Thursday, April 25, 2013

False Steps? John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) in Print and on Film

the latest edition
Continuously in print now for nearly a century, John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps is a seminal early example of the flight-and-pursuit story (i.e., hero chased by villains) and, no doubt, one of the more historically significant thrillers in the history of the crime fiction genre. Yet I think John Buchan, who was unquestionably a good writer, went on to write more substantial fare, even in the "shocker" line.

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
The last part of the book finds Hannay back in London, working with higher-ups in the government to try to catch the conspirators.  The leisurely conclusion strikes me as rather underwhelming.

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.


  1. Very reasonable review Curt (trying to avoind writing 'fair and balanced ...) an I agree, the most recent version seems to be based as much on the Hitchcock / Bennett re-write as the book itself and yet is much less successful in making it work on its own terms. And personally I'm really tired of the idea that the only way to make period female characters palatable to contemporary viewers is to emasculate the male characters! The 1950s remake is a shot-for-short adaptation of the Hitchcock version and is pretty proor - much more interesting is the 1970s version starring Robert Powell, which is closer to the book (especially in its depiction of Hannay, a character the actor later reprised on TV), though the ending on the face of Big Ben is what most people remember and is very Hitchcockian!

    1. Sergio, I've read that the 1979 is the most accurate, I don't believe this is available though?

  2. Carol Carr reviewed the book a few years ago and thought it inferior. I've still not read THE THIRTY NINE STEPS and no review I've ever read will convince me it's the one Buchan novel to read. I think it only stays in print because of the Hitchcock movie. When people expect it to be similar to the movie and discover it's utterly different they tend to be disappointed if not completely angry.

    I prefer Hitchcock's version over the most recent one. The only reason I watched that 2008 one was for icily handsome Rupert Penry-Jones who I thought was uninspired in the part. It was a case of admiring the scenery more than the acting if you catch my drift.

    I saw the outrageous stage version which basically does nothing more than recreate the Hitchcock film script on the stage with only four actors and some highly original staging and imaginative costuming and sets. Astonishing work! It was a tour de force of acting for the entire cast, but mostly for the two men who played all the supporting players other than Hannay and Pamela.

    1. I think Rupert is a bit too pretty for a British thriller action hero from the golden era. There was always a suspicion back then of men who were "too" good-looking. He was okay and the inn scene certainly provided Rupert fanciers with their portion of "scenery"; but I think he was better cast in Whitechapel, which got a lot of mileage out of the men below him resenting him for being too posh.

    2. A postscript: I really don't believe that Steps is anywhere close to his best book. I agree the Hitch film has a lot to do with its popularity, also it really did have a big impact at the time and just stuck in people's memories (I imagine a lot of people read it relatively young). It's also a very quick read.

  3. I've always liked the book, although I would agree that it's very far from being his best. STEPS is a very important book in the history of the thriller/spy novel, so it's not surprising that it's constantly being reprinted (the movies also help). The sequels have much more depth, both emotionally and plot-wise, and it's a shame that they're not better known to the general reader.

    There is an understandable tendency to want to introduce female characters into any film version, although I suspect that none of the adapters knows that Hannay meets his wife in the third book MR STANDFAST. Mary is a fascinating character-she is both a nurse and a spy. In THE THREE HOSTAGES she is actually the one who resolves the plot, and the lengths that she is prepared to go to in order to save the lives of the three children of the title still makes for quite shocking reading. She proves to be much tougher minded than the male characters. The courtship of Hannay and Mary is also quite touching. There is none of the bickering of the film and TV versions, and Hannay's problem is not sexism, but rather the fact that he has basically lived in a man's world, and doesn't know how to talk to women.

    The new version was something of a mess. It just felt as if they decided that they must do another adaption of STEPS because the public knew the title. Mickery should really have been allowed to do an adaption of something like Nicholas Blake's THE SMILER WITH THE KNIFE, which bears a lot of similarities to STEPS but has a clever, brave, resourceful woman in the lead role.

    Looking forward to RIDDLE OF THE SANDS. The movie version is massively underrated,and is a good example of how to adapt a story like that to the screen.

    1. Ggary, I just thought the whole love interest angle in this version was "same-old, same-old." I agree, a Smiler with the Knife adaptation would be something splendid! There are actually plenty of books from that era with great women leads, if they looked closely.

      Hope you liked the Sands review. I talked a lot about the stars, actually, but I was kind of amused at the films I had seen MacCorkindale and Agutter in without recalling it!

  4. The scene that I remember from Hitchcock's movie is that of the genial stranger in the train suddenly becoming sinister. That steely bespectacled gaze peering over the newspaper is imprinted on my mind though it is ages since I saw the movie. I read the book comparatively recently and just didn't like it.

    1. Neer, I like the Hitchcock film better than the book, but it's almost completely different!