“Be a realist. The world is made up of two classes–the hunters and the huntees. Luckily, you and I are hunters.”
Sanger Rainsford speaks these words at the start of “The Most Dangerous Game”, one of the most famous short stories of all time. First published in Collier’s magazine in 1924, it’s been reprinted in numerous anthologies, been adapted for radio, TV, and multiple movies, and assigned in countless middle and high school English classes. The tropes established in the story, in which a hunter finds himself a “huntee”, are so well-established in present-day American culture that there are lengthy TV Tropes pages not just for the story itself, but for the trope named by its title.
Up until now, the story’s been under copyright in the US, as well as in Europe and other countries that have “life plus 70 years” copyright terms. (The author, Richard Connell, died just over 70 years ago in 1949, so as of January 1, it will be public domain nearly everywhere in the world.) Anyone reprinting the story, or explicitly adapting it for drama or art has had to get permission or pay a royalty. On the other hand, many creators have reused its basic idea– humans being hunted for sport or entertainment– without getting such permission.
That’s because ideas themselves are not copyrightable, but rather the expression of those ideas. And the basic idea long predates this particular story: Consider, for instance, gladiators in Roman arenas, or tributes being hunted down in the Labyrinth by the Minotaur of Greek mythology. But the particular formulation in Connell’s short story, in which General Zaroff, a former nobleman bored with hunting animals, lures humans to his private island to hunt and kill them for sport, is both distinctively memorable, and copyrightable. Stray too close to it, or quote too much from the story, and you may find yourself the target of lawyers. (But perhaps not if you yourself are dangerous enough game. I don’t know if the makers of “The Incredibles“, which also featured a rich recluse using his wits and inventions to hunt humans on a private island, paid royalties to Connell’s estate, or relied on fair use or arguments about uncopyrightable ideas. But in any case, Disney is better equipped to either negotiate or defend themselves against infringement lawsuits than others would be.)
Rereading the story recently, I’m struck by both how it reflects its time in some ways, and in how its action is surprisingly economical. In 1924, we were still living in the shadow of the First World War, in which multiple empires and noble houses fell, while others continued but began to teeter. The deadly spectacles of public executions and lynchings were still not uncommon in the United States. And the dividing of people into two classes– those who are inherently privileged and those who are left in the cold or even considered fair game– was particularly salient that year, as the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan neared its peak in popularity, and as immigration law was changed to explicitly keep out people of the “wrong” national origin or race. Those sorts of division haunt our society to this day.
Rainsford objects to Zaroff’s dehumanizing game in what we now tend to think of the story’s setup, which actually takes most of the story’s telling. (The description of the hunt itself is relatively brief, and no words at all are used to describe the final showdown, which implicitly takes place in the gap between the story’s last two sentences.) In the end, though, Rainsford prevails by beating his opponent at his own game. He doesn’t want to kill another human being, but when pressed to the extreme, he adopts his opponent’s rules (at the end giving Zaroff the sporting warning “I am still a beast at bay… Get ready”) and proves to be the better killer.
With the story entering the public domain in less than three weeks, we’ll have the chance to reuse, adapt, and critique the story in quotation more freely than ever before. I hope we use the opportunity not just to recapitulate the story, but to go beyond it in new ways. That’s what happens in the best reuses of tropes. Consider for instance, how in the Hunger Games books, the main character Katniss repeatedly finds ways to subvert the trope of killing others for entertainment. Instead of prevailing by beating opponents at the deadly human-hunting game the enemy has created, she and her allies find ways to reject the game’s premise, cut it short, or prevent its recurrence.
When, in 19 days, we get another year’s worth of public domain works, I hope we too find ways not just to revisit what’s come before, but make new and better work out of them. That’s something that the public domain allows everyone, and not just members of some privileged class, to do.