The 39 Steps
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Cornerhouse, 15 May 2011
You could make a fairly good case for saying that Alfred Hitchcock’s film is superior to John Buchan’s source novel.
For a start, there are a goodly number of women in the film: the agent who first makes contact with Richard Hannay is a woman, as is the Scottish farmer’s wife who comes to his aid (and there’s a genuine compassionate feeling to these scenes, quite rare in Hitchcock’s later films), as too is the woman who ends up on the run with him (a relationship which set the template for a number of later films, notably North by Northwest). Looking at the matter clearly, the presence of women introduces romance, humour, flirtatious banter… it makes for a whole different feel and it’s more enjoyable as a spectacle. In Buchan’s novel, there are no women at all: it is a boy’s adventure story.
Thank goodness, also, for a second difference, this time an omission: Hitchcock has dropped the anti-Semitic vibe that was a part, though admittedly not a large part, of Buchan’s novel. Buchan floats the idea, through his character Scudder, that the bankers and arms dealers, many of them Jewish, were seeking to provoke war in order to make a fast buck.
I think the film also scores highly on atmosphere and suspense, and is overall a complete cinematic creation, but Buchan is a terrific storyteller as well, of course.
This is a wonderful film, and the book is well worth a read too. After reading it a few years ago, I reviewed it here.