The Thirty-Nine Steps
|Publisher||William Blackwood and Sons|
|Media type||Print (hardback and paperback)|
The Thirty-Nine Steps is an adventure novel by the Scottish author John Buchan. It first appeared as a serial in Blackwood's Magazine in August and September 1915 before being published in book form in October that year by William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh. It is the first of the five novels featuring Richard Hannay, an all-action hero with a stiff upper lip and a miraculous knack for getting himself out of tricky situations.
The novel formed the basis for a number of successful adaptations, including several film versions and a long-running stage play. In 2003, the book was listed on the BBC's The Big Read poll of the UK's "best-loved novels."
John Buchan wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps while he was ill in bed with a duodenal ulcer, an illness which remained with him all his life. Buchan's son, William, later wrote that the name of the book originated when the author's daughter was counting the stairs at St Cuby, a private nursing home on Cliff Promenade in Broadstairs, where Buchan was convalescing. "There was a wooden staircase leading down to the beach. My sister, who was about six, and who had just learnt to count properly, went down them and gleefully announced: there are 39 steps." There were actually 78, but he halved the number to make a better title. When the original steps were later replaced, one of them, complete with a brass plaque, was sent to Buchan. They were replaced by concrete, and this set, now numbering 108, still runs from the garden to the beach.
The novel was his first "shocker", as he called it—a story combining personal and political dramas. It marked a turning point in Buchan's literary career and introduced his adventuring hero Richard Hannay. He described a "shocker" as an adventure where the events in the story are unlikely and the reader is only just able to believe that they really happened.
In May of 1914, war looms in Europe. Richard Hannay returns home to London after living in Rhodesia. One night his neighbour, an American who claims to be in fear for his life, visits Hannay. The man appears to know of an anarchist plot to destabilize Europe, beginning with a plan to assassinate the Greek Premier, Constantine Karolides, during his forthcoming visit to London.
The man, named Franklin P. Scudder, is a freelance spy, and reveals that he has faked his own death. Scudder claims to be following a ring of German spies called the Black Stone who are trying to steal British plans for the outbreak of war. Hannay, convinced of his honesty, lets Scudder hide in his flat. Police discover the fake suicide and suspect nothing, but Hannay finds Scudder murdered in his flat a few days later nonetheless. Feeling now part of the plot, Hannay takes up Scudder's encoded notebook and escapes his apartment by disguising himself as the milkman one day.
Hannay takes a train leaving from London to Galloway, in south-west Scotland, believing it sufficiently remote to hide in until the fateful 15th of June (a date noted by Scudder relevant to the anarchist's plot). Hannay lodges in a shepherd's cottage and reads in a newspaper that the police are looking for him in Scotland, suspecting him of Scudder's murder. Hannay boards a local train heading east, but jumps off between stations to confuse his trail. He eventually finds an inn where he stays the night. He tells the innkeeper a modified version of his story, and the man is persuaded to shelter him. While staying at the inn, Hannay cracks the cipher used in Scudder's codebook. The next day two men arrive at the inn looking for Hannay, but the innkeeper sends them away. When they return later, Hannay steals their car and escapes.
By this time, Hannay is being pursued by an aeroplane, and a policeman in a remote village tries to stop him as he drives through. He decides to stay off the main roads, but not knowing the area, nearly gets into a crash. To avoid it, he ditches the car, which falls off a cliff. The other driver, Harry Bullivant, a local landowner and prospective politician, takes pity on him after seeing his dirty clothes and takes him home to clean up. When he learns of Hannay's experiences in South Africa, he invites him to address an election meeting that afternoon. Hannay's speech impresses Harry (and is far better than Harry's own), and Hannay feels able to trust him with his story. Harry writes an introductory letter about Hannay to a relation in the Foreign Office to thank him for his speech and help him with the plot.
Hannay leaves Harry and tries to hide in the countryside, but is spotted from the aeroplane. Soon he spots a group of men on the ground searching for him. Miraculously, he meets a road mender out on the moor, and swaps places with him, sending the workman home. His disguise fools his pursuers, who pass him by. On the same road he encounters an acquaintance from London (whom he hates) named Marmaduke Jopley. He takes his clothes and drives his car several miles away before leaving Jopley.
Now back on foot, his pursuers find Hannay, and he runs off. He finds a cottage and enters, desperate for cover, and the occupant excitedly welcomes him. Unfortunately, the man turns out to be one of the enemy, and with his accomplices he locks Hannay into his storage room. Fortunately, the room in which Hannay is locked is full of bomb-making materials, which he uses to break out of the cottage. Without cover or means to escape cars or the plane, Hannay hides on top of a building until nightfall, then runs off.
Hannay returns to and retrieves his possessions from the helpful road mender and stays for a few days to recover from the explosion. He departs by train to meet Harry's relative at the Foreign Office, Sir Walter Bullivant. As they discuss Scudder's notes, Sir Walter receives a phone call to tell him that Karolides has indeed been assassinated. Sir Walter and his cohort return to London with Hannay, where they clear his name at Scotland Yard and release him, apparently free of involvement in the plot. Hannay feels agitated and unfulfilled; he runs into Marmaduke Jopley again and starts a fight. With the police after him again, he flees to Sir Walter's home, where he finds him in a meeting with several officials, including the First Sea Lord. While Hannay waits for the meeting to end, the First Sea Lord leaves. They briefly make eye contact and Hannay is certain the man is one of his pursuers in disguise. They call the real First Sea Lord's home, where a servant informs them he is asleep in bed.
Desperate to stop the imposter from escaping with their secrets, Hannay and the officials comb Scudder's codebook. They reason that the phrase "the thirty-nine steps," along with the date and tidal information (high tide at 10:17 PM) must indicate the location of the escape point for the conspirators. With the help of a coast guardsman, they set off for a quiet middle-class location by the sea. They find an area with several sets of steps, one of them having 39, and an anchored yacht called "Ariadne." They approach the yacht posing as fishermen and discover the officer on board is German. Hannay watches three men in a villa who match the description of his pursuers, but their normal behaviour causes him to doubt their involvement.
Despite his doubts, he confronts the men. A subtle gesture assures him that they are his pursuers, and his men enter to arrest them. Although one escapes, bound for the boat, Hannay reveals they have already taken the boat, and all three men are arrested. England enters World War I three weeks later, her secrets intact, with Hannay commissioned captain.
Literary significance and criticism
The Thirty-Nine Steps is one of the earliest examples of the 'man-on-the-run' thriller archetype subsequently adopted by film makers as a much-used plot device. In The Thirty-Nine Steps, Buchan holds up Richard Hannay as an example to his readers of an ordinary man who puts his country's interests before his own safety. The story was a great success with the men in the First World War trenches. One soldier wrote to Buchan, "The story is greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells, and all that could make trench life depressing."
Hannay continued his adventures in four subsequent books. Two were set during the war, when he continued his undercover work against the Germans and their allies the Turks in Greenmantle (1916) and Mr Standfast (1919). The other two stories, The Three Hostages (1924) and The Island of Sheep (1936) were set in the postwar period, when Hannay's opponents were criminal gangs.
- Richard Hannay – colonial recently arrived from Southern Africa, who is the protagonist and narrator
- Franklin P. Scudder – freelance spy
- Karolides – Greek Premier under threat of assassination, who never appears and is only alluded to.
- Sir Harry – Scottish landowner and would-be politician
- Sir Walter Bullivant – Sir Harry's relation at the Foreign Office
The novel has been adapted for various media; many of the adaptations depart widely from the text—for example, by introducing a love interest absent from the original novel and inspired by Hitchcock's film. In most cases, the title is often abbreviated to The 39 Steps, but the full title is more commonly used for the book and 1978 film adaptation.
The 39 Steps (1935)
The 1935 black and white film directed by Alfred Hitchcock departs substantially from the book. It stars Robert Donat as Hannay and Madeleine Carroll as a woman he meets on the train. It is regarded by many critics as the best film version. This was one of several Hitchcock films based upon the idea of an "innocent man on the run", such as Saboteur and North by Northwest. Scholars of his films regard this film as one of his best variations upon this particular theme. In 1999, it came 4th in a BFI poll of British films and in 2004 Total Film named it the 21st greatest British film of all time.
The 39 Steps (1959)
The 1959 film directed by Ralph Thomas was the first colour version, starring Kenneth More as Hannay and Taina Elg as Miss Fisher. It is closely based on Hitchcock's adaptation, including the music-hall finale with "Mr. Memory" and Hannay's escape from a train on the Forth Bridge, scenes not present in the book. It features a musical score by Clifton Parker.
The Thirty Nine Steps (1978)
The 1978 version was directed by Don Sharp and starred Robert Powell as Hannay, Karen Dotrice as Alex, John Mills as Colonel Scudder and a host of other well-known British actors in smaller parts. It is generally regarded as the closest to the book, being set at the same time as the novel, pre-Great War, but still bears little resemblance to Buchan's original story. Its climax bore no relation to the novel's denouement, instead seeing Hannay hanging from the hands of Big Ben. The film was followed by a spin-off television series, Hannay, also starring Powell and featuring adventures occurring prior to the events in The Thirty-Nine Steps.
The 39 Steps (2008)
The BBC commissioned a new television adaptation of the novel, scripted by Lizzie Mickery and produced by BBC Scotland's drama unit. The 90-minute film stars Rupert Penry-Jones, Lydia Leonard, Patrick Malahide and Eddie Marsan, and was first broadcast on 28 December 2008 A romantic subplot was added to the story, featuring Lydia Leonard. The storyline only very tenuously follows that of the book, many characters being renamed, or omitted altogether. The film ends with a scene involving a submarine in a Scottish loch, rather than the original setting off the Kent coast, and the apparent death of one character.
There were various American radio adaptations during the two decades following the release of Hitchcock's film, most of which were based on its heavily altered plot. It remains a popular subject for modern live productions done in a similar, old-time radio style.
- 1937, starring Robert Montgomery and Ida Lupino, part of the Lux Radio Theater series.
- 1938, starring Orson Welles, part of The Mercury Theatre on the Air series.
- 1943, starring Herbert Marshall and Madeleine Carroll, part of the Philip Morris Playhouse series.
- 1946, starring David Niven, part of The Hour of Mystery series.
- 1947, part of the Canadian Broadcasting Company Stage Series.
- 1948, starring Glenn Ford and Mercedes McCambridge, part of the Studio One series.
- 1952, starring Herbert Marshall, part of the Suspense series.
- 1939, in six parts, adapted by Winifred Carey and produced by James McKechnie.
- 1944, in six parts, adapted by Winifred Carey and produced by Derek McCulloch.
- 1950, The Adventures of Richard Hannay in 12 half-hour parts, based on The Thirty-Nine Steps and Mr Standfast adapted by Winifred Carey and produced by Donald McLean.
- 1950, The Adventures of Richard Hannay in eight half-hour parts, based on The Thirty-Nine Steps and Mr Standfast adapted by Winifred Carey and produced by Donald McLean.
- 1960, in six episodes, adapted by J. C. Gosforth and produced by Frederick Bradnum.
- 1972, The Adventures of Richard Hannay based on The Thirty-Nine Steps and Mr Standfast in six episodes, adapted by Winifred Carey and produced by Norman Wright.
- 1989, dramatised by Peter Buckman and directed by Patrick Rayner.
- 2001, starring David Robb, Tom Baker and William Hope, adapted by Bert Coules.
There are also several BBC solo readings:
- 1947, in 12 parts, abridged by Hilton Brown and read by Arthur Bush.
- 1978, in five parts, abridged by Barry Campbell and read by Frank Duncan.
- 1996, in ten parts, produced by Jane Marshall and read by John Nettles.
Other solo readings:
- 1994, abridged, read by James Fox and released by Orbis Publishing, as part of their "Talking Classics" series. It consisted of an illustrated magazine accompanied by a double CD or cassette.
- 2007, unabridged, read by Robert Powell and released by Audible audiobooks.
- 2007, unabridged, read by Peter Joyce and released by Assembled Stories audiobooks.
A comic theatrical adaptation by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon for a cast of four actors premiered in 1995 at the Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond, North Yorkshire, before embarking on a tour of village halls across the north of England. In 2005 Patrick Barlow rewrote the script, keeping the scenes, staging and small-scale feel, and in June 2005 this re-adaptation premiered at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, The play then opened in London's Tricycle Theatre, and after a successful run transferred to the Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly where it became the fifth longest running play until it closed in September 2015. Although drawing on Buchan's novel, it is strongly influenced by Hitchcock's 1935 film adaptation. On 15 January 2008, the show made its US Broadway premiere at the American Airlines Theatre; it transferred to the Cort Theatre on 29 April 2008 and then moved to the Helen Hayes Theatre on 21 January 2009, where it ended its run on 10 January 2010. It reopened on Stage One of New York's Off-Broadway venue New World Stages on 25 March 2010 and closed on 15 April 2010. The Broadway production received six Tony Award nominations, winning two—Best Lighting Design and Best Sound Design with the London show winning an Olivier in 2007 and two Tony Awards in 2008. The play also won the Drama Desk Award, Unique Theatrical Experience.
A planned television adaptation on Netflix as limited series will be produced by Anonymous Content and starring Benedict Cumberbatch was reported in April 2021. The team will include Edward Berger as director and Mark L. Smith as writer.
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