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Senses of Cinema (2007) - Alfred Hitchcock and John Buchan: The Art of Creative Transformation




Alfred Hitchcock and John Buchan: The Art of Creative Transformation

by Tony Williams

The key issue in any creative adaptation involves not just an artist borrowing from another tradition but the manner in which the transformation occurs. William Shakespeare borrowed from Raphael Holinshed and other sources. But he creatively transformed his appropriations into distinguished structures of meaning. Similarly, although Anthony Mann borrowed from both Shakespeare and Greek tragedy, the important aspects involve the relationship of these traditions to the Western genre and 1950s culture by means of the director's transformative patterns of authorship. The ability of any director lies less in the "borrowed" but how the borrowings are creatively applied within any particular cultural transformation having little in common with the original source material. This distinguishes a great director from a derivative hack like Quentin Tarantino.

As Hitchcock told François Truffaut, John Buchan "was a strong influence a long time" before he filmed "The 39 Steps" in 1935. His personal library included the complete works of John Buchan, so he was very familiar with this author. However, Hitchcock had little sympathy for Buchan's ideology of imperialism. Other factors attracted his attention.

Buchan's social world is foreign to Hitchcock. It is based on rigidly defined class and sexual boundaries that no one ever opposes. "Normality" is never questioned. The system must be maintained at all costs. By contrast, Hitchcock frequently interrogates institutions and their social codes. He also develops those revealing contradictions concerning the fragility of civilized values that Buchan sometimes intuitively recognized but retreated from constantly by placing his characters back into their secure social worlds. In Buchan's trilogy of novels featuring retired middle-aged Glasgow grocer Dickson McCunn, who yearns for adventure in "Huntingtower" (1922) and finds himself in the fairy-tale situation of rescuing a Russian princess held captive in a tower by Soviet agents, rigid ideological codes dominate the narrative. During their first encounter, McCunn and World War I veteran romantic poet John Heritage debate the merits of the Bolshevik revolution. The author uses McCunn's perspective to demolish what he sees as the naïve idealism of Heritage's "lost generation" character. Eventually, Heritage sees the light and aids McCunn, and a group of impoverished Glasgow slum kids, the Gorbal...

(c) Tony Williams, Senses of Cinema