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!

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