James Clavell (10 October 1921 – 6 September 1994), born Charles Edmund Dumaresq Clavell, was an Australian-born British (later naturalized American) novelist, screenwriter, director, and World War II veteran and prisoner of war. Clavell is best known for his epic Asian Saga series of novels and their televised adaptations, along with such films as The Great Escape (1963) and To Sir, with Love (1967).
Early life and World War II
Born in Australia, Clavell was the son of Commander Richard Charles Clavell, a British Royal Navy officer who was stationed in Australia on secondment to the Royal Australian Navy from 1920 to 1922. He was educated at Portsmouth Grammar School. In 1940, aged 19, Clavell joined the Royal Artillery, and was sent to Malaya to fight the Japanese. Wounded by machine gun fire, he was eventually captured and sent to a Japanese prisoner of war camp on Java. Later he was transferred to Changi Prison in Singapore.
Clavell suffered greatly at the hands of his Japanese captors. According to the introduction to Clavell's novel King Rat (1962), over 90% of the prisoners who entered Changi never walked out. Clavell was reportedly saved, along with an entire battalion, by an American prisoner of war who later became the model for "The King" in King Rat. By 1946, Clavell had risen to the rank of captain, but a motorcycle accident ended his military career. He enrolled at the University of Birmingham, where he met April Stride, an actress, whom he married in 1949.
Peter Marlowe is a character in the Clavell novels King Rat and Noble House (1981); he is also mentioned once (as a friend of Andrew Gavallan's) in the novel Whirlwind (1986). Featured most prominently in King Rat, Marlowe is an English FEPOW in Changi prison during World War II. In Noble House, set two decades later, he is a novelist researching a book about Hong Kong. Marlowe's ancestors are also mentioned in other Clavell novels. The character Marlowe the novelist is a clear reference to Clavell; in Noble House he is mentioned as having written a novel about Changi which, although fictionalized, is based on real events (like those in King Rat). When asked which character was based on him, Marlowe answers; "Perhaps I'm not there at all", although in a later scene, he admits he was "the hero, of course".
In 1953, Clavell and his wife emigrated to the United States and settled in Hollywood. Clavell scripted the science-fiction horror film The Fly (1958) and wrote a war film, Five Gates to Hell (1959). Clavell was nominated for a Writers Guild Award for the The Great Escape (1963). He also screenwrote, directed, and produced the box office hit, To Sir, With Love (1967), starring Sidney Poitier and based on E. R. Braithwaite's semi-autobiographical 1959 book.
Clavell's daughter Michaela appeared briefly as Penelope Smallbone, Moneypenny's would-be successor, in the James Bond 007 movie Octopussy (1983). The character, however, did not catch on and was dropped after the film.
- The Fly (1958) (writer)
- Watusi (1959) (writer)
- Five Gates to Hell (1959) (writer and director)
- Walk Like a Dragon (1960) (writer and director)
- The Great Escape (1963) (co-writer)
- 633 Squadron (1964) (co-writer)
- The Satan Bug (1965) (co-writer)
- King Rat (1965) (based on his novel)
- To Sir, with Love (1966) (writer and director)
- The Sweet and the Bitter (1967) (writer and director)
- Where's Jack? (1968) (director)
- The Last Valley (1970) (writer and director)
- Shōgun—miniseries (1980)
- Tai-Pan (1986) (based on his novel)
- Noble House—miniseries (1988)
Clavell's first novel, King Rat (1962), was a semi-fictional account of his prison experiences at Changi. When the book was published it became an immediate best-seller, and three years later it was adapted for film. His next novel, Tai-Pan (1966), was a fictional account of Jardine-Matheson's rise to prominence in Hong Kong, as told via the character who was to become Clavell's heroic archetype, Dirk Struan. Struan's descendants would inhabit almost all of his forthcoming books. Tai-Pan was adapted as a film in 1986.
Clavell's third novel, Shōgun (1975), is set in 17th century Japan and relates the story of an English navigator, based on that of William Adams. When the story was made into a TV series in 1980, produced by Clavell, it became the second highest rated mini-series in history with an audience of over 120 million.
- King Rat (1962): Set in a Japanese POW camp in Singapore, 1945
- Tai-Pan (1966): Set in Hong Kong, 1841
- Shōgun (1975): Set in feudal Japan, 1600
- Noble House (1981): Set in Hong Kong, 1963
- Whirlwind (1986): Set in Iran, 1979
- Gai-Jin (1993): Set in Japan, 1862
- Escape: The Love Story from Whirlwind (1994), shorter novel adapted from Whirlwind (1986)
- "The Children's Story" (1964 Readers Digest short story; adapted as a film and reprinted as a book in 1981)
- Thrump-O-Moto (1986), illustrated by George Sharp
- Shōgun (1988 adaptation by Infocom, Inc., for Amiga, Apple II, DOS, Macintosh), interactive fiction with graphics and puzzle-solving; the user plays John Blackthorne, the first Englishman to set foot on Japanese soil
- Shōgun (1986 adaptation by Virgin Games, Ltd., for Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, DOS), interactive fiction with a third-person perspective; the user wanders around as one of a number of characters trying to build up his/her rapport with other people, battling and working his/her way up to becoming a shogun
Politics and later life
In 1963, Clavell became a naturalized citizen of the United States. Politically, he was said to have been an ardent individualist and proponent of laissez-faire capitalism, as many of his books' heroes exemplify. Clavell admired Ayn Rand, founder of the Objectivist school of philosophy, and sent her a copy of Noble House in 1981 inscribed: "This is for Ayn Rand—one of the real, true talents on this earth for which many, many thanks. James C, New York, 2 September 81."
In 1994, Clavell died in Switzerland, from a stroke while suffering from cancer. He died one month before his 73rd birthday. Following sponsorship by his widow, the library and archive of the Royal Artillery Museum at Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, in London was renamed the James Clavell Library in his honour.