The Thirty-Nine Steps
Type of publication
Crime, mystery, espionage
Approx. 41,000 words
Hannay (Robert Donat) finds the murder in his flat that launches his adventure in 1935's The 39 Steps.
The Thirty-Nine Steps
More Hitchcock than Buchan
The 39 Steps (1935): Director Alfred Hitchcock; writer Charles Bennett; featuring Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll
The novel The Thirty-Nine Steps is a modern classic of the espionage and thriller genre and the movie The 39 Steps (1935) is a great Hitchcock film, also a classic of the espionage and thriller genre.
Yet, this first of three major film adaptation is nothing like the book it is supposedly based on.
The main character played by Robert Donat (Goodbye, Mr. Chips) is still named Richard Hannay and he still goes on the lam in Scotland from both foreign spies and police who think he's murdered someone in London, just as in the book. But that's about the extent of the similarity between film and book.
In John Buchan's novel, Hannay had made his fortune in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe during colonial times) and is staying in England when a man in his building named Scudder tells him about an anarchist conspiracy to start war in the Balkans, this being just before the First World War. Scudder's murder leads to Hannay's flight, and he spends most of the novel playing cat and mouse with his pursuers in the highlands before he gets a government bigwig on his side and solves the mystery that has something to do with "thirty-nine steps".
Hitchcock's The 39 Steps however starts with gunfire during a mentalist act by a performer called Mr. Memory. Hannay is now a visiting Canadian who takes home from the curtailed performance a mysterious woman, a Miss Annabella Smith, who reveals a Nazi plot to steal top-secret papers from Britain, this being before the Second World War.
Her murder sends him scampering for his own life in Scotland where he is helped by two other women. One, played by blond-bombshell Madeleine Carroll, manages to get herself handcuffed to Hannay—leading to humorous and romantic complications.
Trailer for Hitchcock's 1935 update on John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps.
In the end, Hannay returns to London and Mr. Memory to find a solution to the mystery that is altogether different from that of the book—entirely changing the significance of the title. No wonder the film's title (The 39 Steps) is spelled differently, using numerals instead of words.
All of which is to say, forget the book. This is a fun old movie. Somewhat dated of course, but Hitchcock knew what would make terrific drama for the audience of his time in his first great suspense thriller.
Hitch would make Secret Agent (again with Carroll as female lead) the next year and then Sabotage and The Lady Vanishes, among others, over the following three years in Britain before moving to Hollywood to make his most famous films.
— Eric McMillan