Thirty-Nine Steps on TV

Last night’s film of The Thirty-Nine Steps was a pleasant enough way of spending a relaxed post-Christmas evening, but it was a long way from Buchan. It followed the basic pattern of the novel – Scudder killed in Hannay’s flat; Hannay on the run from both police and enemy agents – but the adaptors clearly didn’t trust the original material to hold a modern audience. Or maybe they didn’t trust their own ability to put across the original material.  The Thirty-Nine Steps is intensely gripping, but lacks many of the standard ingredients we have come to expect  in a thriller. There is no love-interest, and most of the events are rather small-scale.

The book works because Buchan knew the Scottish lowlands so well, the landscape and the people. Hannay is struggling for survival within a richly known context, and the smallest details matter. This TV film used the lowlands for some nice shots of scenery, but never gave much sense of the land or people. It almost came as a shock when one of the soldiers late in the film had a Scottish accent.

Buchan was the writer who turned the “shocker” into literature, by giving solidity to sensational incident.  The film turned it back into something much more standard. There was Victoria,  the heroine, for example, who was precisely the fantasy of many of my female friends: at the same time both suffragette and  secret agent, wearing very nice clothes, irresistible to men and sexually free, but able to deliver a sharp kick in the balls  to appropriate pursuers. And not in the book, of course. She brought out the very worst in the German villains, who threatened to pull out her fingernails one by one if hannay didn’t reveal the whereabouts of Scudder’s notebook. She was actually the only one who knew where it was, but didn’t weaken for a moment. Her hairpins were invaluable for releasing bonds and picking locks. Has the writer of this ever tried picking a lock with a hairpin? I tried once and gave up after half an hour, but this heroine managed it in about five seconds. Well, maybe I’m just jealous.

The film’s view of the War was mildly interesting. There were a couple of editorialising speeches about how awful war was, and how it must be avoided at all costs – but on the other hand the Germans were not only the enemy but unambiguously vile and underhand. No sense of futility in this one.

At the end of the film, Hannay heads off to do his bit in France, while Victoria, his girlfriend, is going off to do something secret, and , it is implied, more important elsewhere. She promises that they can meet again after the War. I wonder how she’ll react when she finds that  he marries mary in Mr Standfast….

So it was all tosh really, but quite good tosh, that went rather well with turkey sandwiches and a bottle of Rioja.

I read a biography of Buchan that reveals the reactions of JB and his wife to Hitchcock’s  film of The 39 Steps. Lady Tweedsmuir disliked the liberties it took with the novel, but Buchan  approved, apparently realising that the film medium demanded something different. I wonder what he’d have made of this one.


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