go to his bedroom that evening, Eve asks Bob for his help investigating the Trophy Room behind the locked iron door, where they discover the truth: Zaroff’s prize game is humans. When Bob denounces Zaroff’s habit and refuses to join him as a hunter, Zaroff declares Bob must be his next prey, but he is sporting. If Bob survives from dawn to 4AM, he and Eve may escape, otherwise, Zaroff will claim Bob’s head as his newest trophy, and Eve as his prize.
I don’t recall any of the short story before Rainsford arriving on the island, but apparently there is a scene with him discussing the philosophy of hunting, presumably including his belief that all the carnivorous animals he hunts probably take as much sporting enjoyment out of their hunts as he does, and they have as much respect for him as the hunter as he had for his prey. Looking over a summary of the story, I’m a bit surprised that it seems to be more violent (and more exciting) than the movie, as the movie was pre-Code. It definitely feels like a Hays Code movie, though perhaps with more grotesque trophy heads. The movie shows Zaroff attended by a full staff of silent servants, though Ivan, the only servant in the short story, is the only one stated to be physically mute. The others just don’t talk because it’s not their place to, I guess.
Strangely, I am not nearly as impressed by this movie as pretty much all critics. It’s an exciting movie… for its time. It’s an intelligent movie… for its time. But the third act, the actual survival adventure part, had to be completely rewritten to accommodate the character of Eve (who is at least a much more interesting character than what we remember Fay Wray as), and I think the version in the story would’ve been more exciting on the screen. It altogether feels extremely limited financially and technically, even for a movie that begins with a boat explosion and ends with a hound chase.
I try not to hold the quality of the copy I have against a movie, but public domain films often reach me in awful condition. This one in particular I saw a truly awful colorized version of, very sloppily done, and starting from a bad print in the first place. That was particularly distracting, especially when the inconsistent color made it more difficult to parse what was happening on the screen.
I respect this movie a lot more than I necessarily like it. It is in many ways better than I would have expected for an early 30s movie. But that’s kind of a low bar. And most of its failings come from straying from the legendary source material. It’s a movie to be studied now, not necessarily one to be enjoyed. And that’s a little bit of a disappointment. At least it’s been remade many, many other times.