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From Page to Stage: The Many Faces of The 39 Steps

A Dig Deeper Article by Production Dramaturg Louise Casemore


With an over 100-year history of twists, turns, reinventions, and evolutions, the now-iconic spy caper The 39 Steps has darted down a long and winding path toward the production poised to descend upon the Bleviss Laboratory Theatre stage. First created by politician and author John Buchan in 1915, the novel was written by as a distraction from the perils of wartime and has remained in print ever since. Impressive not only in their literary longevity, hero Richard Hannay’s escapades through Scotland have spawned an impressive number of adaptations, being translated from book to film and then play with many formats in between.


1915 – “The Thirty-Nine Steps” first appeared as a serial in Blackwoods Magazine, released at that time under a pseudonym. The full novel was released the same year with Buchan’s name attached, and was an instant hit amongst readers.


1935 – Alfred Hitchcock’s film, written by Charles Bennett and Ian Hay, quickly became one of the most well-known iterations of Buchan’s story. The film was a massive success critically and commercially, ranked among the top films of the year in the UK and North America. The film included the first introduction of femme fatale characters Annabella and Pamela as leading characters, alongside a shift in genre action adventure to the mystery thriller synonymous with Hitchcock’s style.


1938 – While there were other audio interpretations of The 39 Steps released in the years before and after, the most notable was a radio drama presented as part of The Mercury Theatre on the Air, directed by and starring the acclaimed filmmaker Orson Welles.


1950 – There was a comic book adaptation written by Dick Davis and illustrated by Jim Lavery, tied deeply to Buchan’s original novel as part of a “Stories by Famous Authors Illustrated” series.

1959 – A second film version was released, this time directed by Ralph Thomas and starring Kenneth More. Cinema has prevailed as the most popular format of adaptation for The 39 Steps, with additional films released in 1978 and 2008.


1995 – The first attempt at a stage adaptation premiered in Richmond, North Yorkshire, written by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon. This brought a new approach to the story, with a comedic hybrid of the novel’s sense of adventure alongside the stylish intrigue of Hitchcock’s film. The play went on to tour throughout northern England, but was relatively small in success.

2008The 39 Steps then made the leap to the smaller screen, with a television adaptation featured on the BBC starring Rupert Penry-Jones.


2015 – Patrick Barlow’s stage adaptation made its debut in London’s West End and was a smash hit with audiences and critics. With a strong background in creating comic adaptations of large stories using very few performers, (The Complete Life and Works of Shakespeare, Massive Landmarks of the Twentieth Century), Barlow’s play emphasized the virtuosity of having four actors take on a genre-defying story with nearly 250 characters.

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