Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 adaptation of John Buchan's The 39 Steps has been praised by many critics for its witty dark comedy, its atmospheric handling of different settings, and for some fetching performances, especially that of the star, Robert Donat. Donat plays an innocent man accused of a murder on the run from both the police and the group of spies who are actually guilty. While the plot borders on the silly at times, the film has a kind of innocent charm—with Madeleine Carroll and Donat chastely handcuffed together in an old Scottish inn and its dark scenic shots of the chase through the Scottish countryside, not to mention Donat's bravura impromptu speech before a political rally and the shooting at the Palladium with the villain jumping to the stage a la John Wilkes Booth. And, of course there is the iconic image of the woman's scream merging into the whistle of the railroad train carrying the fleeing Donat.
Still despite the fairly positive criticism of this early work by one of filmdom's great directors, The 39 Steps is a film ripe for remake. Although the plot does have its moments, it has its problems as well. Character motivation is an issue. The plot can be somewhat confusing, and the climactic revelation is something of a letdown. Moreover, the script is quite an embellishment on the actual source material. So it is not surprising that it was revisited in 1959 in color and then again in 1978. The latter is the version that is credited with being closest to the source.
Now comes a 2008 BBC adaptation newly available on DVD. This version stars Rupert Penry-Jones as the innocent on the run and Lydia Leonard as his companion in flight and unlikely love interest, and while closer to the novel than the Hitchcock, it probably takes more liberties than the 1978 film. Overall this new adaptation emphasizes the thriller aspects of the story; there is a lot more gunplay, an airplane attack, and some tumbling down hillsides in front of oncoming cars, just the kind of thing we have come to expect from modern action heroes chasing spies. There is less of the dark comedy that distinguishes the 1935 adaptation, and what there is lacks the Hitchcock charm. There are certainly some beautifully filmed scenes of the Scottish countryside. Location shots of Scottish castles and manors are excellent. Most importantly, the plot is not quite as far-fetched, and most of what is most difficult to swallow is explained by surprise revelations, which is better than nothing.