Tuesday, May 5, 2009


When it comes to adventure novels, nobody does it like Robert Louis Stevenson. Though in the years immediately following his death he was regulated to the ranks of the "children's literature" and "horror" genres, today he is recognized by many as a peer of such writers as Joseph Conrad and Henry James. He is also ranked the 25th most translated author in the world, ahead of such notable writers as Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and Edgar Allan Poe. In his 1886 novel Kidnapped, Stevenson trades the high seas for the Highlands, which prove no less thrilling and dangerous.

The Plot:

After his father dies, young David Balfour is left a letter which he is to take to his uncle Ebenezer Balfour of the House of Shaws. Upon his arrival at Shaws, David discovers that is uncle is a miser (go figure) who greatly mistrusts him. David soon discovers that his uncle has murderous intentions for him but he doesn't know why. He sets out with Ebenezer the next day to the local port in hopes of gaining information about his uncle and father. While there, Ebenezer has David kidnapped by a sea captain who plans on selling him as a slave in the Carolinas.

While on board the ship, David meets Allan Breck Stewart, a Jacobite whom they picked up from a wrecked French ship. When David discovers that the captain means to murder Allan, he and the highlander stage a fight and succeed in defending themselves from the murderous crew. The ship then wrecks off the coast of Scotland. David finds himself alone in the Scottish Highlands and is soon caught up in the heated political wranglings of the country. He meets up with Allan again, and together they set out to escape the pursuing redcoats and to return David to the House of Shaws that he might claim his inheritance.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

Though it was considered a "boys novel" when it was first published, this novel is great reading for everyone. I mean, why should guys get all of the exciting novels? What makes them so special? But, I digress. What is so interesting about this novel is that the plot itself has really very little to do with how exciting it is. Most of the thrill is found, not in David reclaiming his inheritance, but in his flight through the Highlands. Stevenson's writing gives such a sense of urgency, that you feel that you yourself are running for dear life.

But other than its writing, much of the quality of the story is found in its two main characters. First, there is our hero, David Balfour. David is rather similar to Jim Hawkins of Treasure Island and Dick Shelton of The Black Arrow. He is caught between two warring groups, both of whom he feels demand his loyalty. First, as a lowland Scot, he is loyal to King George, and he doesn't mind telling that to anyone. He is not exactly sympathetic to the Jacobite cause and feels that the murder of Colin Campbell is an unforgivable offense. On the other hand, Allan has saved his life on many occasions, and has remained loyal to David throughout their friendship. He also feels that Allan and all of the Highlanders deserve equal justice from their government. As the story progresses, David tries to balance his feelings for the two sides and discovers that not everything in life comes in black or white.

The other important character, and in my opinion the lifeblood of the novel, is Allan Breck Stewart. Perhaps nothing sums up his character better than his exclamation "Am I no a bonny fighter?". He is daring, he is vain, and he is loyal. He is everything we think of when we think of a Jacobite rebel. Though he doesn't agree with most (okay, any) of David's "Whiggish" viewpoints, his love and loyalty for David causes Allan to defend him, even among his clansmen. He also risks his own life by returning to the Lowlands to aid David in gaining his inheritance. Of the thousands of literary characters found throughout history, Allan Breck Stewart ranks as one of my all-time favorites. He may not be perfect, but he is exactly the kind of friend you would want watching your back.

Finally, the other thing that makes this novel such a wonderful read is its historical setting. Being a bit of a history buff, I love it when writers involve their heroes with real life people. The Appin Murder of Colin Campbell was very real and even today the question of "Who shot the Red Fox?" remains one of history's most fascinating unsolved mysteries. Besides Allan, we are also able to meet such notable characters as James of the Glens, Cluny MacPherson, and Robin Oig (son of Rob Roy). It is, in fact, with Allan Stewart and Robin Oig that we get one of my favorite parts of the novel: the duel of the bagpipes.

Kidnapped is a thrilling read for both children and adults. Its story and characters will stay with you forever, like a haunting Highland air. Definitely deserving of its place on the list of 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read Before They Die.

The Movie:

According to Wikipedia, there have been about 21 movie and TV adaptations of this classic novel. Here are three of the most popular ones.

The 1960 Disney version is probably my favorite adaptation. It stars James MacArthur and Peter Finch. It follows the book very well, was actually filmed in the Highlands, and all of the characters are very well done. Peter Finch is especially wonderful as Allan. If you are going to watch any adaptation, this is the one that I would recommend. It's great for the whole family.

The next is the 1971 version starring Lawrence Douglas and Michael Cain. It was also filmed in the Highlands and combines both Kidnapped and its sequel David Balfour. I've only seen a few clips of it on YouTube, and it looks like major plot changes take place. But I must admit, Michael Cain is looking rather dashing as Allan. Hmm, I might have to hunt this one down.

The last is the 2005 Masterpiece Theatre version starring James Anthony Pearson and Iain Glen. I found this version to be rather disappointing. First, it is also a combination of Kidnapped and David Balfour, so plot changes are everywhere. Second, while Glen was passable as Allan, I never really warmed to Pearson. But my biggest gripe is that they filmed it in New Zealand. New Zealand looks nothing like the Highlands. It really looks like David and Allan are running from orcs rather than redcoats. Check it out if you must, but it's not the best adaptation.

Trivia: If you watch the Disney version, keep an eye out for Peter O'Toole's film debut as the handsome Robin MacGregor.

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