Wednesday, 31 December 2008

The 39 steps

On Sunday the BBC broadcast a new adaptation of Joch Buchan's famous novel, The 39 Steps. It is the fourth film or TV adaptation (the first, by Hitchcock, screened in 1935).

The story was published at the height of the First World War, and proved instantly popular. This is a description of the basic plot: It features Richard Hannay as an Englishman whi has just returned from Africa in 1914. He is befriended by a freelance spy, Scudder, who tells him that he has uncovered a ring of German spies who are trying to steal Britain's plans for war. Hannay allows Scudder to hide at his flat. Later, he returns to find Scudder dead.
Later on he reads Scudder's notes, which mention 'the 39 steps'. The meaning of this phrase is a theme that runs throughout he books.
Realising that he is the prime suspect in the murder, he travels to Scotland to try and stop the plot ...

Before I discuss the adaptation, I should admit that I have not read the book since I was a child. However, I believe that my memories (bolstered by Wikipedia) are correct.

Firstly, the positives. The imagery in the adaptation were superb - I cannot speak for the accuracy of the period cars or clothes, but they certainly felt authentic to a non-expert. The scenery was also breathtaking - the moors in Scotland were suitably bleak but beautiful. These are all things that the BBC do well in their historical adaptations. The scenes that showed Rupert Penry-Jones (as Hannay) running across the moors were superb.

However, now to the problems. The biggest of these was that the writers introduced a love interest. This was a suffragette Hannay meets in Scotland, who later (quelle surprise) turns out to be a spy herself. At their first meeting, Hannay treats her and her beliefs poorly, saying some now-disreputable comments about suffragettes. Naturally enough, they become attracted to one another. However, all of this was invented for the adaptation; in the book (indeed, in the first couple of books starring Hannay) there is no love interest. I can see why they chose to add this extra plot thread, but why did they have to make Hannay appear quite so chauvinist towards her? It did not sit well within the film, and actually made the protagonist unlovable.

Another big problem is that the 39 steps, the title of the programme, is only mentioned late on in the adaptation, making the title rather superfluous. As mentioned above, one thread in the book is an attempt to find out what the '39 steps' mentioned by Scudder are. In the adaptation, this is extremely poorly handled, and appears to have bene thrown in for the sake of completeness. Therefore, the title is not central to the plot.

Additionally, there was very little suspense within the adaptation. The twist at the end was ineptly handled and rather pointless, and by about halfway through I cared little whether the heroine succeeded or failed.

If they are doing the '39 steps', then they should really stick more faithfully to the book. This was a film based on the 39 Steps, not the 39 steps. What next? The 'Mayor of Casterbridge' where Henchard does not die and is reunited with Elizabeth-Jane?

All in all this was a very disappointing adaptation.

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