Literature: The 39 Steps aka: The Thirty-nine Steps
What are the thirty-nine steps? A question that almost every adaptation answers differently.John Buchan was one of the world's first spy novelists, and did a similar job for the genre as J. R. R. Tolkien did for fantasy. The Thirty-Nine Steps is his most famous work, written in the run-up to World War One. It was a huge popular success and owed much to its 1903 predecessor, Erskine Childers' The Riddle Of The Sands, and the adventure stories of H. Rider Haggard. Buchan began his writing career as a journalist, but enlisted at the start of the First World War, working away from the front lines producing propaganda for the War Office. His experiences of the war, interwoven with a strong sense of national pride, a love of Africa and a belief in the strength of the British character, are themes in many of his novels.Unfortunately in later years he has not enjoyed similar popularity, though according to The Other Wiki his works have been seeing a resurgence in more recent times.Adapted four times for film, once for TV, once for the stage, and at least once for radio.(NB: The book is The Thirty-Nine Steps. The 1978 film is The Thirty Nine Steps. The other adaptations are The 39 Steps.)The original novelIt's May 1914. Richard Hannay has just returned to London from Rhodesia. A man called Scudder meets him and tells him the tall tale of an international conspiracy determined to start a war. The conspirators are on Scudder's track and his only hope is to stage his own suicide and lie low for a while. Hannay agrees to hide Scudder in his London flat, but a few days later Scudder is murdered there by enemy agents and Hannay realizes he will be accused of the crime. Hunted by both policemen and enemy spies, Hannay takes to the Scottish moors in a desperate bid to stay one step ahead of the enemy until he can thwart their evil plans.In this original version, the 39 steps are steps down to the sea which identify a villa along a stretch of the Kent coast where the final confrontation with the German agents takes place.The sequels are:
Greenmantle: Hannay and four friends make their way through wartime Europe to Turkey, searching for the truth behind the rumours of a German secret weapon that could throw the entire Muslim world into the war on the Germans' side. Sometimes considered to be one of the best books Buchan ever wrote; Hitchcock wanted to film it for years but never got around to it.
Mr Standfast: An old enemy reappears and in the last pivotal days of World War One on the Western Front, Hannay wages a battle of wits. Finally introduces a Love Interest (she's worth the wait).
The Three Hostages: With World War One over, Sir Richard and Lady Hannay are enjoying a quiet life in the country, but when three young people are kidnapped and a mind-controlling genius starts leaving cryptic clues behind, the pair of former spy-hunters have to go back to work.
The Island of Sheep: Set roughly fourteen years after The Three Hostages. Hannay and his son Peter John Hannay have to protect an old friend from fortune-hunters.
Bond Villain Stupidity: In Mr Standfast. Apparently Ian Fleming was a fan of Buchan's. And how it shows. If you're going to pinion the hero in a Death Trap and declare that you have a Villainous Crush on his girlfriend, as an absolute minimum you should take his gun away before you head off leaving him completely unguarded. Otherwise you only have yourself to blame when he shoots himself free and turns up at the denouement.
They gave me my battalion before the Somme, and I came out of that weary battle after the first big September fighting with a crack in my head and a D.S.O. I had received a C.B. for the Erzerum business, so what with these and my Matabele and South African medals and the Legion of Honour, I had a chest like the High Priest's breastplate.
Conspiracy Theory: One involving vengeful Jewish financiers in the first book, but this is later jossed in-universe when it turns out that the man who told this to Hannay wasn't 100% sure if he could trust Hannay with his findings on the real conspiracy (which didn't involve Jewish people at all) and instead just made something up using the prevailing bigotry of the time.
Out of the entire housing stock of Scotland, Hannay just happens to enter the house being rented by the spy ringleaders. And the room they lock him in just happens to have explosives in the cupboard.
In Mr Standfast the remote and inaccessible Scottish cave Hannay is staking out is visited on that very evening by a possible antagonist from earlier in the book. He turns out to be a complete innocent who likes mountain climbing and just happens to be in the area.
Cool Old Guy: Peter Pienaar, who taught Four-Star Badass Hannay most of what he knows about disguise, spying, and veldtcraft. Will calmly walk into occupied Germany or across No Man's Land if necessary. Especially good at breaking out of prison, knocking you out with a well-aimed tea-tray, snuffing the lights in a public-house with a revolver, or rescuing your kidnapped Love Interest. Eventually discovers his life's calling as an elderly RAF air ace.
Deliberate Values Dissonance: Scudder presents the conspiracy as being masterminded by the Jews, but it's later revealed that this is a flight of fancy based on his own prejudices.
Determinator: Probably Richard Hannay's defining character trait as well as his preferred modus operandi, both mental and physical—he will keep running long after anyone else would have lain down and died from exhaustion, exposure, injuries, or being blown up.
Gentleman Adventurer: The Thirty-Nine Steps takes place after Hannay has retired from a busy and dangerous life as a mining engineer in Africa; he does have the leisure to pick up Scudder's adventure, but rather jumps at the opportunity because the idleness is driving him crazy. Then it's averted in the sequels, with Hannay becoming a hard-working Army officer.
Gentleman Snarker: Richard Hannay may be something of an idealist, but like all Britons he is perfectly capable of a few zingers.
He was a man of remarkable qualities, which would have brought him to the highest distinction in the Stone Age.
I'm not in this show for honor and glory, though. I want to do the best I can, but I wish to Heaven it was over. All I think of is coming out of it with a whole skin.
Honor Before Reason: With a lampshade! Offer Richard Hannay a bribe so he'll look the other way while you make your country pay twice for the munitions it's going to use to bomb the hell out of the Anzacs at Gallipoli, and he'll make damn sure you don't get away with it... Oh wait, poor Anzacs. Especially impressive because it means Hannay's disguise as barge foreman is working so well he's even convinced himself he's working for the Germans!
Paper-Thin Disguise: Justified good and proper. Taking on a new personality is more effective than new clothes. The only problem is that to successfully pose as harmless idiots the characters run the risk of Becoming the Mask and losing their intellectual edge!
Rage Breaking Point: In Greenmantle, Hannay's disguise as a backveldt Boer is given away when Stumm's bullying, intimidation, and insults finally push him beyond this.
Ripped from the Headlines: Karolides (whose real world equivalent is Franz Ferdinand) and real life figures Kaiser Wilhelm and Ismail Enver all make appearances.
Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Definitely on the Idealist end of the scale owing to Buchan's convictions about the war. However his idealism need not be mistaken for ignorance or shallowness. The books treat Germans sympathetically (including the Kaiser) and Buchan witnessed trench warfare firsthand as a newspaper correspondent.
The So-Called Coward: Lancelot Wake is a sensitive artistic pacifist unable to handle himself in a fight—so naturally Hannay views him with contempt. Turns out he's a pacifist for truly idealistic reasons and is quite possibly the bravest person in the book.
Spy Fiction: Basically invented the trope; the Beer and Martini elements both have roots here.
The Spymaster: Sir Walter Bullivant, John Blenkiron and Mary Lamington for the allied cause, and Moxon Ivery alias der Graf von Schwabing for the Germans.
They Look Just Like Everyone Else: Those two young men playing lawn tennis? Members of a sinister international conspiracy. That airplane in the sky? Just sent someone to kill you. That nice old buffer? Evil incarnate. No wonder even Hannay begins to wonder if he's paranoid.
Unstoppable Rage: Hannay can be pushed into this with severe bullying, as Stumm finds out in Greenmantle.
World War One: The Thirty-nine Steps takes place in the run-up to the war, and both Greenmantle and Mr Standfast are set during the war.
The 1935 Alfred Hitchcock filmA loose adaptation of the book, moving the setting to the 1930s, turning Hannay into a Canadian (a possible nod to original author Buchan being made Governor-General of Canada in 1935), Scudder into a female spy of Central European origin and changing the nature of the secrets (a formula for a silent aircraft engine). Starring Robert Donnat, it also adds a love interest to the story. In this version the 39 steps are a ring of foreign spies intent on stealing military secrets.This is the best known version.
This film contains examples of:
Adaptation Distillation - Hitchcock addressed the biggest flaw of the novel's plot: In the novel Hannay heads to the Scottish countryside to hide from both the police and the foreign agents pursuing him in London, and out of sheer bad luck walks right into his enemy's headquarters. The film gives a reason why Hannay heads right to the enemy's stronghold.
Almost Dead Guy: Annabella makes it back to Richard's room and manages to tell him to run before keeling over with a knife in her back.
Arc Number: The numbers 3 and 5 appear quite frequently. A couple examples include the numbers 5 and 10 (5 x 2) appearing in the corners of the film, the title being "39" (3 and 3 x 9, or 3 x 13), and the scenes being roughly 3 - 5 minutes in length. The significance is not present in the film itself, but a theme of bread and fish is seen throughout the film as an alleged reference to The Bible, where Jesus Christ takes 3 fish and loaves of bread to feed 5,000 people.
Brandishment Bluff: Richard tells Pamela that the tobacco pipe in his coat pocket is a gun.
Chained Heat: Only for a couple of scenes, though. Pamela and Richard have been handcuffed together by the bad guys, but manage to escape. They make their way to a hotel, where they have to conceal the fact that they are cuffed to each other. Pamela manages to work her smaller hand out of the cuffs that night.
Chekhov's Gunman / Chekhov's Skill: Mr. Memory is performing at the vaudeville hall where Richard meets Annabella in the opening scene. It seems like an espionage version of Meet Cute. Then in the last scene Mr. Memory pops up again, and Richard realizes that Memory is working for the 39 Steps and has memorized the secret information.
Pocket Protector: Hannay is shot square in the chest by the bad guy, but he's saved by the Bible that was in his coat's pocket.
Science Marches On: The secret being smuggled out is implied to be a silent bomber engine, useful at a time when the only means of detecting attacking bombers was acoustic location. As it happened though there really was a secret being protected at the time that would make such an invention obsolete — radar.
Smithical Marriage: Pamela and Richard have to pretend they are married to get a room in an inn.
The 1959 filmColour remake of the Hitchcock film, starring Kenneth More, moving the setting to the 1950s and changing the secrets to plans for a British ballistic missile. Nobody really remembers this one. In this version, the 39 steps are again a ring of foreign spies intent on stealing military secrets.This film contains examples of:
The 1978 filmA more faithful adaptation of the novel, moving the setting back to 1914. This one is best remembered for Robert Powell, playing Hannay, hanging off the minute hand of the clock on St. Stephen's Tower (aka Big Ben). Also has a love interest. The 39 steps are a flight of stairs in the clock tower of the palace of Westminster, better known as 'Big Ben' (this name actually refers to the bell in the tower rather than the tower itself).Inspired a TV series, Hannay, also starring Robert Powell in adventures not based on any of Buchan's other novels.The 2006 playA four-actor comedic theatrical adaptation of the Hitchcock film, which has been shown in the West End and Broadway. To give an idea of the style, the Forth Bridge train is a model train on a track at the back of the stage and pretty much everyone plays at least a dozen roles. In this version, the 39 steps are again a ring of foreign spies intent on stealing military secrets.
Loads and Loads of Roles: Four actors play every role in the movie, sometimes having to play two characters in the same scene. Traditionally it's one actor for the main character, one actress for all the attractive women, and two other actors for everything else. Scenery not excluded.
Lampshaded in one instance when two characters come to a ladder and the woman won't go up. "Why no- oh, don't tell me. Vertigo."
Those Two Guys: Because there are only two guys other than Hannay, this pops up a lot. Examples include the underwear salesmen, the police officers, the heavies, the Sheriff and Chief Inspector, Dunwoody and Mc Quarrie, and Compere and Mr. Memory.
Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Hannay initially mistakes the Scottish farmer's wife for his daughter.
The 2008 TV MovieFor the 2008 Christmas season, The BBC did another adaptation of the book, but added another love interest and moved the setting very slightly forward (it's now June 1914). The 39 steps are steps leading down to a Scottish loch.Rupert Penry-Jones (Adam Carter in Spooks) plays Hannay in this one.