Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Thirty-Nine Steps

I recently went back to John Buchan's novel The Thirty Nine Steps, the template for all modern on-the-run thrillers from The Fugitive to 24 to the entire Jason Bourne trilogy.

The re-reading confirmed my remembered impressions. The book has terrific narrative velocity. It also falls apart to an utterly unmemorable end, and the story doesn’t hold up under anything but the most uncritical scrutiny.

But somehow, it's still has greatness in it.

Though the execution can be shambolic, the overall shape is a classic one. The glue that holds it together is Buchan’s portrayal of his hero, Richard Hannay - an impressive achievement in the light of the fact that the author shows no discernible ability to characterise anyone else. The other players are all the stock types of Clubman’s fiction. They're mostly defined by rank and class, to the extent that some of them don’t even get names.

Buchan has obviously sensed from a distance the arc that he wants to achieve. It starts in the bustle of the city and loops out across the far wide country, where Hannay discovers with a rug-from-under-the-feet feeling that, far from making his way to safety, he’s made his way to the heart of the conspiracy that he's been running from. In the final act our hero, with his good character restored, leads the forces of right in the final showdown.

I suppose my contention here is that The Thirty-Nine Steps, in its combination of personal conflict and open landscape, offers the closest thing we have to the Great British Western.

That Buchan falsifies process and reality at every turn in order to achieve this is actually something of a key to how the book works. It operates on a level of almost pre-adolescent magical thinking. How else to explain the way in which authority figures hand control of their operation over to the man they've been chasing, on the basis that "He's been doing a pretty good job of it so far"? That’s the kind of thinking that has the Chief of Police calling on eleven-year-old Johnny Atom in order to beg him to take a look at the case that has his best men baffled.

People are recognised as good sorts and bad sorts without any need for qualification or demonstration. It’s a story completely without women. Oh, there's Julia the Czech girl, who gets a promising mention at the beginning. Her name provides the key to a cipher, but she herself makes no appearance.

My antenna says that Buchan had a vague idea that she would, but then went ahead and found no place for her in the execution. I’m convinced that he didn’t pre-plan his story to any great degree. I think that’s the reason for the looseness and breeziness of the writing, but also the dissatisfaction that you’re left with at the end. It’s a bit like realising that you’ve been entrusting your education to a teacher who’s only two chapters ahead of you in the textbook.

Charles Bennett's screenplay for the Hitchcock feature essentially took the framework of the novel and laid an almost unrelated romantic comedy over it. Comparing book to film is a bit like watching Noises Off on stage, where the old warhorse of a story is playing on one side of the flats and the enjoyable stuff with the lighter touch is playing only inches away on the other. The surprising thing is that the combination of thriller and romcom works so well, a fusion of genres that was to become a genre in its own right.

I’ve only a dim recollection of Ralph Smart's 1950s version. Memory suggests that it was a remake of the Bennett screenplay that rested almost entirely on the cheery personality of Kenneth More, one of those actors that I always feel pleased to see. For the rest of it, what I remember is a lot of two-dimensional staging and unconvincing back-projection at precisely those points where tension and thrills are required.

As for the '80s Robert Powell version, I’ve no memory of that at all apart from the image of Hannay dangling from the hands of Big Ben at the end. Though that's not to knock it. Production values appear to have been high and I wouldn't mind seeing it again.

The pic shows Charles Edwards, who appeared as Richard Hannay in both the West End and Broadway productions of Patrick Barlow's spoof/homage to Buchan's novel and the Hitchcock film. Edwards also played the young Conan Doyle in my Murder Rooms story for the BBC Films series. And everyone else's, for that matter.

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