Friday, 21 September 2012

The Thirty Nine Steps by John Buchan

Think you know the story? Think again. 

She's not in the book

This never happens in the book

Sorry, no Forth Bridge hidey bits in the book

Forget all about Mr Memory

Many people will be familiar with this one via the many cinematic or televisual adaptations which seem to come along more often than a new edition of D&D. However, few, if any, have given a faithful rendering of the book and it’s only in the past few days that I’ve actually gone back to source and read the original, which is getting on for 100 years old (in 2015).

Why, I wonder, do they feel the need to adapt it so heavily?  What about the story seems to make it difficult to transpose to the screen?  The book itself is short – around 41,000 words, so its length shouldn’t be a problem. It’s fast-paced with barely a let-up in the action, so fitting it in to 2 hours or so presents no difficulty.

No, what the problem is with the book is its sheer old-fashionedness; it champions values that are sadly out of keeping with the modern world as we perceive it and wish it reflected in our entertainments.  Nobility and self-sacrificing heroism, a rugged masculinity and a lack of sexual content seem, it appears, to make for poor crowd-pleasers.  It did, however, manage to please me, since I took it at face value and cannot really remember clearly the cinematic adaptations.

To be honest, whilst enjoying the yarn (for such it is), I was reminded for the most part of a Call of Cthulhu scenario in the Keeper is intent on giving the players the fright of their lives whilst never really intending to kill them. In fact, the whole book could serve as an object lesson in how to survive whilst on the run in the aforementioned game, since it is set in 1914, barely a decade or so before the time during which many Keepers set their adventures. Merely substitute ‘sinister plotters’ for ‘sinister cultists’ and you could probably run this one.

Of course, there are, it is freely admitted, colossal contrivances that conspire to make the story work. It’s a yarn, as I’ve already said. The pace manages to overcome the disbelief that may rear its head at certain points and if you read it in the spirit in which it’s written, the enjoyment is heightened. There’s also a rather abrupt ending and some dialogue that might be read as a ‘comedy Scottish accent’ although since Buchan was Scottish, I must bow to his inestimably superior knowledge.

As a glimpse into another time, another world and another set of values to which we may well glance with wistful nostalgia from time to time, especially when confronted with the less than savoury aspects of our own time, this book stands as a very good example.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. Yeah, there is certainly value in "escapism"--not in the since of avoiding on'es real life, but in the sense of sort of taking a virtual vacation and experiencing something different.