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The Thirty-Nine Steps


1935, 1959, 1978, 2008

The Thirty-Nine Steps, first editionFirst edition
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First publication

Literature form

Crime, mystery, espionage

Writing language

Author's country

Approx. 41,000 words

The Thirty-Nine Steps scene 2008
Richard Hannay (Rupert Penry-Jones) runs from aircraft, among other things, in 2008's The 39 Steps.

Buchan sexed up

The 39 Steps (2008): Director James Hawes; writer Lizzie Mickery; featuring Rupert Penry-Jones, Lydia Leonard, Patrick Malahide

Speaking of North by Northwest, a scene from that movie in which the fugitive is chased by an aircraft somehow finds its way into the most recent video version of Buchan's thriller. In The 39 Steps of 2008, our hero Hannay (Rupert Penry-Jones) is inexplicably strafed by a biplane in the hills of Scotland.

It's one of several action elements that have been added to this latest adaptation of Buchan's book for BBC television to keep it from becoming as dull as the 1978 attempt.

We also get an escape accomplished by bomb blast, a shoot-out at a Scottis loch while a German submarine stands by, and a romantic fling with a suffragette. The time is supposedly 1914 and you may find a few anachronisms in all this, not to mention cars from the 1920s being used.

But it's all good clean fun, accomplished without straying too far from the book and, mercifully, without CGI special effects you might expect in a twenty-first century update of an original thriller.

The film was criticized for its anachronisms. Mixed-up periods for vehicles, styles and politics made it difficult to place the film in any particular decade. But that was something that bothered critics more than viewers who seemed to enjoy the film as an adventure taking place somewhere, anywhere, in the romantic past.

Scenes from the BBC's 2008 retro adaptation of John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps.

Even the addition of a love interest, the early feminist who may be something more than an innocent bystander (Lydia Leonard), brings much needed humour and romance to the otherwise earnest tale.

Sure, the blond and buff Penry-Jones is impossibly good-looking as Buchan's supposedly nondescript, everyman hero and his Hannay is given a background to explain his skilled and resourceful dealing with police and espionage agents. But the film keeps things moving along quickly enough that you don't have time to question it.

The only big credulity-straining lapse is at the end when...well, I won't give it away, but it's a doozy.

— Eric



1935, 1959, 1978, 2008

See also:

Treasure Island


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The Thirty-Nine Steps

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