An unfortunate series of events: Faber’s digital edition of The 39 Steps
E-version of spy classic may send you climbing back up to print
There is a general consensus in the publishing industry that the future of digital publishing rests on the interactive e-book, which evolved with tablet technology. The interactive e-book puts the reader at the centre of the story by inviting them to actively participate in the fictional universe of the book, positioning the reader as a leading character, and allowing them to experience the protagonist’s environment and the key events of the book in a more visually immediate way. Of course, this is what books have been doing for centuries; reading is not actually a passive activity, and fiction requires that you do all this work yourself with language as the only visual aid.
The main arguments being made in favour of the interactive e-book is the potential for drawing the attention of younger readers to classic texts. By this logic, digital publishers are basically using technology as temptation to create a market for the written word in its new form, and it is easy to see how a pimped-up version of The Diary of A Young Girl, by Anne Frank (Penguin, £6.99), which includes facsimiles of Anne’s original diary, would appeal to teenagers. Seeing her picture, deciphering her handwriting, closes the historical distance, though it is Anne’s words which really succeed in recreating her world for us. The educational extras with this sort of enhanced e-book are undoubtedly a brilliant resource for students, but how does the interactive experience fare when you are coming to a classic work of fiction for the first time?
One of the biggest interactive releases of the year so far has been Faber’s digital edition of John Buchan’s spy thriller The 39 Steps (£4.99), which has been multiply adapted over the years, most famously in 1935 by Alfred Hitchcock. However, I had never encountered Buchan’s seminal work in any form before picking up my tablet and downloading this new version. Produced in collaboration with The Story Mechanics, it is possibly the best and most fully realised example of interactive storytelling in the digital platform. However, its central flaws are exemplary of the unavoidable failures of the form in the adaptation of classic fictional texts.
Series of events
With a noir-ish score and attractive black and white visuals, The 39 Steps is immediately immersive, and the first engagement makes the bare bones of the coming story clear as you are cast as the protagonist. It is 1915. Your name is Richard Hannay. You are a returned colonial who has recently arrived back in London and a neighbour has just been murdered in your apartment. This sets you off on a journey which takes you from the centre of the empire to the wilds of Scotland, pursued by motorcades, aeroplanes and strangers on foot. Your actions, it seems, are of political rather than merely personal consequence.