Monday, August 3, 2015

As Buchan meant it to be

The trouble about him was that he was too romantic. He had the artistic temperament, and wanted a story to be better than God meant it to be.
John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps

John Buchan's words above, from his most famous novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps, describe one of his characters, not himself. Buchan was not one to try to make a story "better than God meant it to be." His 1915 novel, in the version I read, is just 120 pages long, a fraction of what most espionage thrillers run today. Buchan, a pioneer in the genre, told just the basic story. A full century later the story still makes exciting reading, even if for anyone who has seen Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 movie based on the book, it feels like something is missing.

That's because Hitchcock, who had an artistic temperament, added embellishments that Buchan, who was still living at the time, may have considered an attempt to make it better than God meant it to be. There's no woman, no character for Madeleine Carroll to play, in Buchan's novel. Nor is there a character called Mr. Memory, who reveals the 39 steps at the climax of the film. In Buchan's story, the 39 steps are, in fact, 39 steps, a staircase leading down to the beach, where spies plan to rendezvous.

The basic plot remain unchanged in the film version. Richard Hannay learns of a German plot to learn British secrets before the outbreak of war. A murder in his flat sends him on the run, both to escape the German spies and to escape the police, who consider him the prime suspect in the murder. The story is mostly a long chase, with several narrow escapes.

Hitchcock's movie would probably not be regarded as the classic it is today had it not been for the embellishments the director added. Yet the original novel reads just fine the way it is, as God, or at least John Buchan, intended.

No comments:

Post a Comment