Book to Cinema to Theatre! Hitchcock’s 39 Steps Goes Comedic
You hear it all the time; a New York Times bestseller has managed to get picked up a by a studio and is soon to become Hollywood’s next big blockbuster. Novel to cinema adaptations is definitely not a new concept, the more I think about it actually the more apparent it becomes that most films derive from novels. Whether it be word for word or just bits and pieces, literature and cinema go hand and hand. The challenge for filmmakers however is how to turn this piece of fiction into their own; how can they turn someone else’s writing into a visual masterpiece. In the case of John Buchan’s novel The 39 Steps, famed director Alfred Hitchcock had managed to create a film version so invigorating that it’s storyline was almost directly mirrored into a theatrical adaptation.
Novel to film, film to theatre, you would think this ‘man on the run’ story line would get old quickly. Feeling this way, prior to entering the Criterion Theatre I managed to find a bit of background information on the novel and film versions of the book. It turns out the novel itself lacked many female characters including the initial spy that confronts him in the theatre (Annabella Schmidt), the wife of the farmer and Pamela, a women who the leading man Richard Hannay ends up handcuffed to for a large portion of the piece. Making these characters females or adding entirely new characters in almost changes the entire storyline completely. Knowing the differences between the novel and film versions (and that this was meant to be comical) I expected the play to be almost different from the film. To my surprise the theatrical version was nearly identical besides the comedic aspect.
Much more entertaining and lively, the theatrical adaptation of The 39 Steps kept the essence of the film and added a twist meant to keep today’s audience intrigued. Repeating Hitchcock’s script verbatim the cast took the lines and added wild gestures, ridiculous stage props, fake accents, and sexual innuendos to keep it comical. One of the most memorable parts that encompassed nearly all those elements was towards the beginning when Schmidt and Hannay first converge at Hannay’s apartment. While attempting to explain herself Ms Annabella Schmidt speaks with a heavy accent, uses her hands to speak and is deeply dramatic when describing the potential spies outside Hannay’s window. As this is going on, to make the scene even more hilariously dramatic “spy” music is playing in the background as two other performers drag in and out a lamp post onto the stage playing the spies out to get her. Speaking of the actors one of the most entertaining aspects of the show was the four people acted out multiple characters. There were on stage costume changes, male actors playing female characters, elements that made this play even more side-splitting.
Knowing that The 39 Steps was originally a book with almost strictly male characters, I wonder if it would have been possible to make a comedic version without Hitchcock’s revisions. With all that said the actors put on one heck of a show. How they managed to find the comedic undertones in Hitchcock’s version and make them obvious to the public is what makes this show worthwhile.