Jack Solomon

The Medium is the Market: The Semiotics of Popular Storytelling

Blog Post created by Jack Solomon Expert on May 7, 2020


While trying to think of something other than the pandemic to write about for this blog (all pandemic, all the time is not a good formula for either writing or mental health), I found myself rereading Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped (a fine escapist activity if there ever was one) and watching YouTube clips of some of the many movie versions of this adventure classic, as well. But not really to my surprise (semiotic significance is everywhere), I found a subject for this blog while doing so, which might be filed under the category of "Cultural Semiotic Significance Where You Aren't Even Looking for It." So, here goes.


To cut to the chase, what I found was not only that the more modern adaptations of Kidnapped all substantially altered Stevenson's story (which is almost always the case with cinematic versions of popular novels) but that they did so in a significantly similar manner. Three adaptations in this regard that particularly caught my eye were the 1971, 1995, and the 2005 remakes, all of which, while differing from each other in a number of other respects, have one thing in common. And thereby hangs a tale.


In order to explain what I discovered, I have to backtrack not only to Stevenson but to his most relevant predecessor—that is, to Sir Walter Scott, whose novel Waverly pioneered not only the historical romance but the romanticizing for British audiences of the ill-fated Jacobite uprising of 1745-46 ("the Forty-Five"), as well. Writing in 1814, Scott (a Scottish Lowlander with a sentimental affection for the Highlands) had a challenge on his hands when he set out to tell the story of the Forty-Five without putting off his English readers by dwelling too much on the shocking brutality of the English army (which, it is important to note, included Scottish Lowlanders and Highlanders) during the Battle of Culloden Moor and its aftermath. He managed this rather delicate operation in a number of ways, including the casting of a naive English aristocrat as the novel's protagonist, paying plenty of attention to the foibles of the Highland clans, inventing high-minded English benefactors who save the misguided protagonist from the gallows, and by carefully keeping the Battle of Culloden off stage. Scott's careful policy worked: the novel was such a popular success in England that Scott gave up poetry and never looked back.


Covering the same historical ground in 1886, Stevenson (another Lowland Scot writing to an English audience) was canny enough to follow directly in Scott's footsteps, similarly keeping Culloden off stage (the action of the novel takes place five years after the battle), as well as by focusing on the conflict between the Stewarts and Campbells, Highland clans alike who opposed each other before, during, and after the uprising. As for the English, we hardly see them at all, usually in the form of anonymous redcoats who chase the heroes ineffectually but do not ever come into any sort of focus. With his focus on Scots characters rather than English (the same is true in Catriona, the sequel to Kidnapped, whose two main villains are both Highland clansmen), Stevenson could appeal to his English readers' romantic sympathy for the Highlanders without their having to come face-to-face with the really barbarous English treatment of the defeated clans.


Which takes us to the critical difference that can be found in the 1971, 1995, and 2005 films, all of which abandon the careful policy of Scott and Stevenson by making the English the chief villains of the story. The 1971 version, for example, opens with a gruesome display of English redcoats bayoneting wounded Highlanders on the field of Culloden and adds a subsequent episode in which redcoat marauders murder an entire Highland family. The 1995 version, for its part, invents a coldly ruthless English official who stage manages the assassination of Colin Campbell in order to frame Alan Breck, while the 2005 version invents a coldly ruthless English colonel who frames an innocent Highlander in order to trap Alan Breck, whom he tortures when he gets his hands on him.


Get the picture? In these newer versions, the English are personified as the epitome of evil (not at all unlike their portrayal in Braveheart), and we can explain this difference from the policy of Scott and Stevenson by looking at the different audience to which the writers of these adaptations are appealing. In short, they had no need to placate sensitive English viewers because their main market is American—that is, descendants of the Highlanders who emigrated to the colonies after being driven out of Scotland in the aftermath of the Forty-Five, as well as an even larger number of Irish Americans who have no problem with seeing an unvarnished depiction of English brutality towards a Gaelic speaking people—not to mention an entire nation whose foundation story includes evil redcoats in the employ of King George.


Keeping in mind, then, that the purpose of mass cultural creation is to make money, we can see once again how market conditions shape the content of popular art. With nineteenth-century Scots writers wanting to sell books to nineteenth-century English readers, you get one way of handling history in popular fiction; with twentieth and twenty-first century film makers aiming largely at the American market, you get a very different one—one that, not so by the way, ignores the enormously complicated politics of the Forty-Five, which was fought not for Scottish independence but to replace the House of Hanover in London with a Stewart king who would rule over all of Great Britain. But that's another story.


Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 92720 by 12019, used under Pixabay License