The latest adaptation The 39 Steps, which stars Rupert Penry-Jones as the dashing Richard Hannay, hews closer to the novel,
which Buchan called a “shocker,” than Hitchcock’s version. “I would definitely say (it is) faithful to the spirit of the book,” says Lizzie Mickery, who wrote the screenplay.
In Steps, a spy passes a code to Londoner Hannay just before being murdered. Hannay tries to decipher it while running from authorities and ends up in Scotland, where German spies are planning to steal British military plans on the eve of World War I.
Mickery adds a romantic angle absent from Buchan’s work, in the form of a suffragette (Lydia Leonard) who shakes Hannay from his complacency and his traditionalist views of women.
“She challenges him all along the line, which gives a spark to their relationship,” Mickery says.
It isn’t surprising that there have been multiple adaptations of Steps— films in 1959 and 1978, and a recent “comic-thriller” Broadway version — says Jonathan Kuntz, film historian at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. Commercially, familiarity with a story can attract an audience.
And Steps, with a wronged man trying to survive in a world of mystery and deceit, “is very much a classical or traditional kind of story for film,” Kuntz says. The risk of adapting Steps, which Kuntz calls a classic from Hitchcock’s early British period, is being compared with the master.
When working on the screenplay, Mickery says she couldn’t afford to think about the reaction of fans of the book or of Hitchcock’s film. “If I worried for one moment about being compared, I would have been paralyzed. So you have to try to remain faithful to what the book gave you.”
Penry-Jones (MI-5, Persuasion) so enjoyed the role of the flawed hero, he’d like to do more stories about Hannay, who appears in other Buchan novels. “He’s such a great character. There are so many layers to him. It’s really fun to play characters who are not just out-and-out heroes.”
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