June 4, 2008

Book Versus Movie: The 39 Steps

(CCLaP publishes mini-reviews of both books and movies on a regular basis, none lasting more than a few hundred words. A full list of CCLaP's book-based mini-reviews can be found on its main book page, and movies on the main movie page.)

The 39 Steps
The 39 Steps (book; 1915)
By John Buchan

The 39 Steps
The 39 Steps (movie; 1935)
Written by Charles Bennett, from the novella by John Buchan
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Well well, so once again it's time for another edition of "Book Versus Movie," a concept I frankly ripped off from the Onion AV Club, in which I both read a book and see the movie based on that book in the same week, and end up writing mini-reviews of both at the same time. (Don't bother looking for the "Book Versus Movie" archive page, by the way -- you've only missed one other, concerning the Alan Moore comic From Hell.) And today's it's none other than The 39 Steps, with both a book and movie version that I've wanted to get exposed to for a long time now; the 1915 novella, after all, is one of the first spy stories ever written, while the 1935 movie was one of Alfred Hitchcock's first big hits, long before he moved to Hollywood and made the films he's now most known for. (And if this title seems particularly familiar these days, by the way, it's because there's a new comedic stage version of the story playing on Broadway right now, in which four actors play every single part in a gonzo quick-change style.) Just the title alone invokes strange and pleasant emotions to us fans of turn-of-the-century "weird" fiction, of foggy nights and mysterious stairways, and it's a project I've been looking forward to for a long time now.

And indeed, let me confess that the novella doesn't disappoint at all, or at least to existing fans of that transitional period of arts history; because that's something important to remember about The 39 Steps as you read it, that much like GK Chesterton or the Futurist art movement, this was penned in a strange twenty-year period in history (1900 to 1920) that fell directly between Romanticism and Modernism, a period that basically bridged these two movements precisely through wild experimentation and the birth of many of our modern artistic "genres." It is a crucial book to read, for example, if you are a fan of mysteries, secret-agent thrillers and the like; it's one of the books that literally defined those genres, a step above and beyond the pulpy "dime novels" that Buchan himself admits in the dedication was a major inspiration behind his own story. (Turns out that he and a friend were both guilty obsessive fans of pulp fiction, and thought it'd be funny to write their own homages; ironically, of course, it's this homage that is now much more known than the pulp stories that inspired it.)

The tale of bored young intellectual Richard Hannay, a British South African who has recently moved to London and just hates it, our hero is actually just about to move back home when he is suddenly swept into a world of international intrigue by his next-door neighbor, a paranoid little weasel named Scudder who claims to be an undercover agent of the government, and who has stumbled across a corporate/anarchist conspiracy to assassinate a minor Greek ambassador and thus trigger a global war*. Scudder ends up dying under mysterious circumstances while hiding in Hannay's apartment, leading to him getting framed for murder; and this is just enough of an excuse to get Hannay on the run, leading to the action-based plot that takes him from one side of the UK to the other, into and out of a series of traps, and even the object of a monoplane chase back when hardly any planes actually existed. It's an exciting tale, one with all the usual twists and turns we expect now from the genre, told in a competent style that shakes off the flowery Victorianism that at the time was just ending its dominance of the arts; a thoroughly modern novel, in other words, or I guess I should say "proto-modern," one of the many above-average projects from this transitional period of history to highly influence the mature Modernists who came after.

Twenty years later, then, a young Alfred Hitchcock realized what a great story this was as well, and how it so naturally fit the themes that he wanted to tackle in his films in the first place; that led to a movie version in the mid-'30s, which like I said was one of the first really big hits of his career, one of the things that led him to Hollywood a few years later and the films he is now much more known for. I have to admit, though, that I have a low tolerance for movies that are over 50 or 60 years in age, precisely because of all the cheesiness that comes with such films -- the ham-fisted acting, the stilted dialogue, the dated hairdos, the non-existent production values. It takes a pretty special film from this period to still hold my legitimate attention as a contemporary moviegoer (see, for example, my review of Fritz Lang's 1927 Metropolis, which is just so visually stunning you can't help but to still be fascinated by it); and Hitchcock's The 39 Steps is unfortunately just not one of those films, especially considering that huge portions of the original story were rewritten in order to appease a mainstream moviegoing crowd. (In the film version, for example, Hannay is saddled with a wisecracking love interest, something completely absent from the original novella.) It's definitely worth checking out if you're a fan of historical films (and by the way is in the public domain too -- you can watch the whole thing for free if you want over at Google Video); for most of you, however, I recommend simply reading the book, which to this day is still a corker of a tale.

Out of 10:
Book: 8.3
Movie: 7.2, or 8.2 for fans of pre-WWII films

*And in fact, since it's such an integral part of the plot, it's important before reading The 39 Steps to understand in general terms what caused World War I in the first place. In fact, I can give it to you in a nutshell: Basically, the way all the royal families of Europe kept the peace throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s was through an ultra-elaborate series of international treaties, with a country for example pledging to go to war on behalf of a friendly neighbor, if that neighbor ends up going to war themselves. The thinking, then, was that no individual country would ever declare war against another one under such circumstances, because of that country basically declaring war against half of Europe by doing so; and sure enough, after the assassination of a member of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914, the retaliation by that empire against the kingdom of Serbia did indeed kick all these complicated treaties into motion, leading eventually to half of Europe fighting the other half of Europe for no particular reason at all, and with a total death toll of 20 million by the time the whole thing was over. The conspiracy behind The 39 Steps relies exactly on such a situation -- the assassination of a minor ambassador, leading to a global war because of all these international treaties -- which is why it's important to understand all this before reading the book.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:57 PM, June 4, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Movies | Reviews |