Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
The British Hero by Michael Brooke
Introduction Stiff Upper Lips Working-Class Heroes Heroic Outsiders Heroic Failures The Antihero
Historical Heroes Literary Heroes Cultural Heroes Local Heroes    
< Previous Page
Literary Heroes
Still from The 39 Steps (1939)

Richard Hannay (Robert Donat)
in The 39 Steps (1939)

From a commercial point of view, it makes perfect sense to exploit heroic figures who have already established themselves in the public imagination. So it comes as no surprised that British cinema is full of heroes who first appeared between the covers of a book (or, in the case of Bridget Jones, a newspaper column).

By far the most internationally successful and durable of these is James Bond, who over the course of forty years (from Dr No in 1962 to Die Another Day in 2002) has evolved from the misogynist snob of Ian Fleming's novels to an all-round, all-purpose action hero that can more than hold his own in competition with Schwarzenegger and Cruise.

But Bond was by no means the first British literary hero. Three decades before he strapped on his Walther PPK, John Buchan's popular Richard Hannay was played by Britain's then-biggest star Robert Donat in Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1935), while Sapper's none too bright but square-jawed and fiercely patriotic Bulldog Drummond hit the screen even earlier, in 1923. Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle have each inspired dozens of films: if Hercule Poirot hardly qualifies as a British hero, Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes' credentials are much sounder.

When Bond producer Harry Saltzman was looking for a commercially similar but artistically different franchise, he hit upon Len Deighton's Harry Palmer books, casting Michael Caine as a character deliberately designed to be as unlike Bond in almost every respect, aside from the core values that confirm him as another authentic British hero.

Children's literature has also provided much source material. Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, the classic depiction of traditional British values triumphing over nonsensical strangeness, has been filmed numerous times (starting in 1903), as have the works of E.Nesbit, most notably The Railway Children, whose story of three children conquering adversity is perhaps best known via the 1970 film. More recently, the colossal success of J.K.Rowling's Harry Potter books suggested that the film versions (starting with Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in 2001) would have a gigantic ready-made audience for the young wizard's exploits, which turned out to be the case.

Next Page >