Review by Frank Plowright
Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped remains a much loved novel 130 years after its original 1886 publication. It’s set 120 years before that in Scotland still bearing the divisive scars of the failed Jacobite rebellion, and incorporates historical incidents and the people involved in them as background material for a rip-roaring adventure.
We begin with David Balfour, recently orphaned at seventeen, visiting the Uncle he’s never seen in Edinburgh. Ebenezer Balfour is a fantastic character, miserly, grasping, suspicious and isolated, unliked in the community, and not at all pleased to see his nephew turn up. Stevenson provides good reasons for this, and David soon finds his life endangered.
As much as anything, Kidnapped is a coming of age story, and the already capable and principled David is thrust into circumstances beyond his control, not least the abduction of the title. He witnesses horrors and injustice, overcoming everything thrown at him to return to Edinburgh a fully formed man. For some of his journey he’s accompanied by Alan Breck, a notable Scottish rebel in real life, and Stevenson also weaves in a killing still notorious in his time, over a century later. David witnesses the death of a hated estate manager in what was known as the Appin Murder, after the location where it occurred.
There’s little predictability about Stevenson’s plot, and Alan Grant’s adaptation is very sympathetic. Space restrictions mean he can’t include every nuance of the original, but he’s faithful, and a lifetime constructing his own plots have given Grant a sure knowledge of how to preserve the essence when adapting.
Cam Kennedy is exactly the right choice for illustrating a cast living in times where illness took its toll on even those who survived, and for whom personal grooming was beyond the purse of the poor. His characters are lived-in and scabrous, their clothes hanging off them, functional rather than decorative, and the contrast with the well to do is immense. Kennedy’s colouring is also very effective, red barely used, and moonlight scenes abundant.
Kidnapped was issued in several editions, including a hardback slipcased volume for those who’ve inherited the family fortune. There’s also a version using as much of Stevenson’s original dialogue and descriptions, one in gaelic as Fo Bhruid and in Scots as Kidnappit, but the modern text version is the optimum choice for most.
Grant and Kennedy’s next collaboration was adapting Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.