For Hitchcock, books were simply a basis for the film; and his adaptations usually wildly changed (and often far surpassed) the source material. Psycho is one of many examples. Hitchcock: "Well, for me, it all starts with the basic material first...you may have a novel, a play, an original idea, a couple of sentences, and from that the film begins."
It all began in 1915, when John Buchan wrote the book on vacation, the steps down to the beach inspiring the title to this classic British thriller. The plot concerns a man in London who tries to help a counterespionage agent. But when the agent is killed and he stands accused, he must go on the run to both save himself and also stop a spy ring trying to steal top-secret information.
Is the movie better? Total Film calls it the second best adaptation ever, period. How are they different? The 39 Steps refers to the clandestine organization, whereas in the book and the other film versions it refers to physical steps. By having Annabella tell Hannay she is travelling to meet a man in Scotland (and produce a map with the town circled) Hitchcock avoids the plot hole in Buchan's book where Hannay, with the whole country in which to hide, chances to walk into the one house where the spy ringleader lives.
Hitchcock made his best films from pulp or mediocre works: "I have always maintained that it is supreme foolishness to take any book and film the whole of it, just because one angle of it is really worth screening."
So, the film closes a plot hole and certainly isn't one of his usual pulp derivations. But is Hitchcock's first masterpiece better than this classic British novel? Too close to call, but you can make you own judgment when you attend our screening this Wednesday at 1:30 (we repeat it at 6:30) at the Evergreen Branch Library. Be sure to check out our yearlong series Dial H for Hitchcock as well.
Be sure to visit A Reading Life for more reviews and news of all things happening at the Everett Public Library.
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