|the latest edition
Many people probably have heard of the The Thirty-Nine Steps, even if they have not read the book, because it has been filmed four times, originally by Alfred Hitchcock, no less, and most recently for British television in 2008 (I say more about these film adaptations below).
In Steps, the intrepid Colonial Richard Hannay, quite bored in London, gets a visit from a neighbor, Franklin P. Scudder, who has quite a story to tell of an international conspiracy that is imperiling British security.
Frankly, I find the conspiracy plot in Steps nebulous, confusing and unconvincing (do I make myself clear?). It has something to do with an impending visit to London by Constantine Karolides, the big pot in Greece, don't you know. Karolides, it seems, is marked for assassination by certain nefarious types always up to no good in early English thrillers, anarchists and international financiers (though later in the book these folk are dropped in favor of, ach!, Germans).
|Scudder is marked for death
Anyway, the conspirators and would-be assassins are after Scudder, who has found out too much about them for has own good, and he wants to hide out for safety in Hannay's flat (Scudder has discerned that Hannay is a real "white man," as the saying went back then, at least in this sort of book).
One day Hannay finds Scudder murdered in his flat. Instead of sensibly going to the police (like Scudder should have in the first place), he decides to go underground in Scotland, with Scudder's little black book of encoded information about the conspiracy in his pocket.
This decision sets up the longest and best section of the book, where Hannay is running about Scotland, attempting to avoid both the police and the criminals who are trying to catch him. Buchan provides some excellent scenic description of Scotland here, along with some unlikely escapes and spectacular coincidences for Hannay, who seems not so much clever as blessed with incredible luck.
|you might be forgiven for mistaking
this man for Cary Grant
Given my response to Steps, it doesn't surprise me that both Charles Bennett (adapter of the 1935 Hitchcock version) and Lizzie Mickery (adapter of the 2008 version) decided to make changes (there's also the sticky matter of the controversial antisemitic comments that are made in the book).
It has been about fifteen years since I last saw the Hitchcock version, but, as I recollect it, it has precious little in common with the book, aside from the basic plot of a man wrongfully accused of murder going on the run (a common Hitchcock motif).
The 2008 version is more loyal to book in terms of its the general plot structure, but in others ways is so different as to seem like a completely different story.
There are comparatively minor points, such as Scudder getting killed much more quickly and Hannay being immediately implicated in his murder (I think this is an improvement), but some changes are really major.
The most obvious of these story-altering changes is the introduction of a major female character, Victoria Sinclair (played by Lydia Leonard; Hannay, by the by, is played by Rupert Penry-Jones of Whitechapel and Sad Cypress fame for mystery fans--and he's just as positively posh as ever).
Victoria Sinclair is a woman's suffragist whom Hannay encounters when, in a case of mistaken identity, he is pressed by Sinclair and her brother into giving a speech at a political meeting in Scotland (a version of this episode also appears in the book and the 1935 film).
After his speech Hannay ends up on the run with Sinclair. Rather like Robert Donat (Hannay) and Madeleine Carroll (Pamela) in the 1935 version, they bicker a great deal (like Donat and Carroll they even are shackled together, though only briefly). However, in this case, we clearly have a case of attracted opposites--she's an outspoken suffragette, you see, and he's, well, um...a sexist Neanderthal (but posh!).
There's even a "will-they-or-won't-they" scene between our couple when they spend the night at a Scottish inn. I say!
All this is far removed from the world of the book, which is rather remarkable for barely even having any women characters in it, let alone a romance for Hannay.
|the one time that these two
stop bickering with each other--at least audibly
The scriptwriter Lizzie Mickery adds some welcome convolution to the plot, but she also gives us a twist--or two actually--that seemed to me to make a logical mess of what preceded the twists (of course to be fair, it's not like the book doesn't have major plot holes as well).
I can't go into detail (major spoilers!), but let's just say this is a case of where feminist revisionism in film adaptation is at odds not only with the film's own narrative logic but with the historical context and the source material.
For the second half of the film Hannay becomes almost a secondary player, which certainly is not in accord with what Buchan wrote. Buchan's Steps very much subscribes to the theory, so popular in Golden Age crime fiction, that the "talented gentleman amateur" can do about anything. Mickery's Steps sidelines the gentlemen amateur with what academic Melissa Schaub calls the "female gentleman."
This battle of the sexes motif rather reminded of the line "Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better," from the musical Annie Get Your Gun. Or maybe Mickery had Agatha Christie's Tommy and Tuppence a bit in mind! Any road, she certainly wasn't getting all this from the actual novel that John Buchan wrote.
|he can do anything posher than you
Rupert Penry-Jones as Richard Hannay
So for me the 2008 film doesn't really work, despite the fact that I'm sympathetic with adapters who want to "spice up" the book with new elements. There are some things I liked though. The opening minutes struck me as splendidly Hitchcockian (in particular Eddie Marsan as Scudder seemed like he stepped right out of a Hitchcock film), the escape by train across England to Scotland is well done and the Scottish scenery is ravishingly beautiful.
Apropos of the last point, there are a couple of lovely scenes that reminded me of the book: the pursuit of Hannay by a plane and by police beating a field of heather in search of him (I imagine the plane scene was influenced as well by the famous crop duster scene in Hitchcock's North by Northwest).
Overall, however, I found the 2008 film rather a mixed bag. Of course, I think this describes my feeling about the book too! Among early classic spy thrillers I prefer both the 1903 book The Riddle of the Sands and its 1979 film adaptation, which I will be reviewing next week (as well as a couple novels by Mabel Seeley).
And here's a very nice review of The Thirty-Nine Steps over at Past Offences. A lot of good points about the novel's place in the mystery/crime genre.