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New York Times (28/Jan/2008) - Novel to Screen to Stage: Evolving, Step by Step

(c) The New York Times (28/Jan/2008)

Novel to Screen to Stage: Evolving, Step by Step

In London the award-winning theatrical comedy is billed as “John Buchan’s The 39 Steps.” But on Broadway, where the British import opened this month, it is called “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps.” Is it possible that Buchan, who published his novel “The 39 Steps” in 1915, is better known in Britain than Hitchcock, the cinematic master of suspense who in 1935 made his film adaptation of that novel into one of the triumphs of his early London period?

Perhaps. After all, this “shocker” — as Buchan called his slight entertainment — had been a British sensation. Its story about a colonial mining engineer, Richard Hannay, who single-handedly tries to crack a German spy ring, tapped into the fears and passions of the early days of the First World War. It sold 25,000 copies within six months of publication, and a million copies before Buchan died in 1940. By that time too, as another world war was beginning, Buchan was not just known as a pioneering spy novelist or the son of a Scottish Presbyterian minister, or a polymathic historian and biographer, or a former member of Parliament; he was governor general of Canada and the first Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield.

So Buchan may still have a powerful British aura. The show — which was adapted by Patrick Barlow — with its allusions to London neighborhoods, its regional accents and its invocation of British music halls winking with comic collusion at the audience, almost convinced me, when I saw it in London recently, that the show was too consummately local to travel well.

Ha! Not only has it just been celebrated in its Broadway opening, it has been mounted in Italy and South Africa, while productions are planned for South Korea, Japan, Australia, Mexico and more than a dozen other countries.

For that success, though, it would be wrong to credit Buchan entirely. Any reader turning to the original novel would hardly recognize it in the shadow of Hitchcock’s film, so preoccupied is it with describing the glens and heathery mountains of the Scottish highlands, inhabited with an unlikely cavalcade of native eccentrics: an innkeeper with literary aspirations, a Liberal candidate with pacifist sympathies, a lower-class roadman laid up by drink, a bald archaeologist who isn’t quite what he seems.

It was Hitchcock who took the premise of Buchan’s novel — the innocent bystander thrust into an entangling web and pursued by both the forces of good and of evil — and made it the dominant theme of his career. (He once told François Truffaut that Buchan was “a strong influence.”)

Hitchcock jettisoned almost everything else from the novel, brought in the atmosphere of the music hall, added dollops of slapstick and sexual tension completely missing from the book, changed the period to the 1930s and made the meaning of the title’s 39 steps as irrelevant a MacGuffin as Janet Leigh’s embezzlement of $40,000 in “Psycho.”

Hitchcock’s film is the real source of the current play’s comedy too, which is why the New York title has it right. Almost every scene is precisely reproduced by four actors who play a cast of dozens, hastily scrambling their accents, hats and props as required. The American production makes references to Hitchcock’s films a bit more plentiful, and decisively turns the novel’s evil German World War I spy into someone more bluntly pre-Hitlerian, but the spirit remains: the show is like a giant joke on the genre.

So familiar has the Buchan-Hitchcock model become that all we need to do is watch a newsboy morph into a constable and then into a lingerie salesman to laugh at the obvious artifice. Spycraft reveals itself as stagecraft. The trickery is in the costume and the accent. Hitchcock knew as much, which is why, unlike Buchan, he makes the theater a major element.

Buchan thought Hitchcock improved his book; he was right. But Hitchcock, in adopting Buchan’s model, also managed to turn it on its head. Buchan was a much honored figure of the British establishment; his heroes fight for the noblest goals of the old Empire. Even Hannay’s final triumph comes only after he can appeal to the highest British authorities.

But Hitchcock is more mischievous. He brings down the spy ring, but Scotland Yard and the Foreign Office remain deluded until the very end. Under Hitchcock’s supervision Hannay’s respectable romantic life teeters on the risqué, teasingly flirting with the forbidden: Hannay and a woman sit on a bed in an inn, handcuffed, his hand gliding along her legs as she removes her damp stockings. Old values are undermined in Hitchcock’s slippery spy-ridden world.

Hitchcock’s American films go even further in transforming the Buchan model of the hunted innocent. In “North by Northwest” — a kind of American version of “The 39 Steps” in which American landmarks replace the Scottish landscape — Cary Grant learns that he may be hunted by foreign spies, but that ultimately he can’t entirely trust the Professor and his Washington colleagues either. The play version of “The 39 Steps” goes even further, making Buchan’s faith in Hannay seem a bit absurd; the entire genre of the spy novel, with all its attitudes, becomes the object of gentle mockery.

But this may not be entirely fair to ourselves or to Buchan. Yes, Buchan was, as he knew, a creature of the imperial age; hints of mild racial and anti-Semitic offense are not difficult to find in his novels. But Buchan, who wrote a 24-volume history of the First World War and had been Britain’s director of information during that war, was more subtle than he might at first seem.

In the two novels about Hannay that followed “The 39 Steps” — “Greenmantle” (1916) and “Mr. Standfast” (1919), both written and published as the war raged — there is no ambiguity about who the good guys are. The opponents are as demonically brilliant as Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis, Professor Moriarty. But Hannay’s experiences keep posing challenges.

In “Greenmantle” his contact with a sympathetic German woman makes him think about “the crazy folly of war.” He says, “When I saw the splintered shell of Ypres and heard hideous tales of German doings, I used to want to see the whole land of the Boche given up to fire and sword.” But then he realizes that would be an error: “To be able to laugh and to be merciful are the only things that make man better than the beasts.”

This doesn’t make Buchan a pacifist; “Mr. Standfast” begins with a pointed satire of pacifist positions taken in England at the time. Yet one of its admirable characters is a conscientious objector who refuses to fight, but not to help, even risking his life for Hannay.

In “Greenmantle” — written in reaction to the alliance between Turkey and the German-led powers — even the threat of militant Islam is treated with some insight, as one character worries over what happens when a people that wants to “prune life of its foolish fringes and get back to the noble bareness of the desert” is led by a prophet who might seek to simplify belief not with “the simplicity of the ascetic, which is of the spirit, but the simplicity of the madman.”

In these shockers Buchan simply won’t allow his readers not to care or think, and in the midst of melodrama he touches some amazingly subtle nerves. “You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilization from barbarism,” a character says in one. “I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass.”

That is something that Hitchcock would have agreed with. But Hitchcock, haunted by the Buchan model of the hunted innocent, could make it seem as if neither side could claim virtue. Buchan was never tempted along those lines. So while it may be Hitchcock’s “39 Steps” we remember and still laugh at on Broadway, it is Buchan’s that insists that differences matter more than we might think.