You have to be either foolhardy or brave to attempt a new version of a novel that served as the basis for a classic Alfred Hitchcock film. Whatever prompted a BBC remake of The Lady Vanishes, which can be seen Sunday on PBS’ Masterpiece, the result is entertaining without dethroning Hitchcock’s 1938 film or embarrassing itself.
Both films were adapted from a 1936 novel by Ethel Lina White called The Wheel Spins, about a rich, vapid young woman named Iris Carr (Tuppence Middleton, Inspector Lewis) who is vacationing in the Balkans.
Bored by her friends and the stuffy, disapproving guests at the hotel, Iris decides to take the train back to London. She faints from sunstroke before it departs, but recovers just in time to board the train, where she inexplicably finds many of the guests from the hotel she has just left.
Iris is befriended by a chatty woman named Miss Froy (Selina Cadell, Doc Martin), who suddenly disappears. Iris believes the woman has been kidnapped, or worse, but no one believes her story. Clearly smitten by her, a handsome young engineer named Max Hare (Tom Hughes, Page Eight) very much wants to believe Iris.
None of it makes much sense, of course, but it’s easy to see from this adaptation what appealed to Hitchcock about the novel: All the proper secondary characters who are at first so judgmental about the flighty young English girl are later revealed to be in no position to pass judgment.
The film’s appeal has to do with the microcosm of being on a train traveling a long distance, particularly a train in 1931, with its own library, well-appointed parlor and dining cars and attentive service personnel. Hitchcock did it better, of course, but at least the BBC filmmakers knew better than to transfer the story to the anti-romantic sterility of a contemporary European TGV.