The fictional character of Richard Hannay was introduced to the world in 1915, in the classic of British literature: The 39 Steps, and immortalized in cinema 20 years later, in the film of the same name directed by Alfred Hitchcock. While Hitch liked the formula created by Scottish author, John Buchan – that of an ordinary, innocent man accused of a crime who needs to escape, clear his name, and save the world – which he used in almost all of his films afterward, the spy thriller did too strongly influenced Sir Ian Flemming years later in the creation of James Bond. That’s right, 007‘s Scottish DNA goes back 108 years. The popularity of The 39 Steps is so great that even after films, series, radio soap operas, and plays it is being refilmed for Netflix, with Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role.
Benedict, who became world-famous as Sherlock Holmes, rescues the basic formula of an extremely popular book, whose version by Hitchcock (who took several liberties with the original story) is usually the main reference. And why bring such an old-fashioned character to the platform? A probable franchise is the best bet. In the 1970s, starring Zeffirelli’s Jesus Christ actor Robert Powell, it was a hit on English TV. Would it survive cultural changes, however?
Let’s look at the appeal of the story. The author, John Buchan, was bedridden when he used the time spent recovering from an ulcer to create the story that made him immortal. The title came from a family joke, his sister was learning to count and claimed that the stairs that led to the beach “had 39 steps” and he liked the number, despite knowing that in fact, the exact count would be 108 steps. Also inspired by the story of a British Army officer, William Edmund Ironside, who worked as a spy in the German colonial forces in southwest Africa, the writer created Richard Hannay, a Scotsman of German descent who lived many years in South Africa, as an engineer. In the British Army, he served in the intelligence before returning to England in 1914 and accidentally becoming involved in the events of The 39 Steps.
In the book, Richard is bored in London and is surprised when his neighbor breaks into his house asking for help after he had uncovered a major international espionage conspiracy and plans for an assassination attempt and was being pursued. After the villains kill the neighbor, Richard has to escape to survive and clear his own name, but he also wants to help stop the attack (he kept the encrypted plan information, which only included the 39 steps and a time frame, leading up to a series of dramatic adventures of chases, explosions, deaths, and betrayals.
The original story is set in the months leading up to World War I, even though it was published with the conflict already underway. As Buchan worked for the War Propaganda Bureau, his story dealt with the fear of invasion, and distrust of the Germans and was marked by “incidents defy the odds and march within the boundaries of the possible”. All themes from other books of the time, but which he captured in a spectacular way in its pages. After the great success of the work, Richard Hannay appeared in other books always as an ingenious and cool-headed hero, characteristics that Ian Flemming would use years later to create James Bond. As 007 deals with S.P.E.C.T.R.E., Hannay’s enemies become international criminal gangs after the War and so his work continues.
Richard Hannay’s impact on the classic action-story hero archetype is undeniable. Alfred Hitchcock liked the formula so much that in addition to the 1935 film, he used it for The Saboteur and other suspense films, the most classic after the original in which he brings “the innocent man on the Run”, was North by Northwest, recreating, once again, one of the most famous passages in The 39 Steps, that of a plane chasing the hero across an open field.
The role became famous in the face of actor Robert Donat and will be a kind of easy challenge for Benedict Cumberbatch, something in the middle of the arrogance of Sherlock and Dr. Strange. I’m curious to know if the basis will be Hitchcock’s classic or if it will try to keep John Buchan‘s story. Even more, if it will be a period work or if it will be modernized. Be that as it may, Hannay, who made his fortune in South Africa and served in the army in times of exclusion, does strike me as a complex role to rescue these days.