The Thirty-Nine Steps

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What are the thirty-nine steps? A question that almost every adaptation answers differently.

John Buchan was one of the world's first spy novelists, and did a similar job for the genre as JRR Tolkien did for fantasy. The Thirty-Nine Steps is his most famous work, written in the run-up to World War I. It was a huge popular success and owed much to its 1903 predecessor, Erskine Childers' The Riddle Of The Sands, and the adventure stories of H. Rider Haggard. Buchan began his writing career as a journalist, but enlisted at the start of the First World War, working away from the front lines producing propaganda for the War Office. His experiences of the war, interwoven with a strong sense of national pride, a love of Africa and a belief in the strength of the British character, are themes in many of his novels.

Unfortunately in later years he has not enjoyed similar popularity, though according to The Other Wiki his works have been seeing a resurgence in more recent times.

Adapted four times for film, once for TV, once for the stage, and at least once for radio.

(NB: The book is The Thirty-Nine Steps. The 1978 film is The Thirty Nine Steps. The other adaptations are The 39 Steps.)

The original novel
It's May 1914. Richard Hannay has just returned to London from Rhodesia. A man called Scudder meets him and tells him the tall tale of an international conspiracy determined to start a war. The conspirators are on Scudder's track and his only hope is to stage his own suicide and lie low for a while. Hannay agrees to hide Scudder in his London flat, but a few days later Scudder is murdered there by enemy agents and Hannay realizes he will be accused of the crime. Hunted by both policemen and enemy spies, Hannay takes to the Scottish moors in a desperate bid to stay one step ahead of the enemy until he can thwart their evil plans.

In this original version, the 39 steps are steps down to the sea which identify a villa along a stretch of the Kent coast where the final confrontation with the German agents takes place.

The sequels

  • Greenmantle: Hannay and four friends make their way through wartime Europe to Turkey, searching for the truth behind the rumours of a German secret weapon that could throw the entire Muslim world into the war on the Germans' side. Sometimes considered to be one of the best books Buchan ever wrote; Hitchcock wanted to film it for years but never got around to it.
  • Mr Standfast: An old enemy reappears and in the last pivotal days of World War I on the Western Front, Hannay wages a battle of wits. Finally introduces a Love Interest (she's worth the wait).
  • The Three Hostages: With World War I over, Sir Richard and Lady Hannay are enjoying a quiet life in the country, but when three young people are kidnapped and a mind-controlling genius starts leaving cryptic clues behind, the pair of former spy-hunters have to go back to work.
  • The Island of Sheep: Set roughly fourteen years after The Three Hostages. Hannay and his son Peter John Hannay have to protect an old friend from fortune-hunters.
Tropes used in The Thirty-Nine Steps include:
  • Awesome Yet Practical
  • Badass Normal: Compared to the villains and even some of the good guys--including the Love Interest--Hannay's intelligence is average, but he takes down world-ruling geniuses simply by refusing to give up.
  • The Baroness: Hilda von Einem from Greenmantle.
  • Berserk Button: Hannay has several. Bribe him, bully him, or turn traitor, and you'll see. Or don't. It never ends well.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Mary Hannay in The Three Hostages
  • Bond Villain Stupidity: In Mr Standfast. Apparently Ian Fleming was a fan of Buchan's. And how it shows. If you're going to pinion the hero in a Death Trap and declare that you have a Villainous Crush on his girlfriend, as an absolute minimum you should take his gun away before you head off leaving him completely unguarded. Otherwise you only have yourself to blame when he shoots himself free and turns up at the denouement.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Mr Standfast
  • Captain Crash: Almost every car that Richard Hannay gets into ends up either careering off the road or preemptively breaking down.
  • Chaste Hero: Beyond the obvious lack of time for philandering in the first couple of books, Hannay is till his marriage terribly shy around women.
  • The Chessmaster: John Blenkiron among others.
  • Chest of Medals: Hannay's is alluded to in Mr Standfast--especially funny if you've ever read Exodus28:15ff.

They gave me my battalion before the Somme, and I came out of that weary battle after the first big September fighting with a crack in my head and a D.S.O. I had received a C.B. for the Erzerum business, so what with these and my Matabele and South African medals and the Legion of Honour, I had a chest like the High Priest's breastplate.

  • Clear My Name: The Thirty-Nine Steps and Mr Standfast
  • Conspiracy Theory: One involving vengeful Jewish financiers in the first book, but this is later jossed in-universe when it turns out that the man who told this to Hannay wasn't 100% sure if he could trust Hannay with his findings on the real conspiracy (which didn't involve Jewish people at all) and instead just made something up using the prevailing bigotry of the time.
  • Cool Old Guy: Peter Pienaar, who taught Four-Star Badass Hannay most of what he knows about disguise, spying, and veldtcraft. Will calmly walk into occupied Germany or across No Man's Land if necessary. Especially good at breaking out of prison, knocking you out with a well-aimed tea-tray, snuffing the lights in a public-house with a revolver, or rescuing your kidnapped Love Interest. Eventually discovers his life's calling as an elderly RAF air ace.
  • Criminal Mind Games: In The Three Hostages
  • Determinator: Probably Richard Hannay's defining character trait as well as his preferred modus operandi, both mental and physical--he will keep running long after anyone else would have lain down and died from exhaustion, exposure, injuries, or being blown up.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: In Mr Standfast.
  • Fake Defector: Various characters in Greenmantle
  • Five-Man Band:
    • The Hero: Richard Hannay
    • The Lancer: Peter Pienaar
    • The Smart Guy: Sandy Arbuthnot, John S. Blenkiron
    • The Big Guy: Blenkiron, Geordie Hamilton
    • The Chick: Mary Lamington
  • Foe Yay: Stumm in Greenmantle. Examples of it include Stumm's man-on-man fight in his rather frilly drawing room and intruding upon Hannay while he's getting dressed. (It's even worse when you read it.)
  • Four-Star Badass: Hannay's rapid promotion to Major-General is entirely due to him being one determined Badass.
  • Gentleman Snarker: Richard Hannay may be something of an idealist, but like all Britons he is perfectly capable of a few zingers.

He was a man of remarkable qualities, which would have brought him to the highest distinction in the Stone Age.


I'm not in this show for honour and glory, though. I want to do the best I can, but I wish to Heaven it was over. All I think of is coming out of it with a whole skin.


I had no particular ill-will left against Stumm. He was a man of remarkable qualities, which would have brought him to the highest distinction in the Stone Age.

  • Officer and a Gentleman
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: Justified good and proper. Taking on a new personality is more effective than new clothes. The only problem is that to successfully pose as harmless idiots the characters run the risk of Becoming the Mask and losing their intellectual edge!
  • Properly Paranoid: Even the Reasonable Authority Figures find it difficult to believe Hannay's wild story in The Thirty-Nine Steps.
  • Rage Breaking Point: In Greenmantle, Hannay's disguise as a backveldt Boer is given away when Stumm's bullying, intimidation, and insults finally push him beyond this.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: Karolides (whose real world equivalent is Franz Ferdinand) and real life figures Kaiser Wilhelm and Ismail Enver all make appearances.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Definitely on the Idealist end of the scale owing to Buchan's convictions about the war. However his idealism need not be mistaken for ignorance or shallowness. The books treat Germans sympathetically (including the Kaiser) and Buchan witnessed trench warfare firsthand as a newspaper correspondent.
  • The So-Called Coward: Lancelot Wake is a sensitive artistic pacifist unable to handle himself in a fight--so naturally Hannay views him with contempt. Turns out he's a pacifist for truly idealistic reasons and is quite possibly the bravest person in the book.
  • Spy Fiction: Basically invented the trope; the Beer and Martini elements both have roots here.
  • The Spymaster: Sir Walter Bullivant, John Blenkiron and Mary Lamington for the allied cause, and Moxon Ivery alias der Graf von Schwabing for the Germans.
  • Stern Chase: It's just not a Buchan novel if at some point there isn't an awesome Stern Chase.
  • They Look Just Like Everyone Else: Those two young men playing lawn tennis? Members of a sinister international conspiracy. That airplane in the sky? Just sent someone to kill you. That nice old buffer? Evil incarnate. No wonder even Hannay begins to wonder if he's paranoid.
  • This Is No Time to Panic: Repeatedly invoked as Hannay finds himself trapped, alone, and helpless.
  • Unstoppable Rage: Hannay can be pushed into this with severe bullying, as Stumm finds out in Greenmantle.
  • World War I: The Thirty-nine Steps takes place in the run-up to the war, and both Greenmantle and Mr Standfast are set during the war.

The 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film

A loose adaptation of the book, moving the setting to the 1930s, turning Hannay into a Canadian (a possible nod to original author Buchan being made Governor-General of Canada in 1935), Scudder into a female spy of Central European origin and changing the nature of the secrets ( A formula for a silent aircraft engine). Starring Robert Donnat, it also adds a love interest to the story. In this version the 39 steps are a ring of foreign spies intent on stealing military secrets.

This is the best known version.

This film contains examples of:

The 1959 film

Color remake of the Hitchcock film, starring Kenneth More, moving the setting to the 1950s and changing the secrets to plans for a British ballistic missile. Nobody really remembers this one. In this version, the 39 steps are again a ring of foreign spies intent on stealing military secrets.

This film contains examples of:

The 1978 film

A more faithful adaptation of the novel, moving the setting back to 1914. This one is best remembered for Robert Powell, playing Hannay, hanging off the minute hand of the clock on St. Stephen's Tower (aka Big Ben). Also has a love interest. The 39 steps are a flight of stairs in the clock tower of the palace of Westminster, better known as 'Big Ben' (this name actually refers to the bell in the tower rather than the tower itself).

Inspired a TV series, Hannay, also starring Robert Powell in adventures not based on any of Buchan's other novels.

The 2006 play

A four-actor comedic theatrical adaptation of the Hitchcock film, which has been shown in the West End and Broadway. To give an idea of the style, the Forth Bridge train is a model train on a track at the back of the stage and pretty much everyone plays at least a dozen roles. In this version, the 39 steps are again a ring of foreign spies intent on stealing military secrets.

This play contains:

  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: All. The. Time.
  • Idiot Ball: The stile scene.
  • Loads and Loads of Roles: Four actors play every role in the movie, sometimes having to play two characters in the same scene. Traditionally it's one actor for the main character, one actress for all the attractive women, and two other actors for everything else. Scenery not excluded.
  • Shout-Out: To North by Northwest, The Alfred Hitchcock Show, and pretty much every other Alfred Hitchcock work.
    • "Through the door?" No! Through the Rear Window!!"
    • Lampshaded in one instance when two characters come to a ladder and the woman won't go up. "Why no- oh, don't tell me. Vertigo."
  • Those Two Guys: Because there are only two guys other than Hannay, this pops up a lot. Examples include the underwear salesmen, the police officers, the heavies, the Sheriff and Chief Inspector, Dunwoody and Mc Quarrie, and Compere and Mr. Memory.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Hannay initially mistakes the Scottish farmer's wife for his daughter.

The 2008 TV Movie

For the 2008 Christmas season, The BBC did another adaptation of the book, but added another love interest and moved the setting very slightly forward (it's now June 1914). The 39 steps are steps leading down to a Scottish loch.

Rupert Penry-Jones (Adam Carter in Spooks) plays Hannay in this one.

This TV Movie contains examples of:

The 2011 film

A second remake of the Hitchcock film, directed by Robert Towne. This was announced in 2004 for 2006, but has now slipped back.

Alan Moore used the 39 steps as a major plot point in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier.