Film of the Book: The Lady Vanishes (The Wheel Spins)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1938)

From the book review of The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White:

A young Englishwoman, Iris Carr, is travelling home alone from an unspecified European country. Suffering from sunstroke, she nearly misses her train but a helpful porter shoves her into a carriage at the last moment. The people in the carriage clearly resent her presence – all except one, that is. Miss Froy, another Englishwoman, takes Iris under her wing and carries her off to have tea in the dining carriage. When they return, Iris sleeps for a while. When she awakes, Miss Froy has gone, and the other passengers deny all knowledge of there having ever been another Englishwoman in the carriage…

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

Film of the Book

It surprised me on re-watching the film just how different it is from the book on which it’s based. The basic premise remains the same, that Miss Froy disappears during the train journey and Iris sets out to find her, but the tone of the film is much lighter and Hitchcock has changed the emphasis in several places.

Firstly, Iris is not particularly likeable in the book. She starts out as one of a rude, noisy crowd in the hotel, alienating the other guests and being insufferably superior to all and sundry. She is travelling alone on the train because she has had a falling out with one of her friends who is annoyed because her husband was flirting with Iris. The Iris in the film is completely different. She’s still extrovert, but charmingly so, and clearly loved by her friends. She’s travelling home alone to marry a man her father has more or less chosen for her, out of a sense of duty.

Iris (Margaret Lockwood, centre) saying goodbye to her friends…

Hitchcock introduces the two other major characters in the hotel before the journey begins. Max the engineer from the book has morphed into Gilbert the musician and his first meeting with Iris is a typical rom-com instant antagonism scene, signalling the romance that will inevitably follow. They are more equal in the film, sparring partners at first, and it’s not long before their mutual attraction becomes obvious. Much more fun than the patronising male attitude Iris had to tolerate in the book.

Gilbert the musician (Michael Redgrave) with some comedy foreigners…

Miss Froy appears in the hotel in order to develop the motive for her disappearance – an entirely different motive than in the book. The change means that Miss Froy, like Iris, is an active participant in her own story rather than the passive and unwitting victim of the book. I’m intrigued that Hitchcock’s version of the female characters feels considerably more modern than the portrayal of them in the book. It feels as if there’s been a generational shift somehow, which is rather odd since there’s actually only a two year gap between them. But it does mean that White’s insightful picture of the subordination of women – the treatment of them as inferior, hysterical, and to be controlled by the men around them – is largely lost. Perhaps White’s portrayal is more English, and Hitchcock had one eye on the less socially restricted American audience?

Iris, Gilbert and Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty)

In general, though, White’s story harks back to the past – the England of the dying days of Empire – while Hitchcock’s refers to the future, his changed motive and thriller ending clearly influenced by the coming war. The result is that, while White was being somewhat snarky about the self-proclaimed superiority of the English abroad, Hitchcock reverses this to show that, in a tight spot, the English will ultimately band together when any one of them is threatened, and show the old bulldog spirit in the face of danger. The one English character who doesn’t go along with this is seen as a coward and a weakling who gets his just desserts. In other words, White’s English characters think they’re superior to Johnny Foreigner, whereas Hitchcock’s actually are. I guess bolstering the national ego on the eve of war is forgiveable. (Fellow Scots, I thought about saying British all through this paragraph, but both film and book feel distinctly English rather than British to me.)

Banding together in the face of adversity…

The other major change that Hitchcock makes is to do away with the sections of the book that show Miss Froy’s elderly parents happily anticipating the return of their beloved child – scenes which give the book an unexpected emotional depth. Instead, Hitchcock inserts some humorous scenes involving two additional characters – the delightful cricket fanatics and archetypal bluff Englishmen, Charters and Caldicott. (Apparently this pairing was so successful that the characters later appeared in other films and even got their own TV series, though by that time they were being played by different actors.)

Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) and Charters (Basil Radford) listen avidly to Miss Froy’s reminiscences…

The film also has a scene in the luggage compartment involving some magician’s props that is more or less slapstick. These changes alter the tone entirely, making the film much more humorous than the novel. And hugely enjoyable!

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

So it’s hard to pick a winner this time, since apart from the basic premise, they’re pretty much chalk and cheese. Great chalk and great cheese, though: the book darker, with a wicked edge to the occasional humour; the film frothier, funnier, as much comedy romance as thriller, and with a distinctly patriotic edge. I thoroughly enjoyed both, though for different reasons.

But if I really have to choose… after much swithering…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

THE FILM!

* * * * *

53 thoughts on “Film of the Book: The Lady Vanishes (The Wheel Spins)

  1. Great review, and I agree. I’d watch the film again…happily, but I don’t think I’d read the book a second time. I actually prefer it when film adaptations are quite different to the book. It takes a brave and talented director to make it work.

    • Thank you, and thanks for popping in and commenting. 😀 I usually want the film to maintain the spirit of the original – unless it’s a very short book they’re always going to have to cut and condense in some way. But with this one, even the spirit is different. Still a great film though!

  2. “distinctly English rather than British”
    I would be genuinely interested in hearing your thoughts on this further, if it is something that can be put into words or just an atmosphere.
    Enjoyed the review as always.

    • Hmm… well, there’s the obvious thing that all the characters have English accents, but I felt the cultural references were English too – afternoon tea, and cricket matches (not a sport played much by the other three countries in the UK). That kind of upper-middle class – where you feel as if they all went to the same elite schools and know all the same people – feels very English. But that attitude of colonial superiority was very much an English thing too at that time, I think. The Scots and Irish kinda physically built the Empire and worked in it, and often emigrated to it, but the English ruled it – or thought they did anyway. But I could be wrong about the film – it was a feeling as much as anything terribly concrete…

  3. I really like this feature, FictionFan. I’m a Hitchcock fan, so I generally do like his work. This is no exception. That said, though, I do sometimes wonder at the changes he made. It’s one thing to change a name; another to change an entire personality. Still, it all made for a very enjoyable film, didn’t it? Perhaps this is a bit of why I’m a fan.

    • Thank you – I’m glad you enjoy it! 🙂 Yes, it’s been interesting comparing a few of his films to the original books and stories – he seems to take the basic plot and then do his own thing with it. Sometimes it works – with this one it’s so far from the orignal it didn’t bother me – but with others I think it’s less successful, like Vertigo, where I think the book is much more satisfying psychologically. Mind you, I think it may depend on how much I like the film to begin with…

  4. I haven’t seen the film, and it’s – ooh! -a LOT of years since I read the book, so maybe I’ll try them both.

    • They’re definitely both worth it, though in different ways. I suspect you’d enjoy re-reading the book more, but the film is great fun for a day when you just want to be entertained…

    • Thank you! 😀 The book is excellent, and different enough that knowing the film doesn’t spoil the ending (though the ending in the film is better than the one in the book, I thought).

    • The film is great! But then I love nearly every Hitchcock film, so I’m probably biased. The book is also excellent – a bit dated obviously but actually half the fun is in seeing the attitudes of the time… 🙂

  5. Before I read all the way to the end of your review, I was guessing you’d prefer the film this time … and I was right, woo-hoo!! I haven’t read the book, but from your comments, it does sound as if the film is more enjoyable. Hitchcock is a master, you know!

    • I love Hitchcock, so it’s always hard for the book to beat him! But it was close – the book is less fun, but probably has more depth than the film – I guess it just depends what you’re in the mood for… 🙂

  6. I enjoyed your review of the book of my favourite film. I prefer the film over the book primarily because of the Charters and Caldicott characters. For anyone interested in the two characters, I run the Charters and Caldicott fan website http://www.chartersandcaldicott.co.uk. The two chaps were created for The Lady Vanishes film as a means of introducing an element of comedy and also of having more British in the final scenes – only the British have afternoon tea and therefore are guaranteed to be in the same place at the same time.
    The film shows how the British sat on the fence during the period leading up to WW2 and not wanting to get involved. However, when the Germans (or Bandrikans) crossed the line, the British all stood together and were the first nation to say enough is enough on behalf of the other defeated and underfire countries, hence the start of WW2.
    I hope you don’t mind me promoting my Charters and Caldicott book subtitled As War Begins https://www.amazon.co.uk/Charters-Caldicott-As-War-Begins/dp/151777876X/ref=as_sl_pc_qf_sp_asin_til?tag=chartandcaldi-21&linkCode=w00&linkId=&creativeASIN=151777876X

    • Thanks for popping in and leaving the link to the fan website. Ha! I thought it was particularly amusing that Hitchcock used “afternoon tea” as a way of ensuring all the English would be in one place at the same time! The film is great, but so is The Wheel Spins, even if the emphasis if quite different. Hitchcock was always good at taking a basic idea and developing it into somthing a little different…

      Good luck with your book! 🙂

  7. I have not read or watched this! I think I would enjoy the film though.. so I may have to hunt this down. Great review! Fun to compare. I am hoping to do the same with Let The Right One In as soon as I finish it. I hope it comes together as well as yours did 🙂

    • The film is great, but there have been several versions of it, so make sure you get the Hitchcock (1938) one – though I quite enjoyed the later versions too. Thank you – I’m really enjoying doing the occasional book/film comparison just for a little change from straight reviews – it’s fun to see how the directors interpret and change the stories. I’ll look out for your comparison of Let The Right One In… 😀

    • Most of the time I think the book is better than the film, but this film is just so much fun – although it’s old, the humour still works just as well as it always did, and Hitchcock’s changes definitely make the plot stronger, I felt… 🙂

    • Oh, yes, I’d forgotten that one! I enjoyed it too, though I can’t remember now whether it was closer to the book or the Hitchcock version. I must look out for a chance to re-watch it… 🙂

  8. I love your analysis. But I’d have to say that I’d choose the film over the book. I’ve about had it with the “Y” chromosome in this country. The chromosome that thinks it’s uniquely qualified to rule over women’s health care issues. Anyway, off the soapbox. Hitchcock was ahead of his time in many ways. Sorry I’m still so infrequent in my visits. Hope you are well and that events around the world and close to home aren’t causing you to despair.

    • Yep, the US seems to have regressed into the Middle Ages at the moment – or maybe the Old Testament! Still, it’s fun watching him fail at everyhting he’s trying to do. Thanks, I’m fine – I can’t really sustain despair for long. My natural cynicism prepares me to be perpetually disappointed in humanity, and it never lets me down! 😉

    • Funnily enough, I don’t think I ever saw it. Either it was when I was going through my no TV phase, or it must have conflicted with something else I watched. I wonder if it ever gets repeated on one of the cable channels – must watch for it!

      • Most of these things are available as box sets on Amazon. My husband has just bought ‘A Very Peculiar Practice’ – do you remember that?

        • Yes, I do! Peter Davison, wasn’t it? I seem to remember enjoying it a lot. These days I hardly watch TV or videos at all – except for obsessive news watching, which I’m sure must be bad for my mental health… 😉

  9. I lived the English cricket fans; I thought they were trying charming when they shared the hotel room! Were there any musicians in the book? I don’t remember you mentioning one! I did love Redgrave’s character until he said, “You know, I find you VERY attractive.” Ick!! But….. then I got over that 😏

    • Ha! Yes, and quite risqué for the time too, with the maid popping in and changing her clothes! No, in the book he was an engineer – so no comedy foreigners doing folk dances either. Believe me, the man in the book patronised her much worse than the one in the film – and yet still she fell in love with him! Women! Tchah! 😉

  10. I’m glad I haven’t missed this review – playing catch up for the moment. You’ve reminded me how much I enjoyed the film (and the most recent adaptation). I’ve never read the book though, so hearing how much the book and Hitchcock’s film differ is fascinating. From what I recall when I was thinking about the huge changes Hitchcock made for his film of The Birds, he takes the bare idea from a book/story, passes it on to a screenwriter and expects it to be changed drastically, sometimes to make use of technical innovations, or to appeal more to an American audience etc. (Apologies for not expanding a little more or checking I’m remembering correctly; time is pressing.) I can’t help feeling sorry for the original authors! And – I always thought the film was based on a Christie book. So that’s me told! 😀

    • From the few I’ve compared, that sounds about right. Sometimes they seem to be closer to the originals than others though. And sometimes it works – like this one, and The Birds, – but then sometimes it doesn’t. I read the book Vertigo was based on and thought it was much better than the film – Hitch’s changes had made it less insightful somehow, and he’d changed the setting from wartime France to peacetime America, which removed all the feeling of unsettled displacement that exists in the book. Psycho sticks largely to the book, but he changes the emphasis and makes it much scarier! Still, I love Hitchcock so much I forgive him for messing about with the books – which is more than I do for most directors! I can’t think of any films he based on Christie… hmm! Must check that out – they seem like they’d have gone well together…

  11. I love his films too. It doesn’t bother me that he moves so far from the book; I just wonder about the ethics of taking the germ of an idea that an author had nurtured into a book. Of course, it’s done with the author’s permission; there are only so many ideas in the world; creativity builds one idea on another…. I can rationalise it quite neatly. But the book was an author’s baby…. Maybe actual authors don’t feel so precious about their creations! 😀

    • It seems to bother some authors, but others don’t seem to care. I was listening to Lionel Shriver being interviewed the other week, and the interviewer asked her if it bothered her that people still always asked her about We Need to Talk About Kevin, rather than whatever her newest book is. I paraphrase, but she basically said it didn’t bother her exactly, but that she herself had moved on and was only really interested in the book she’s currently writing – not even so much the one she’s publicizing, because for her, that was in the past… I could see where she was coming from, I think. It’s like being really passionate about one job, and then changing to another and becoming passionate about it instead…

  12. I don’t watch many classic films, but prompted by your review, just searched online for The Lady Vanishes and spent a pleasant 90 minutes watching it. Excellent review, thanks FF.

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