- Portis, Charles — True Grit (215 pages)
- Simpson, Joe — Touching the Void (210 pages)
- Bardin, John Franklin — The Last of Philip Banter (207 pages)
- Millar, Martin — The Good Fairies of New York (278 pages)
- Millar, Mark — Kick-Ass (190 pages)
- Sachar, Louis — Holes (225 pages)
- Baxter, Stephen — Moonseed (523 pages)
- Buchan, John — The Thirty-Nine Steps (152 pages)
Page count: 2000.
The Thirty-Nine Steps is one of those titles I can't seem to escape. Everywhere you look, there it is: book, films, musical, and who knows what else. So, I read it. And I enjoyed it.
Though Buchan enjoys a favorable reputation, The Thirty-Nine Steps isn't exactly the most meaningful read you'll ever pick up. Buchan says in his introduction that he was attempting to capture the spirit of the dime novels or thrillers he enjoyed as a kid. And at that he succeeded. The Thirty-Nine Steps is an adult boy's fantasy in the vein of something by H. Rider Haggard or Arthur Conan Doyle. It's an enjoyable romp, so long as you don't take it too seriously, don't mind a few MacGyver moments and a few dei ex machinae — how's my Latin? — and can turn a blind eye to some of the subtle sexism, classism, and racism that is no doubt a reflection of the times rather than any held beliefs. (In fact, as Governor-General of Canada later in his career, Buchan was a champion for multiculturalism.)
Now, as for the films… I watched three of the four film adaptations: the 1935 Hitchcock adaptation, the 1959 remake, and the 2008 BBC production. Alas, I was unable to obtain a copy of the 1978 version, which I hear is the most faithful to the book. (I don't have any particular urge to watch the play, as it's supposedly a farce of the Hitchcock film, not a serious adaptation of the book.)
The Hitchcock film was a disappointment. I often wonder why, if filmmakers want to tell a certain story, they must borrow another story's name. Sure, Hitchcock kept a handful of details from the novel besides the protagonist's name (Richard Hannay). The murder still takes place at Portland Place in London. Hannay still escapes his flat dressed as a milkman and heads north to Scotland on a train. And that's more or less where the similarities end. The Thirty-Nine Steps is now the name (not the Black Stone) of the secret German spy ring and no longer refers to a staircase with 39 steps. Hannay's reasons for visiting Scotland are no longer to evade his pursuers on his own turf (that's hard when Hitchcock strips him of Scottish nationality and makes him Canadian) but to seek out some mystery professor who happens to be missing part of a finger. Hannay still gives an impromptu speech at a political meeting, yet it is no longer at the request of an accomplice but quite by accident of circumstance. Hitchcock felt the need to add a damsel in distress at Hannay's side, because it isn't hard enough for one ex-military type who fought in South Africa to evade both police and German spies on the Scottish moors — he needs a sidekick and potential romantic interest. And finally, the target of the spy ring is an utterly ridiculous invention of Hitchcock's, a Mister Memory, who is an encyclopaedia of obscure knowledge and has memorized some secret formula that could affect the balance of power. (Yawn.)
The 1959 film needn't had bothered. The film studio must have felt they could do Hitchcock better than Hitchcock and in colour. It's essentially the same story as the 1935 film; in other words, it has practically nothing in common with the book. I wondered out loud during the film if the director had even heard of Buchan. The changes in this film represent an even more radical departure: students on bicycles, a speech on biology at an all-girl's school, the secrets of an advanced missile programme stored away in Mister Memory's — there he is again! — brain, a psychic innkeeper, Portland Place no longer Portland Place … and so on. And honestly, this Hannay seemed more as though he were on a picnic in the countryside than as if he were trying to avoid being killed for a fortnight so he could save his country. The phrase "thirty-nine steps," when the film remembers to use it, seems more an afterthought than an essential part of the plot.
I really wish I could have watched the 1978 film, which was closest to the book. However, the 2008 film, despite its BBC made-for-tv look-and-feel, was not bad. For one, they got rid of the ridiculous Mister Memory, thankfully. Restored was the idea that the Germans were trying to get a Balkan head of state assassinated to incite war in Europe but that that was just a cover for their real goal of stealing state secrets about the defense of the nation that would lead to an invasion. The thirty-nine steps once again refer to steps, and the black notebook with strange notations, which must be puzzled out and deciphered by Hannay and then presented to the highest authorities to prove both his innocence in the Portland Place murder and to foil the plot, is returned as an essential plot element. They got rid of the milkman, sort of, and changed several other details — and they still insisted on giving Hannay a female sidekick, but at least this time they gave him one with intelligence, strength, and an independent mind, not a clichéd victim in need of rescue by her knight (puke!). Though they may have changed a lot of details — all three adaptations leave out some of the most interesting and colourful characters, such as the roadman or the literary innkeeper — at least this adaptation was true to the spirit of Buchan's novel and gave us a good, adrenaline-pumping romp through the Scottish wilds mixed in with a dose of good old-fashioned puzzle solving intrigue. (And they brought back the plane, that sinister character the other two adaptations sadly left out!)
The Thirty-Nine Steps deserves to have a true-to-the-book adaptation made. (Perhaps the Coen brothers can be persuaded?) Buchan's novel may not be the greatest in the repertoire, but it is a fun read filled with colourful characters, improbable situations, puzzles to be solved, and the greatest of stakes. If they stuck to Buchan's time-tested story, moviemakers could have a big hit on their hands. It's too much to dream of, I know.
As an aside, what are the chances that I read back-to-back two completely different books, written nearly a century apart that both spend a large number of pages in Scotland with characters that have been recently in the Karoo in South Africa, of which I'd never even heard until a week or two ago? I enjoy noticing these sorts of coincidences.