Payback's final third owes a fair bit to John Buchan's The 39 Steps, and I figured it deserved a re-read. I know the book well - I re-visit it every three or four years, I guess. I love it... but I'm not above a little criticism. I'm talking about the ending, folks. The ending.
The last time an adaptation graced our screens, it was the Beeb in 2008. The writer of the screenplay, Lizzie Mickery, seemed keen to return to the source text rather than refer to the previous film versions. You can see why, right? Forerunners – Hitchcock’s in 1939, a remake of Hitchcock’s original in 1959, and a seventies version I was brought up on as a kid – all play pretty fast and loose with Buchan’s story; characters are added, others are absent, the plot is mangled and blockbusting set-pieces are conjured up.
In the end though, Mickery found herself needing to make adjustments of her own. “I have added fun and romance, I hope, and a bit of oomph,” she said, speaking to The Guardian before the BBC broadcast its Christmas showcase adaptation. Mickery’s a quality writer (she worked on The State Within which I loved) but she, like others before her, recognised the novel’s limitations when reimagined for a visual medium.
What all four movie adaptations have in common is a total disregard for Buchan’s original ending, and re-reading it again, you can see why. Buchan wrote the novel whilst ill with an ulcer. Reading the closing paragraphs, you can’t help but suspect he felt suddenly better and fancied downing tools in favour of a nice walk and a kickabout with a few mates. Dashed off doesn’t even begin to cover it.
It starts well. Hannay, our plucky protag, corners a trio of German secret service agents in a coastal cottage. Trouble is they’re such accomplished actors, their roles as public school educated chummy Englishman are masterfully executed. He bursts in and accuses them of being murderers and spies but their masks don’t slip; they’re all jolly and polite and flabbergasted. Hannay ends up – pretty preposterously – playing bridge with them during the awkward moments that follow his accusation.
Finally a fight breaks out, back-up arrives and the good guys triumph. But the speed with which Buchan puts this final scene to bed is breathtaking. If I didn’t know better, I’d wonder whether he was being paid to complete the novel under a certain word limit.
“I blew my whistle. In an instant the lights were out,” Buchan writes. (The darkness comes in handy. There’s virtually nothing to describe.) “I grappled the old chap and the room seemed to fill with figures.” That’ll be the reinforcements then. Phew! One guy escapes. In a three-sentence thriller that comes as close to extending the drama as Buchan will allow, we get; ”Suddenly my prisoner broke from me and flung himself on the wall. There was a click as if a lever had been pulled. Then came a low rumbling far far below the ground, and through the window I saw a cloud of chalky dust pouring out of the shaft of the stairway.” I think that means the 39 steps down to the beach are obliterated by some sort of bomb? Presumably wired to a nameless lever in the room of the cottage? Lacking any specific detail I’m reduced to guessing. Anyway the lights come back on and our hero gets his chance to triumphally wisecrack: “As the handcuffs clinked on his wrists I said my last word to him.”
Then there’s a paragraph break followed by three more sentences that begin, “Three weeks later…” and within 46 words, we’re done and dusted.
Perhaps Buchan was writing under exam conditions and fast running out of time. Whatever the explanation, there’s a reason Lizzie Mickery et al. mess with Buchan’s ending. All the components are there I reckon, but it’s outlined rather than written; a bizarre and slightly sad final scene whose shape, tone and proportion have almost nothing in common with the remainder of what is a brilliant novel.
Hopefully I didn't screw Payback's ending up in quite such a blatant way.