John Buchan on film: those elusive thirty-nine celluloid steps

Orange Penguin cover of The Thirty-Nine Steps

Our edition of The Thirty-Nine Steps

As I mentioned previously, I watched one of the film versions of John Buchan’s classic adventure The Thirty-Nine Steps after reading it recently. The Hitchcock re-telling was one of my favourite screen versions, made in 1935 and starring Robert Donat (as Richard Hannay) and Madeleine Carroll (as Pamela). It was not until I read The Thirty-Nine Steps that I realised just how far were the screen versions from Buchan’s original story. I thought I knew the plot (more or less, a variation here and there perhaps) but now I concede that I knew absolutely nothing. Except that, thirty-nine steps (albeit with variant meanings) were involved and so was a large segment of rugged, almost deserted (except for the baddies) Scottish landscape.

For those of you who have never read The Thirty-Nine Steps, I will give a brief outline of the plot before

Cover of The Thirty-Nine Steps

A first edition of the novel

confusing you with the plot of the film: Hannay is a Scot, recently returned to the Old Country from South Africa who is heartily bored after three months. After an evening at dinner and a music hall show, he has determined to leave for the Cape if nothing interesting turns up within another day. Something certainly does turn up and Hannay finds himself fleeing across Scotland in several different disguises while in possession of a secret that could mean the difference between war and peace. Figuring out what or where the thirty-nine steps might be is a vital part of his un-looked for mission. As Buchan wrote the book in 1915, the plot’s threat, which involved the assassination of a European leader, was rather apposite. The Thirty-Nine Steps was Richard Hannay’s first adventure and it involves him in some tight moments and plenty of narrow escapes.

Moving on to the film version: I found to my surprise that whereas in Buchan’s original novel I found a distinct lack of women characters, two feisty ones pop up in the screen action. In the book, an occasional anonymous female supplies much-needed sustenance (fleeing dastardly spies is hungry work), but where, oh where is the glamorous Mata Hari type figure (Annabella Smith, played by Lucie Mannheim) that I saw in the film? In Buchan’s spy yarn, a mysterious American called Franklin P Scudder gives the vital information to Hannay. He does eventually wind up dead, but not as soon and arguably not as splendidly dramatically as Smith does.  In Buchan’s world, spying is obviously strictly a man’s game.

Film poster of Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll

Film Poster

Hitchcock’s film further alters the female/male balance of the cast by adding the cool and elegant Pamela, to function as the ‘love interest’ part of the chase. I wonder what Buchan, who died in 1940 thought of the changes made to his story. He did not live to see the further screen adaptations, none of which was any more faithful than the 1935 film to the original tale. Carroll’s character is noticeably less exotic than the deceased Annabella Smith is but sparks soon fly between her and Hannay. Initially she disbelieves Hannay’s far fetched claims so betrays him to the police before finally realising that he was telling her the truth all along and so she helps him.

One side effect of playing with Google to research for blog pieces is that you find out other snippets of information. I found a site set up in tribute to Madeleine Carroll, who was apparently one of the few film actors to make a successful transition from silent movies to talkies. She was born in West Bromwich, England of an Irish father (Co Limerick) and a French mother and spent part of her early career with Barry Jackson’s Birmingham Repertory Theatre. A memorial was set up in her hometown in 2010 and an account of her life by Derek Chamberlain was published by Troubadour Publishing Ltd. If I manage to get a picture of her memorial next time I am in the area, I will post it up.

Follow the links given in the text for further information. Thanks to Wikipedia for the gorgeous The 39 Steps film poster and the shot of the first edition jacket.

If you are interested in further information about John Buchan’s life and work, I found a link to the John Buchan Society which has plenty of useful material.

Now, after John Buchan, which of the ‘Landing Eight’ shall I tackle next….Any thoughts?