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Literature Film Quarterly (1978) - John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock




A consideration of the novel and of the use made of it by Hitchcock in both films (a consideration which will be literary rather than cinematic in that it will deal primarily with plot, structure and theme) casts a great deal of light on Hitchcock's method of dealing with literary source material. In North by Northwest to the basic elements of The Thirty-nine Steps (including adventure, suspense, sex and humor) has been added the subtle development of a character, which is revealed both through the plot and through the recurring metaphor of acting.


John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock

Jocelyn Camp

Our attention, when we discuss the relationship of literature and film, is usually focussed on the adaptation of a work of fiction considered worthy of the designation "literature." We often hear that this or that classic or acclaimed novel has been desecrated, or well done, on film and the relationship of the literary source to these films is afforded much critical attention. It is much less common that our attention is focussed on popular novels which nobody would call "literature" and their adaptation into movies. Often the film version of these books is superior to the original source. Numerous examples (such as The Last Picture Show or D. W. Griffith's use of The Clansman for Birth of a Nation) come to mind.

Among the great directors who have used minor literary sources to create superior films is, of course, Alfred Hitchcock. Although he did use Joseph Conrad's Secret Agent for Sabotage, for the most part he has adapted the novels of minor writers. He has used popular literature to create popular film, but hardly anyone would deny that his best films are more than simply entertaining.

In 1935 Hitchcock directed The Thirty-nine Steps, based on John Buchan's novel (screenplay by Charles Bennett and Alma Reville), and twenty-four years later he made North by Northwest with an original scenario credited to Ernest Lehman. The two films bear some resemblance to each other, as many Hitchcock films do, but in many ways, interestingly enough, North by Northwest is closer to Buchan's novel than is the film, The Thirty-nine Steps. A consideration of the novel and of the use made of it by Hitchcock in both films (a consideration which will be literary rather than cinematic in that it will deal primarily with plot, structure and theme) casts a great deal of light on Hitchcock's method of dealing with literary source material.

This method is essentially spelled out in Hitchcock's conversations with Truffaut:[1]

Truffaut: Your own works include a great many adaptations, but mostly they are popular or light entertainment novels, which are so freely refashioned in your own manner that they ultimately become a Hitchcock creation. Many of your admirers would like to see you undertake the screen version of such a major classic as Dostoevski's Crime and Punishment, for instance.

Hitchcock: Well, I shall never do that, precisely because Crime and Punishment is somebody else's achievement. There's been a lot of talk about the way in which Hollywood directors distort literary masterpieces. I'll have no part of that! What I do is to read a story only once, and if I like the basic idea, I just forget all about the book and start to create cinema. Today I would be unable to tell you the story of Daphne du Maurier's The Birds. I read it only once, and very quickly at that.

Hitchcock used the elements of John Buchan's novel that appealed to him in The Thirty-nine Steps and ignored the ones that did not. He paid no attention to faithful adaptation. His plot bears scant resemblance to Buchan's — for example, the protagonist's character has been changed completely and even the meaning of "the thirty-nine steps" is different[2]. Years later, however, when he made North by Northwest, he obviously remembered and used some of Buchan's ideas. Quite possibly he had forgotten by that time that they came from The Thirty-nine Steps.

Hitchcock told Truffaut,

... Buchan was a strong influence a long time before I undertook The Thirty-nine Steps, and some of it is reflected in The Man Who Knew Too Much. He had written Greenmantle[3] ... Korda bought this novel, but he never made the picture. At first I considered this book, but on second thought I chose The Thirty-nine Steps, which was a smaller subject. Probably for the very reason we mentioned in connection with Dostoevsky — my respect for a literary masterpiece.[4]

It is easy to understand why Buchan appealed to Hitchcock. For one thing, the structure of a Buchan novel is very like that of a Hitchcock film. Each chapter of The Thirty-nine Steps is almost a complete short story in itself, in which the hero finds himself in a new predicament and manages to get out of it through a combination of cleverness and happy coincidence. The titles of the chapters are an indication of this method: "The Adventure of the Literary Innkeeper," "The Adventure of the Radical Candidate," "The Adventure of the Spectacled Roadman," etc. Buchan novels move quickly; the action never flags;there is no time for introspection and very little regard for plausibility.

Hitchcock told Truffaut of The Thirty-nine Steps that, "I saw it as a film of episodes, and this time I was on my toes. As soon as we were through with one episode, I remember saying, 'Here we need a good short story.' I made sure the content of every scene was very solid, so that each one would be a little film in itself."[5] The Thirty-nine Steps, of course, was not the only film Hitchcock saw as a series of episodes. (North by Northwest is another notable example.) He says,

A film cannot be compared to a play or a novel. It is close to a short story, which, as a rule, sustains one idea that culminates when the action has reached the highest point of the dramatic curve. As you know, a short story is rarely put down in the middle, and in this sense it resembles a film. And it is because of this peculiarity that there must be a steady development of the plot and the creation of gripping situations which must be presented, above all, with visual skill.[6]

Clearly Buchan as novelist and Hitchcock as filmmaker had the same ideas about maintaining the interest of reader or audience.

Suspense ("the most powerful means of holding onto the viewer's attention'[7]) does not depend upon plausibility in either a Buchan novel or a Hitchcock film. Special friends and enemies are liable to show up by coincidence at crucial points. Buchan's Richard Hannay happens to be imprisoned in a storeroom where he finds all the explosive devices he needs for manufacturing a bomb. He just happens to know how to use these particular explosives because of his experience as an engineer in Rhodesia, and after the explosion, though the storeroom is blown to smithereens, he emerges unhurt and escapes. Hitchcock's Hannay is shot by the villain in the villain's home and falls to the floor. The next time we see him, he is alive and well, and explaining to the police how the hymnbook in his pocket stopped the bullet and saved his life. But how did he get out of the house and into the police station? Hitchcock said,

What I like in The Thirty-nine Steps are the swift transitions ... The rapidity of those transitions heightens the excitement. It takes a lot of work to get that kind of effect, but it's well worth the effort. You use one idea after another and eliminate anything that interferes with the swift pace ... I'm not concerned with plausibility; that's the easiest part of it, so why bother? ... if you're going to analyze everything in terms of plausibility or credibility, then no fiction script can stand up to that approach, and you wind up doing a documentary ... We should have total freedom to do as we like, just so long as it's not dull. A critic who talks to me about plausibility is a dull fellow.[8]

North by Northwest, also composed of "short stories" (this is not to say they are not closely connected by plot and theme), is a long movie — 136 minutes — yet audiences rarely are aware of the length because it moves so rapidly.

In Buchan's Thirty-nine Steps (and other of his novels), Hitchcock's Thirty-nine Steps (and other of his films), the episodes of the plot are strung together by a journey, partly escape, partly quest. Train travel is the preferred mode of transportation. The protagonist is pursued both by the British (or American) authorities because they believe he is guilty of a crime (of which he is innocent), and by the enemy who want to kill him because he knows too much. All alone he must escape his pursuers and bring the criminals to justice. Hitchcock has used this situation in a number of films (notably, North by Northwest, Sabotage, and Frenzy).

Hitchcock obviously felt an affinity for Buchan's choice of situations. He has often made use of the most ordinary, apparently peaceful, mundane surroundings in which to inject a sudden menace or horror, with chilling effect. Buchan's Hannay goes to Scotland to find the spies who are out to destroy England:

I swung through little old thatched villages, and over peaceful lowland streams, and past gardens blazing with hawthorn and yellow laburnum. The land was so deep in peace that I could scarcely believe that somewhere behind me were those who sought my life; ay, and that in a month's time, unless I had the almightiest of luck, these round, country faces would be pinched and staring, and men would be lying dead in English fields.[9]

He finds the primary spy living like a respectable professor in a Scottish cottage. Likewise Hitchcock's Hannay, in Scotland, discovers that the distinguished man holding a very respectable birthday party for his daughter, is his enemy and a notorious spy. North by Northwest is full of this kind of incident: Roger Thornhill's mother asks the villains jokingly in a crowded elevator in the Plaza Hotel if they are trying to murder her son and everybody laughs.

It is easy to see why Hitchcock admires Buchan when one compares their taste in creating entertainment and suspense. A closer look at the film adaptations of The Thirty-nine Steps and North by Northwest will reveal further specific ways in which Hitchcock adapted the work of a writer he admired to suit his own purposes.

The film The Thirty-nine Steps uses Buchan's book at a number of points but diverges widely at others. Buchan's Richard Hannay, returning from a music hall where he has been bored to death (he is used to a life of action on the veldt) discovers Scudder, the spy, who asks him for assistance. Scudder is killed several days later in Hannay's flat, but not before he has told enough of his business to make Hannay want to take up the work where Scuclder left off. He escapes the enemies who are watching the house by persuading the milkman to lend him his uniform. Hitchcock expands Buchan's mention of the music hall into the first important scene of the film. It is in the music hall that Hannay encounters both "Mr. Memory" (who is not in the book at all) and the equivalent of Scudder, who in the film is a beautiful woman called "Smith" with mysterious ways and a sexy European accent. After she is murdered (she staggers into Hannay's room with a knife in her back, clutching a map — another use of the idea from Greenmantle), Hannay escapes in the milkman's garb and heads for Scotland much as he did in the book. Here, with the exceptions of being chased across the moors, discovering the chief villain where he never expected to find him, giving an impromptu political speech, and thwarting the enemy at the last moment, the resemblance in plot ends.

Instead of "hooding his eyes like a hawk" the chief spy in the movie has part of a finger missing, which is obviously easier to demonstrate visually. Hannay is changed from the rough and ready engineer of the veldt with exceptional vision and physical stamina, to Robert Donat: a suave, witty, sophisticated city man with no particular yen for adventure in the outdoors. Not only has Scudder become a woman, but most of Hitchcock's plot concerns a battle of the sexes between Donat and Madeleine Carroll. Theirs are some of the most delightful comic and suspenseful scenes in the film. There is no love interest in Buchan: women and completely irrelevant. Hitchcock has essentially changed a boys' adventure story into a sophisticated comedy-thriller.

North by Northwest, too, is a sophisticated comedy-thriller, a very witty and entertaining one, in which the relationship between Gary Grant as Roger Thornhill and Eva Marie Saint as Eve Kendall is the focal point. It is a much more complex film than The Thirty-nine Steps and the relationship has greater depth. In the course of the film Roger Thornhill not only foils the spy plot and gets the girl, but his whole character changes and develops.[10] Like Donat's Hannay, he is a city man with no desire for adventure at the beginning. He doesn't know how to function outside his self-centered world of advertising executives, cocktails, appointments, luncheons with his mother. This he learns in the course of the film. He also learns to care for someone besides himself to the extent that he is willing to sacrifice himself to save her.

Not only are characters more complex in North by Northwest, but situations from his Thirty-nine Steps, too, are re-used by Hitchcock with twists and complications. In the earlier film, Madeleine Carroll inadvertently helps Hannay escape :he police on the train (he kisses her while they go past) and she is indignant and later tries to turn him in to the authorities (who turn out to be the spies). It is only after she and Hannay have been handcuffed together for hours and she discovers that he's been telling her the truth that she softens toward him. North by Northwest offers a reversal of this situation. Eva Marie Saint saves Cary Grant on the train, too, by behaving in the opposite manner from Madeleine Carroll: she pretends to be seductive and helpful when actually she is saving him from the police only to hand him over to the spies. Another situation that is similar in the two movies is the scene in The Thirty-nine Steps where Hannay runs into the chief spy's house by accident and finds him pretending to be a pillar of the community. This basic situation, too, is used in a more complex way in North by Northwest. Thornhill is brought to a fine home which belongs to a "Mr. Townsend" but not only is the proprietor (James Mason as Vandamm) the chief spy, he is not really living in the house at all — he has simply taken it over while Mr. Townsend is away. Hannay is after a spy with a missing finger; Thornhill sets out to look for Kaplan, a man who doesn't exist — clearly a more difficult task. North by Northwest is a more complex film than The Thirty-nine Steps despite their resemblances, but even so it owes a great deal to John Buchan.

There are several resemblances in plot and situation between Buchan's book and North by Northwest which don't exist in the film, The Thirty-nine Steps. In the book, when Hannay convinces Sir Walter Bullivant (a big shot in the government) that his story is true, Sir Walter calls off the police and Hannay's name is cleared of the murder charge. "The Professor," played by Leo G. Carroll, performs this function in North by Northwest and from then on Thornhill works for him as Hannay does for Sir Walter. Nobody ever calls off the police in the film of The Thirty-nine Steps: Hannay has to create an incident all by himself to get the man with the missing finger to break his cover. Buchan's villains and Vandamm own a house near a secret airstrip and the final scenes of the novel and North by Northwest concern a last-minute effort to stop the spies from taking their information out of the country. Not so the film, Thirty-nine Steps, which ends with Mr. Memory revealing the secret of "the thirty-nine steps."

The most striking resemblance, however, between the novel and North by Northwest is the airplane scene. Buchan's Hannay is fleeing over the Scotch moors:

I realized that my vantage ground might be in reality a trap. There was no cover for a tomtit in those bald green places.

I sat still and hopeless while the beat grew louder. Then I saw an aeroplane coming up from the east. It was flying high, but as I looked it dropped several hundred feet and began to circle round the knot of hill in narrowing circles, just as a hawk wheels before it pounces.

... I could see one of the two occupants examining me through glasses.

... I have said there was not cover in the whole place to hide a rat.

Hitchcock's Hannay flees over the moors, too, chased on foot by policemen, and there is a brief shot of an autogyro spying on the chase from the air. This hardly has the same frightening effect as the scene in the novel, which describes the defenseless man alone in a blank landscape without cover, attacked from the air. Hitchcock doesn't make the most of the situation until Roger Thornhill stands on an empty highway in the midwest with nothing but empty land and cornfields as far as the eye can see, and is suddenly attacked by a "crop-dusting" plane. Two men can be seen in the plane, goggled, unrecognizable, menacing. Hannay's enemies are just trying to locate him and Thornhill's are trying to kill him, but the effect is much the same, with the added dimension in North by Northwest that Thornhill is a man accustomed to crowded cities and at home in them — thus the open country is even more terrifying by contrast. Buchan's scene had stayed in Hitchcock's mind and though he didn't use it in The Thirty-nine Steps, he adapted it for perhaps the most memorable scene in North by Northwest.

The novel, The Thirty-nine Steps, and North by Northwest employ a similar motif throughout, as well — that of acting. The characters in the book are constantly concerned with playing parts, taking on disguises. Not only must Hannay do this continually in order to escape his pursuers and foil the spies, but the enemies behave in exactly the same way: they constantly take on false characters. Much of the action has to do with Hannay and his enemies trying to out-fake each other. Besides the milkman, Hannay becomes in the course of the book a Scotsman,an Australian politician, a roadman, a petty thief, and two different chauffeurs. His chief enemy disguises himself as an archaeologist and later he and his henchmen pretend to be middle-class Englishmen on vacation by the sea. One of them impersonates Lord Alloa, the First Sea Lord, and fools everybody but Hannay. Hannay has a philosophy about assuming disguises somewhat similar to method acting. He says, "I remembered an old scout in Rhodesia, who had done many queer things in his day, once telling me that the secret of playing a part was to think yourself into it. You could never keep it up, he said, unless you could manage to convince yourself that you were it." Later Hannay says,

He [Peter, the old scout) said, barring absolute certainties like fingerprints, mere physical traits were of very little use for identification if the fugitive really knew his business. He laughed at things like dyed hair and false beards and such childish follies. The only thing that mattered was what Peter called 'atmosphere.' If a man could get into perfectly different surroundings from those in which he had been first observed, and — this is the important part — really play up to those surroundings and behave as if he had never been out of them, he would puzzle the cleverest detectives on earth.

Not only does he obey this philosophy, but the enemies do too and it is because he understands their methods that he is able to unmask them. Not that there aren't some tense moments first. When Hannay realizes he has blundered into his enemy's lair (the hooded eyes give away that the man isn't an archaeologist) he pretends to be a lower class thief named Ainslie. The man says to him, " 'You know a little too much, Mr. Hannay. You are a clever actor, but not quite clever enough.' He spoke with assurance, but I could see the dawning of a doubt in his mind." This situation is reversed at the end of the book when Hannay walks into the home of the supposed three Englishmen on vacation to arrest them and almost falls for their act. Again, the scene seems so innocent, it's hard for him to believe there is something sinister lurking there. He even starts to play a game of bridge with them before the principal spy's strange eyes once again give him away.

Some disguise situations are used in the film of The Thirty-nine Steps too (the milkman, the political speaker, Donat and Carroll as honeymooners, the spy's henchmen as policemen), but it is in North by Northwest that Hitchcock really develops the idea. The major characters are constantly assuming different parts. Vandamm and his co-workers pretend to be Townsend and his household; Thornhill escapes in the disguise of a railroad porter and plays a rude troublemaker at a public auction.

But, in addition, an acting metaphor is used throughout the film. Here Hitchcock goes far beyond Buchan, using the idea of acting to reveal the development of Thornhill's character, a central theme of the film. Vandamm accuses Thornhill of bad acting when he is sincere, but when Thornhill assumes the role of Kaplan, a man who doesn't exist, Vandamm believes him. When lie is first kidnapped and brought to Vandamm (who is pretending to be Townsend) Vandamm goes about the room turning; up the lights as if for a stage production and says to himself, "... not what I expected — a little taller, a little more polished than the others... "[11] as if Thornhill had been sent to audition for a part. He also says to him when Thornhill sticks to his story, "With such expert play-acting, you make this very room a theater." Vandamm is acting; Thornhill isn't. Unlike Hannay, Thornhill really isn't the man they are looking for. Later, when Thornhill takes the police back to Townsend's house to confront his abductors, the woman spy playing the part of Mrs. Townsend pretends to be a friend of Thornhill's and completely convinces the police and Roger's mother. Thomhill says, "What a performance!" Much later, when Thornhill confronts Vandamm and Eve at the auction, Vandamm accuses him of over-playing his roles, listing all the times Thornhill has been sincere:

Has anyone ever told you that you overplay your various roles rather severely, Mr. Kaplan? First you're the outraged Madison Avenue man who claims he has been mistaken for someone else. Then you play a fugitive from justice, supposedly trying to clear his name of a crime he knows he didn't commit. And now, you play the peevish lover, stung by jealousy and betrayal. Seems to me you fellows could stand a little less training from the F.B.I, and a little more from the Actors' Studio.

Thornhill replies, "apparently the only performance that's going to satisfy you is when I play dead." And Vandamm answers, "Your very next role. You will be quite convincing, I assure you." Thornhill responds a few minutes later by playing the part of a disrupting fool, a part which allows him to be arrested by the police instead of falling into the hands of Vandamm and Co. (This is similar to the political speech scene in Hitchcock's Thirty-nine Steps where Hannay has to convince a whole crowd of the part he is playing, and as long as he is in the spotlight he is safe. Both are comic scenes.)

Eve and Thornhill have a little exchange on the subject of her being an honest woman when they first meet on the train. This is ironic in that she, as a double agent, is playing two parts all the time but basically, as we find out in the end, she is an honest woman.

Just as Thornhill's sincere moments seem like bad acting to Vandamm, his acting is convincing. In a very stagy scene Eve melodramatically shoots Thornhill (as Kaplan) with blanks and he pretends to die, making Vandamm's earlier comment about his playing dead ironically come true. This is all according to a plan cooked up by "The Professor," the agent of the U.S. government. The spies are convinced because the acting is so professional. Later, Thomhill appears to Eve as his real self for the first time. Not only is he Thornhill and not "Kaplan" but he is sincere in a way he has never been before in his phoney Madison Avenue existence. He has weighed "a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders," the safe life, against Eve and the danger he will risk for her and he has chosen Eve. lie meets Eve as her real self for the first time too, not as Vandamm's spy-mistress but as the double agent working against Vandamm and as the girl who sincerely loves Thornhill. Their meeting is presented like an awkward, amateur stage production. They meet in a pine grove and approach each other timidly from opposite sides of the screen, speaking their most sincere words as if they were bad actors in a high school play. Playing the part of a man who didn't exist has transformed Thornhill (whose middle initial "O" stands for "nothing," he says early in the film) into a real person.

Hitchcock has used a number of ideas and situations from Buchan's novel in both movies and made them his own. In The Thirty-nine Steps, an adventure story for boys becomes an adventure for adults with the addition of sex and humor. In North by Northwest to the basic elements of The Thirty-nine Steps (including adventure, suspense, sex and humor) has been added the subtle development of a character, which is revealed both through the plot and through the recurring metaphor of acting. Hitchcock's finished products are far from Buchan's both because of the changes he has made in Buchan's story and because of the depth and complexity he has added. But that he owes much to the popular novelist Hitchcock would be the first to acknowledge.


  1. Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966), p. 49.
  2. The assumption here is that Hitchcock's movies are, as Truffaut says, "a Hitchcock creation" and not the creation of the screenwriter. As he tells Truffaut, Hitchcock usually worked along with the screenwriter creating his films' episodes, except for the dialogue, which he left to the writer.
  3. In Greenmantle, a British agent staggers into camp and dies of multiple wounds, gripping a piece of paper with three cryptic words written on it. It is the hero's task to find out what the clues mean and destroy the enemies of England. This is close to the incident near the beginning of The Man Who Knew Too Much (both versions) in which an assassinated spy manages to give out crucial information to the protagonists before he expires, and this begins the action of both films.
  4. Truffaut, p. 65.
  5. Truffaut, p. 66.
  6. Truffaut, p. 50.
  7. Truffaut, p. 50.
  8. Truffaut, p. 69-70.
  9. John Buchan, The Thirty-nine Steps (New York: Popular Library, 1915), p. 48. All quotations from Buchan in the text are from this edition.
  10. Robin Wood discusses Thornhill's development in detail in Hitchcock's Films (Paperback Library, 1969).
  11. Ernest Lehman, North by Northwest (New York: The Viking Press, 1972). All quotations from the film in the text are taken from this edition of the screenplay.

(c) Jocelyn Camp / Literature Film Quarterly