The 39 Steps (US/UK), Patrick Barlow’s hilarious and fast-paced whodunit, is a theatrical treat packed with nonstop laughs, over 150 zany characters (played by a ridiculously talented cast of four), an onstage plane crash, handcuffs, missing fingers, and some good old-fashioned romance. But before it was a hit play, The 39 Steps was a bestselling novel and several hit films. Here’s a look at all the incarnations of The 39 Steps, from page to screen to stage.
Scottish author John Buchan’s adventure novel The Thirty-Nine Steps first appeared as a serial in Blackwood’s Magazine in the summer of 1915. Attributed to the pseudonymous “H de V.”, the series followed the exploits of action hero Richard Hannay, a stoic but courageous gentleman who found himself in a variety of challenging situations. Featuring espionage, murder, deception, romance, adventure, high-speed chases and shocking plot twists, the serial was an enormous success.
Publisher William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh, compiled the stories into a single volume – now credited to author John Buchan – and published the novel in October 1915. The book was so popular that Buchan went on to write four more novels featuring Richard Hannay: Greenmantle (1916), Mr Standfast (1919), The Three Hostages (1924) and The Island of Sheep (1936).
Buchan had written The Thirty-Nine Steps while bedridden with a duodenal ulcer. According to his son William, the idea for the serial’s title came from the author’s daughter: While Buchan was recovering at St Cuby, a private nursing home on Cliff Promenade in Broadstairs, his six-year-old daughter entertained herself by counting the steps on a wooden staircase leading down to the beach. When she proudly announced that there were 78 steps, Buchan knew he’d found the title for his adventure. (But he halved the number, feeling it made a better title.)
The book remains a bestseller and continues to thrill readers today. In the BBC’s 2003 “The Big Read” poll, voters named The Thirty-Nine Steps one of the UK’s “best-loved novels.”
In 1935, Alfred Hitchcock directed a film loosely adapted from Buchan’s novel, restyled as The 39 Steps. The mystery thriller starred Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, and featured Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle and Peggy Ashcroft.
The film concerns a Canadian civilian in London, Richard Hannay, who becomes caught up in preventing an organization of spies (called “The 39 Steps”) from stealing British military secrets. After being mistakenly accused of murdering a counter-espionage agent, Hannay goes on the run to Scotland and becomes tangled up with an attractive woman while hoping to stop the spy ring and clear his name.
Since its initial release, the film has been widely acknowledged as a classic. Filmmaker and actor Orson Welles referred to it as a “masterpiece.” Screenwriter Robert Towne remarked, “It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that all contemporary escapist entertainment begins with The 39 Steps.”
The first film remake of The 39 Steps – in living color – was released in 1959. The British thriller was directed by Ralph Thomas and starred Kenneth More and Taina Elg. Unlike Hitchcock’s version, which was shot primarily in the studio, this 1959 remake featured extensive shooting on location. Like Hitchcock, Thomas chose to update Buchan’s story to the present day.
In 1978, Don Sharp directed a new film adaptation of the story, restoring the original title of The Thirty-Nine Steps. Starring Robert Powell, Karen Dotrice and John Mills – and featuring a who’s who of well-known British actors in supporting roles – this film version, like the novel, was set before the Great War. Still, the screenwriters took liberties with the narrative; they ended the film with an adventure sequence in which Hannay is left hanging from the hands of Big Ben. The film inspired a spin-off television series; the prequel Hannay also starred Powell as the action hero.
This 90-minute television adaptation, commissioned by the BBC, was written by Lizzie Mickery and starred Rupert Penry-Jones, Lydia Leonard, Patrick Malahide and Eddie Marsan. Like the 1978 version, this production, titled The 39 Steps, veered considerably from Buchan’s original story, with an added romantic subplot and a new ending featuring a submarine in a Scottish loch.
Stage Play (2005)
More than a decade before The 39 Steps became a global sensation, Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon first conceived a four-actor version of Buchan’s story. In 1995, funded by a £1,000 Yorkshire Arts Grant, their first version of the play premiered before an audience of 90 people at the Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond, North Yorkshire, before embarking on a tour of village halls across the north of England.
In 2005, playwright Patrick Barlow (US/UK) rewrote the script, maintaining the concept but bumping up the comedy and pace. In Barlow’s kinetic and hilarious stage adaptation, strongly rooted in Hitchcock’s 1939 film, four actors play every role in the show: one plays the hero, Richard Hannay; another plays the three women with whom he has romantic entanglements; and two others play every remaining character in the story, including heroes, villains, men, women, children and even the occasional inanimate object. The script also alludes heavily to other Hitchcock films, including North by Northwest, Psycho, Rear Window, Strangers on a Train and Vertigo.
Barlow’s adaptation of The 39 Steps premiered on June 17, 2005 at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and the play made its London premiere at the Tricycle Theatre on August 10, 2006. Titled John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, the London premiere, directed by Maria Aitken and designed by Peter McKintosh, starred Rupert Degas, Charles Edwards, Simon Gregor and Catherine McCormack. The production immediately transferred to the Criterion Theatre in London’s West End and ran for 9 years, making it the fifth longest-running play in West End history.
After a Boston premiere, Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps opened on Broadway in a Roundabout Th
eatre production at the American Airlines Theatre on January 15, 2008. Directed by Aitken and designed by McKintosh, the Broadway production featured Jennifer Ferrin, Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders, with Edwards reprising his West End turn as Hannay. The show ran for 771 performances and in 2010 transferred to New World Stages off-Broadway.
On April 1, 2015, the play (now retitled 39 Steps) resumed performances at the Union Square Theatre. The production featured Robert Petkoff, Brittany Vicars and Billy Carter. Arnie Burton, who had originated the role of Man #2 on Broadway, continued, clocking a total of 1000 performances in the part.
Lauded by critics and celebrated by audiences, The 39 Steps earned numerous awards, including two 2008 Tony Awards, a 2008 Drama Desk Award for “Unique Theatrical Experience,” and a 2007 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy.
What a journey John Buchan’s tale has taken! When he first put pen to paper in 1915, Buchan could hardly have imagined that his adventure story would spawn a hit book series, at least four film adaptations, and a stage play that triumphed in the West End and on Broadway, and – more than a century after Hannay was created – continues to delight audiences around the globe.
Header Image: 2008 Roundabout Theatre Company Production of The 39 Steps (Joan Marcus)