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The Thirty-Nine Steps

Critique Text At the movies

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 1959
Kenneth More is on track for perilous adventure as Richard Hannay in the 1959 remake of The 39 Steps.

Same idea many years later

The 39 Steps (1959): Director Ralph Thomas; writer Frank Harvey; featuring Kenneth More, Taina Elg

The Alfred Hitchcock version of the famous John Buchan novel was remade more than two decades later, including Mr. Memory, the female love interest (Finnish-American actress Taina Elg in this case) to whom Hannary is handcuffed, the train escape, and many more of the plot elements that Hitchcock's writers had added to the Buchan story.

It's not exactly the same though. It's in colour for one thing. For another, it's set in the current (1950s) post-war period rather than in the pre-World War II years of the earlier film. (Neither of them were set in the pre-World War I period of the novel.)

Also in 1959's The 39 Steps (it does retain Hitchcock's numerical title), Richard Hannay, played by dependable British actor Kenneth More, is pulled into the plot by the murder of a nanny whom he has met in the park and who has vital national secrets.

More, as fits his usual screen persona, is a more relaxed Hannay, smoking a pipe and acting the stereotypical British gentleman, though he more than adequately steps ups for the more dramatic and exciting elements of the screenplay. This plays well as, remember, Hannay is supposed to be an ordinary, innocent person accidentally caught up in international intrigue.

Early scenes from 1959's The 39 Steps starring Kenneth More.

Fans and critics are evenly split on whether the 1959 film is a step up or step down from the 1935 film, as it's very similar. Some think the fact that this version shows Scotland in colour, compared to the black and white of Hitchcock's version, is enough of an improvement to recommend it.

It also opens up the adventure to locations, especially Hannay's escape from the train and pursuit in Scotland, contrasted with Hitchcock's entirely in-studio shooting.

Still it's hard to beat Hichcock's version, which is considered a masterpiece of adaptation. For a faithful adaptation of the novel however we'll have to wait a few years.

— Eric


Critique Text At the movies

1935, 1959, 1978, 2008

See also:

Treasure Island


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