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James Clavell, born Clavell, Charles Edmund Dumaresq (10 October 1924 – 7 September 1994) was a novelist, screenwriter, director and World War II hero and POW. Clavell is a best known for his epic Asian Saga series of novels, their televised adaptations, along with his films such as The Great Escape and To Sir, with Love.
Early Life and WW2 Experience
Clavell was the son of Commander Richard Clavell, a British Royal Navy officer who was stationed in Australia to help establish the Royal Australian Navy. In 1940, when Clavell finished his secondary schooling at Portsmouth Grammar School, he joined the Royal Artillery to follow his family tradition.
Following the outbreak of World War II, in 1940, aged 16, he joined the British 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 near Singapore.
Like nearly all the POWs, Clavell suffered greatly at the hands of his Japanese captors .
Changi was notorious for its poor living conditions. According to the introduction to King Rat, written by Clavell’s daughter Michela, 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 Clavell’s 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 1951.
Clavell’s novel King Rat, was a semi-fictional account of his prison experiences at Changi. When the book was published in 1962, it became an immediate best-seller and three years later, it was adapted for film. However, Hollywood producers were seemingly unable to handle the idea of Clavell’s unabashed capitalist hero, making subtle yet profound changes to the story, frustrating Clavell. His next novel, Tai-Pan, was a fictional account of Jardine-Matheson’s rise to prominence in Hong Kong, as told through who was to become Clavell’s heroic archetype, Dirk Struan. Struan’s descendants would inhabit almost all of his forthcoming books.
This was followed by Shogun in 1975, the story of an English navigator set in 1600s Japan. 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. In 1981, Clavell published his fourth novel, Noble House, which became a number one best seller during that year and was also made into a miniseries. Following the success of Noble House, Clavell wrote Whirlwind (1986) and Gai-Jin (1993) along with The Children’s Story (1981) and Thrump-o-moto (1985).
In 1953, Clavell and his wife immigrated to the United States and settled down in Hollywood. Clavell scripted the grisly science-fiction horror film, The Fly, and wrote a war film, Five Gates to Hell. Clavell won a Writers Guild Best Screenplay Award for the 1963 film The Great Escape. He also wrote, directed and produced a 1969 box office hit, To Sir With Love, starring Sidney Poitier.
Clavell’s daughter Michaela appeared briefly as Penelope Smallbone, Moneypenny’s successor, in the James Bond 007 movie Octopussy. The character, however, did not catch on and was dropped after that single picture.
Politics and Later Life
Politically, Clavell was said to have been an ardent individualist, anti-fascist and proponent of Laissez-Faire Capitalism, as many of his book’s heroes exemplify.
In recent years, some critics have compared the philosophy underlying his books to that of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. In particular, his character of The King from King Rat seemed to live by a strikingly similar code when compared to Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark from The Fountainhead. Clavell himself lent credence to this claim by sending Ayn Rand a copy of Noble House in 1981 with the following inscription – “This is for Ayn Rand – one of the real, true talents on this earth for which many, many thanks. James C, New York, 2 Sept 81.
In 1963, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States.
He died of a stroke while battling cancer in Switzerland in 1994, one month before his 70th birthday.
* The Fly (1958) (writer)
* Watusi (1959) (writer)
* Five Gates to Hell (1959) (writer & director)
* Walk Like a Dragon (1960) (writer & director)
* The Great Escape (1963) (co-writer)
* 633 Squadron (1964) (co-writer)
* The Satan Bug (1965) (co-writer)
* To Sir, with Love (1966) (writer & director)
* The Sweet and the Bitter (1967) (writer & director)
* Where’s Jack (1968) (director)
* The Last Valley (1970) (writer & director)
* Shogun – miniseries (1980)
* Noble House – miniseries (1988)
Tai-Pan and King Rat have both been adapted as feature films, however Clavell was not directly involved in their writing.
‘The Asian Saga’
* King Rat (1962): Set in a Japanese POW camp, 1945.
* Tai-Pan (1966): Set in Hong Kong, 1841.
* Shogun (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.
As of 2007, Whirlwind and Gai-Jin remain the only Clavell novels yet to be adapted as films or miniseries; although at various times media have reported that such productions are planned, to date nothing has emerged.
Similarly, media reports that Tai-Pan is to be adapted as a miniseries have yet to come to pass. As noted above, Tai-Pan has already been adapted as a poorly-received motion picture.
Other books include:
* The Children’s Story (1980)
* The Art of War a translation of Sun Tzu’s famous book (1983)
* Thrump-O-Moto (1986)
* Escape (1994) – based upon Whirlwind