Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Thirty-Nine Steps

I reminded myself that a week ago I had been finding the world dull.

First published in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps is a classic of spy fiction. The story of the innocent man on the run is now one of the most popular tales found in thriller fiction and Hollywood legend, and is seen here in one of its earliest forms. It was a story that not only brought entertainment to a country in the midst of the Great War, but it also brought inspiration and a much needed diversion to the men in the trenches. And though he would be the author of many other works (both fiction and non-fiction), it is for this little gem of a book that John Buchan is now remembered.

The Plot:

After many years in South Africa, Richard Hannay has returned to his native Britain, hoping to enjoy a life of ease and fun. Unfortunately, he finds life in London to be extremely dull after the wilds of Africa and is planning on returning to his former residence. In walks Franklin Scudder, a freelance spy who is in need of help. He has uncovered a German plot to murder a Greek permier and steal valuable British military secrets. One day after revealing these facts to Hannay, Scudder turns up dead in Hannay's flat. Hannay realizes that his own life is in jeopardy, not only from the police, but also from the German spies who will connect him to Scudder.

So begins his mad dash to Scotland to clear his name and stop the Germans from obtaining their goal. He is forced to think quickly, keep a cool head, and endure many hardships. In the end, it will take all of his strength, his smarts, and his patriotism to defeat the enemy around him.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

This was a fun little read. At only 100 and some odd pages long, it is something that you should be able to get through pretty quickly. The plot is fast-paced with very little to slow it down.

I couldn't help but compare it to the other early spy novel in my reading life: Ashenden. If Ashenden is a study in human character and the affects of spying on the human conciense, then The Thirty-Nine Steps is its opposite. Here, we are not so much concerned with the characters in the story as we are with the story itself. The villians are left somewhat in the shadows, the details of the German plot remain somewhat murky, and Hannay himself (though an interesting character) sometimes seems one-dimensional. The Thirt-Nine Steps also lacks some of the exotic flavor of, say, Kim. Though I'm sure the idea of "spies among us" worked for Buchan's original audience, it doesn't seem as dangerous or thrilling to a 21st Century American reader.

I think that the one element of the story that shines the most and reflects the time it was written in is the emphasis on patriotism. Hannay is a hero, because he ignored his own plans, safety, and wishes in order to help his country. It would have been very easy for him to catch the first boat back to South Africa after Scudder's death and hide out in the bush for a few years, but Hannay doesn't chose that path. His stiff upper-lip comes out and he faces all of the unknowns in order to protect his country's military secrets. It is this quality that endears him to us. It is why we root for him every step of the way. And it is why the young British soldiers in the trenches loved this story so much, for in Hannay, they saw a portrait of what they themselves were: men who were willing to lay it all on the line in service of their country.

All in all, this an exciting and fun read. If you like books with a fast pace and thrilling adventures, then this one is for you. If you are a devotee of spy novels, this is the grandaddy of them all and a must-read. And if you are a Hitchcock fan, it is a must-read to see the roots of many of the masterpieces to come.

The Movie:

If any book was "made for tv" it's this one, and yet strangely enough, their really isn't one that follows the novel very well. The first and most famous adaptation is the 1935 version starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Though one of Hitchcock's earliest films, it is considered one of his best and would be the forerunner to many other "man-on-the-run" films like Saboteur and North by Northwest. So this is a must-view for any Hitchcock lover. But like most Hitchcock films, it doesn't exactly follow the original very well.

The other versions are a 1959 version starring Kenneth More and the 1978 version starring Robert Powell. The most recent of course is the 2008 version starring Rupert Penry-Jones which I will be reviewing next week.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Weekly Geeks 2010-6: Literary Lovers

In honor of Valentine's weekend, let's talk about romantic literature. By that, I don't necessarily mean the modern romance genre, but books that you find particularly romantic.

Feel free to explore any or all of these prompts:
  • What literary couple is your favorite?
  • How do you define romantic literature? Does it always involve sex? or the hint of sex?
  • What author/s do you think writes romantic scenes particularly well?
  • Do you have a favorite romantic scene in a book?
  • Do you find you read romantic literature at certain times of the year?
  • Tell us your favorite romantic quote.
  • Do you have some favorite romantic poetry?
Last Valentine's Day, I highlighted some of my favorite literary romances. Here are some more to celebrate this year's day of love.

Edith Adelon & Lord Percy from The Inheritance by Louisa May Alcott

Everyone loves a pure and simple love story. That is exactly what The Inheritance is. Edith is so sweet an caring, Lord Percy is so gentle and kind, you can't help but root for them the whole way. Like all lovers, they have their own obstacles to overcome (class difference in their case), but in the end their pure love for each other helps overcome them. Lovely and refreshing.

I need no richer dowry than the love of such a heart, and though I take you without wealth, still in the tender reverence and fadeless gratitude of those who bless you, you have a nobler inheritance.

The 2nd Mrs. DeWinter & Maxim DeWinter from Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

The shy girl-bride, the aloof older husband, the dead first wife, the ghostly housekeeper...what's not to love about this romance. Sure, it's not the most realistic of stories, but hey, that's why we read isn't it? This particular couple has an even bigger obstacle to overcome than most, namely the dead Rebecca. Reading their story helps you realize how important true communication is in a relationship. It's similarities to Jane Eyre help to cement it as one of my newest favorites.

"Either you go to America with Mrs. Van Hopper or you come home to Manderley with me."
"Do you mean you want a secretary or something?"
"No, I'm asking you to marry me, you little fool."

Anne Elliot and Capt. Frederick Wentworth from Persuasion by Jane Austen

I think that what is so special about this particular story is that it affirms the existence of second chances. Both Anne and Capt. Wentworth feel that their chance at happiness together is gone at the beginning of the book, but by the end they have discovered that the passing of time has only cemented their love. The beauty of Persuasion is found in it's portrayal of autumn's second bloom.

Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you.

Laura Ingalls & Almonzo Wilder from the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Who doesn't love the story of headstrong Laura finding love in the seat of a buggy pulled by two beautiful horses. I love it when Ma Ingalls accuses Laura of marrying Almonzo for his horses and Laura replies that she can't have one without the other. Or when Laura and Almonzo exchange name cards. Or when Nellie Olsen joins them for a ride and Laura "accidentally" spooks the horses. So many beautiful moments that express the simplicity, the steadfastness, and the spirit of love on the frontier.

"I was wondering if you would like an engagement ring?" "That would depend on who offered it to me," Laura told him. "If I should?" Almonzo asked. "Then it would depend on the ring"

Picture #1: Cari Shayne & Thomas Gibson in The Inheritance

Picture #2: Joan Fontaine & Laurence Olivier in Rebecca

Picture #3: Amanda Root & Ciaran Hinds in Persuasion

Picture #4: Melissa Gilbert & Dean Butler in Little House on the Prairie

Monday, February 8, 2010

Masterpiece Theatre: Emma

The second installment in this season of Masterpiece Classic was the American premier of the new adaptation of Austen's classic novel, Emma. There has been a lot of buzz about this version, and I had MAJOR reservations about it. All in all, it ended up being a bit of a love/hate relationship. Those of you have read my blog for awhile know that Emma is not exactly my favorite Austen novel, so I am a bit more flexible when it comes to my approval of the different versions. Here is a snapshots of my likes and my dislikes of this most recent dose of Highbury:


-The production qualities are as good as always. The costumes were pretty without breaking away from the traditional Regency look. The homes were perfectly suited to their corresponding characters. And the outdoor scenes were breathtaking, especially Box Hill.

-The length was decent, allowing more time to explore the backgrounds of the various characters. You could really see WHY people like Miss Bates, Jane Fairfax, and Frank Churchill sometimes acted the way they did. Yes, it does give them a bit of a complex, but it also allows new viewers to understand them, somewhat.

-Blake Ritson as Mr. Elton. He was as good as any other actor who as been in the role, and the only one who was actually good looking.

-Louise Dylan as Harriet Smith. She was the perfect balance of sweet likability and total airhead.

-The humor. By far the most laugh-out-loud version that I have seen with Mr. Knightley of all people giving most of the witty remarks.

-Romola Garai and Johnny Lee Miller were not as horrible as I had imagined they might be. There were still many aspects that I didn't like, but they both seemed to at least be having some fun with their characters.


-Not many of the characters really struck the right tones for me. Romola Garai seemed too old for Emma's childishness. Johnny Lee Miller seemed too young for Knightley's wisdom and strength. Laura Pyper lacked the tragic elegance that Olivia Williams brought to the role of Jane Fairfax. Rupert Evans as Frank Churchill came off as annoying rather than dashing. Christina Cole was somewhat bland as Mrs. Elton. And poor Mr. Woodhouse's (Michael Gambon)hypochondria came off as pitiable rather than hilarious.

-I know some people like for their films to have a modern flair, but this film had too much for me. Someone was always waving, flopping on furniture, and using modern tones and expressions. When I watch a period piece, I would actually like to see some, you know, "period" in it. Let's put some elegance back in this!

-The ending was rather lackluster. There was almost no feeling from Mr. Knightley during the proposal scene and Emma spent the last half-hour in tears over one thing or another.

-Things seemed kind of mixed up at times, especially that whole scene at Donwell Abbey before the strawberry picking. It just didn't seem to belong. And the Box Hill scene fell a little flat in my opinion.

-I can't believe they did this. I mean, this was a change that I never saw coming. You know that exchange between Emma and Mr. Knightley at the Crown Ball regarding "brothers and sisters"? Yeah, well they didn't move it, they didn't change it, they actually got rid of it. One of the few truly romantic exchanges between the two and they take it out. Instead, we're left with them simply looking at each other throughout the dance. Badly done indeed!

In the end, nothing is really added by this new version. If you like your Austen dramas with lots of laughs, pretty people, and modern expressions, then this will work for you. If you like for Austen dramas to actually resemble the story that they came from, I would stick to the Kate Beckinsale version. Not horrible, just not great either.

Up Next: An encore presentation of the 2007 production of Northanger Abbey