The story originally debuted as a novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps, written by John Buchan and published in 1915. The title has enjoyed continuous print circulation since that date and is the first of five books featuring Richard Hannay. In the premiere story, Hannay discovers an international conspiracy to assassinate a Greek leader and lead Europe into a war. The Hannay character continues to appear as the protagonist in four additional novels by Buchan, along with supporting roles in two other stories and a later “non-Buchan” novel published after the author’s death. In Buchan’s autobiography, he suggests the character is inspired by Edmund Ironside, an Edinburgh native who became a spy during the Second Boer War.
The story was taken up by director Alfred Hitchcock in a 1935 film version, titled The 39 Steps. One of Hitchcock’s early successes, the film sets the stage for many of the director’s future film treatments, including the presence of an icy femme fatale, and an unflappable leading man. The film continues to enjoy wide recognition well into the present day. The 1935 version received a reworking in a new color film released in 1959, directed by Ralph Thomas. This film was only seen in the UK and has been somewhat forgotten in the years since.
In 1978, the story again appeared on film as The Thirty-Nine Steps. Screenwriter Michael Robson adapted the material with several deviations from what had been seen before, including a fight on Big Ben and a climactic sequence in southern England, rather than Scotland. The film serves one of a handful of adult acting roles for Karen Dotrice, who starred as the female lead and remains well-known for her child acting performance as Jane Banks in Mary Poppins. As Hannay, actor Robert Powell received good notices for his performance and reprised the role 10 years later in a two-season-long television series featuring further exploits of the character.
The story lept back into the public consciousness following the debut of The 39 Steps stage production in 2006. Writers Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon had reimagined the story in 1995 for a cast of four actors. A rewrite, by Patrick Barlow, appeared at the UK’s West Yorkshire Playhouse during the summer of 2006, later transferring to London, first at North London’s Tricycle Theatre and then into the Criterion Theatre, where it continues to run today.
In the US, The 39 Steps debuted at the Huntington Theatre Company, in Boston on September 19, 2007. The title hit Broadway in a Roundabout Theatre production at the American Airlines Theatre, with previews beginning January 4, 2008 and the official opening on January 15, 2008.