Clavell, James 1925–1994

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Clavell, James 1925–1994

(James duMaresq Clavell)

PERSONAL: Born October 10, 1925, in Australia; immigrated to United States, 1953; naturalized, 1963; died of complications from cancer, September 6, 1994, in Vevey, Switzerland; son of Richard Charles (a captain in the British Royal Navy) and Eileen (Collis) Clavell; married April Stride, February 20, 1951; children: Michaela, Holly. Education: Attended University of Birmingham, 1946–47. Hobbies and other interests: Sailing, flying helicopters.

CAREER: Worked as a carpenter, 1953; screenwriter, director, and producer, 1954–94; director of television programs, beginning 1958; novelist, 1962–94. Military service: Served as captain with the Royal Artillery, 1940–46; taken prisoner of war by Japanese.

MEMBER: Writers Guild, Authors League of America, Producers Guild, Dramatists Guild, Directors Guild.

AWARDS, HONORS: Writers Guild Best Screenplay Award, 1963, for The Great Escape; honorary doctorates from the University of Maryland and the University of Bradford.



King Rat (also see below), Little, Brown (Boston), 1962, reprinted as James Clavell's "King Rat," Delacorte (New York, NY), 1983.

Tai-Pan: A Novel of Hong Kong (also see below), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1966, reprinted, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1983.

Shogun: A Novel of Japan, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1975.

Noble House: A Novel of Contemporary Hong Kong, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1981.

The Children's Story, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1981.

James Clavell's "Whirlwind," Morrow (New York, NY), 1986.

James Clavell's "Thrump-o-moto," illustrated by George Sharp, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1986.

James Clavell's Gai-Jin: A Novel of Japan, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1993.

Two Complete Novels (includes Tai-Pan and King Rat), Wings Books (New York, NY), 1995.


The Fly, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1958.

Watusi, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1959.

(And producer and director) Five Gates to Hell, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1959.

(And producer and director) Walk Like a Dragon, Paramount, 1960.

(And producer and director) The Great Escape, United Artists, 1963.

633 Squadron, United Artists, 1964.

The Satan Bug, United Artists, 1965.

(And producer and director) Where's Jack?, Paramount, 1968.

(And producer and director) To Sir with Love, Columbia, 1969.

(And producer and director) The Last Valley, ABC Pictures, 1969.


Countdown to Armageddon: E=mc2 (play), produced in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, at Vancouver Playhouse Theatre, 1966.

(Author of introduction) The Making of James Clavell's "Shogun," Dell (New York, NY), 1980.

(Editor and author of foreword) Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Hodder & Stoughton (London, England), 1981, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1983.

Also author of poetry ("published and paid, by God").

ADAPTATIONS: King Rat was produced by Columbia, 1965; Tai-Pan was produced by De Laurentis Entertainment Group, 1986. Shogun was produced as a television miniseries, 1980 (Clavell was executive producer); The Children's Story was produced as a Mobil Showcase television special, 1982; Noble House was produced as a television miniseries under the title James Clavell's "Noble House," 1988; a television miniseries based on King Rat and one based on Whirlwind are planned. Shogun was produced for the stage at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and on Broadway in 1990.

SIDELIGHTS: James Clavell, who called himself an "old-fashioned storyteller," was one of the twentieth century's most widely read novelists. His sagas of the Far East—Tai-Pan: A Novel of Hong Kong, Shogun: A Novel of Japan, and Noble House: A Novel of Contemporary Hong Kong—each sold millions of copies and dominated bestseller lists for months, while his Iran-based adventure, James Clavell's "Whirlwind," commanded a record-setting five million dollar advance from its publisher. In the Los Angeles Times, an industry insider described Clavell as "one of the very few writers … whose names have marquee value. Clavell's name on the cover sells enormous quantities of books." As James Vesely noted in the Detroit News, the author "always does one thing right: he is never boring." Indeed, Clavell combined action, intrigue, cultural conflicts, and romance to produce "event-packed books with the addictive appeal of popcorn," asserted Detroit News correspondent Helen Dudar. Although critics generally found that Clavell's blockbusters did not approach literary greatness, they many thought that his works are backed with the sort of research and detail rarely found in so-called "popular novels." In National Review, Terry Teachout called Clavell a "first-rate novelist of the second rank," the kind of writer "who provides genuinely stimulating literary entertainment without insulting the sensibilities."

Washington Post contributor Cynthia Gorney described the main theme of Clavell's novels as being "the enormous gulf between Asian and Occidental views of the world." Against exotic backgrounds, the books explore a human obsession in various forms: waging war, cornering power, or forming giant corporations. International espionage, skulduggery, and forbidden romance often round out the picture. "Each of [Clavell's] novels involves an enormous amount of research and enough plot for a dozen books," wrote Ann Marie Cunningham in the Los Angeles Times. "All describe strategic thinking during wartime: Teams of tough British boys try to extract themselves from tight spots,… often in parts of the former empire." Webster Schott, in the New York Times Book Review, noted that Clavell was "neither literary psychoanalyst nor philosophizing intellectual. He reports the world as he sees people—in terms of power, control, strength…. He writes in the oldest and grandest tradition that fiction knows." Likewise, Chicago Tribune correspondent Harrison E. Salisbury claimed that the author "gives you your money's worth if you like suspense, blood, thunder, romance, intrigue, lust, greed, dirty work—you name it—and pages. He is a generous man." Clavell "sprayed his prose in machine-gun fashion, strafing targets the size of billboards," commented Paul King in Maclean's. "Still, he has learned the art of structuring convoluted plots that would have dazzled even Dickens. Above all, with lengthy tales of gut wrenching suspense, Clavell has mastered the technique of keeping readers turning pages until dawn."

"The people I write about are mostly doers," Clavell told the Washington Post. "They're not people who sit on their tails in New York, who are concerned about their place in life or should they get a divorce." His epics, he related to Publishers Weekly, concern "ordinary people placed in extraordinary circumstances and exposed to danger. They have to do something to extract themselves from this situation, and what you have, then, are heroics and a good read." In the New York Times Magazine, Paul Bernstein compared Clavell's characters to those of Charles Dickens. "Dickens's big-hearted orphans become Clavell's larger-than-life men of action," wrote Bernstein, "Dickens's hard-hearted villains, Clavell's hard-hearted business or political adversaries. The social commentary of Dickens becomes in Clavell cross-cultural education and reactionary political warnings." Schott wrote in the Washington Post Book World that some of Clavell's characters are romantic stereotypes. The critic added, however, that "others are troubled outsiders, wondering who they are and what their lives mean. Some of his villains and contemporary courtesans have distant cousins in Marvel Comics. But others are men and women painfully compromised into evil because they do not know how to fight evil without becoming it." In the same review, Schott offered further praise for Clavell: "The riches of his imagination and the reach of his authority are only the start. James Clavell tells his stories so well … that it's possible to miss the tough-minded intelligence at work…. Clavell knows people and what motivates them. He understands systems and how they work and fail. He remembers history and sees what technology has wrought…. James Clavell does more than entertain. He transports us into worlds we've not known, stimulating, educating, questioning almost simultaneously."

Clavell's life was almost as eventful as one of his books. He was born in Australia in 1925, the son of a British Royal Navy captain who traveled to ports all over the world. As a child, Clavell relished the swashbuckling sea tales—most of them fictional—recounted by his father and grandfather, both career military men. A career in the service seemed a natural choice for Clavell, too, and after his secondary schooling was completed, he joined the Royal Artillery in 1940. A year later, he was sent to fight in the Far East and was wounded by machine-gun fire in the jungles of Malaysia. For several months he hid in a Malay village, but he was eventually captured by the Japanese and sent to the notorious Changi prison near Singapore. The conditions at Changi were so severe that only 10,000 of its 150,000 inmates survived incarceration—and Clavell was there three and a half years. He told the Guardian: "Changi was a school for survivors. It gave me a strength most people don't have. I have an awareness of life others lack. Changi was my university…. Those who were supposed to survive didn't." The experience invested Clavell with some of the same verve and intensity which characterize his fictional protagonists. Calling Changi "the rock" on which he built his life, he said: "So long as I remember Changi, I know I'm living forty borrowed lifetimes."

Released from captivity after the war, Clavell returned to Great Britain to continue his military career. A motorcycle accident left him lame in one leg, however, and he was discharged in 1946. He attended Birmingham University briefly, considering law or engineering as a profession, but when he began to visit movie sets with his future wife, an aspiring actress, he became fascinated with directing and writing for films. He entered the movie industry on the ground floor as a distributor, gradually moving into production work. In 1953 he and his wife immigrated to the United States, where, after a period in television production in New York, they moved to Hollywood. There Clavell bluffed his way into a screenwriting contract ("They liked my accent, I suppose," he told the Washington Post) and set to work in the field that would bring him his first success. His first produced screenplay, The Fly, was based on a science fiction story about an atomic scientist whose experiments cause an exchange of heads with a housefly. The movie made a four million dollar profit in two years and has since become a classic genre film in its own right and the source of several sequels and remakes. Clavell won a Writers Guild Best Screenplay Award for the 1963 film The Great Escape, also a box-office success. Of the films the author produced, directed, and wrote, perhaps the most notable remains the 1969 hit To Sir with Love, starring Sidney Poitier. Produced on a budget of 625,000 dollars, the movie about a black teacher's efforts to mold a class of tough British delinquents grossed fifteen million dollars. Both Clavell and Poitier had contracted for percentages of the profits, so the project proved lucrative.

A Hollywood screenwriters' strike brought a fortuitous change to Clavell's career in 1960. Simultaneously sidelined from his regular employment and haunted by returning memories of Changi, he began to work on a novel about his prison experiences. The process of writing released many suppressed emotions for Clavell; in twelve weeks he had completed the first draft of King Rat. Set in Changi, the novel follows the fortunes of an English prisoner of war and his ruthless American comrade in their struggles to survive the brutal conditions. New York Times Book Review contributor Martin Levin observed, "All personal relationships [in the work] pale beside the impersonal, soul-disintegrating evil of Changi itself which Mr. Clavell, himself a Japanese P.O.W. for three years, renders with stunning authority." Some critics maintained that the book lost some of its impact because it was aimed at a popular audience, but Paul King of Maclean's called King Rat the work of "a sensitive craftsman." A New York Herald Tribune Books reviewer concluded that King Rat is "at once fascinating in narrative detail, penetrating in observation of human nature under survival stress, and provoking in its analysis of right and wrong." In the Christian Science Monitor, R.R. Bruun also noted that by virtue of his careful plotting, "Mr. Clavell manages to keep the tension wound up to the snapping point through much of the book." A bestseller, King Rat was adapted for film in 1965.

Clavell was still primarily a screenwriter when he penned Tai-Pan, a sweeping fictional account of the founding of Hong Kong. A historical novel set in 1841, the story recounts the adventures of Dirk Struan, first tai-pan, or merchant overlord, of the Noble House trading company. Struan builds his empire on the nearly deserted peninsula of Hong Kong, convinced that a British colony there would provide a power base for the growing empire. New York Times reviewer Orville Prescott claimed that in Tai-Pan, Clavell "holds attention with a relentless grip. Tai-Pan frequently is crude. It is grossly exaggerated much of the time. But seldom does a novel appear so stuffed with imaginative invention, so packed with melodramatic action, so gaudy and flamboyant with blood and sin, treachery and conspiracy, sex and murder." A Time critic labeled the work "a belly-gutting, god-rotting typhoon of a book" and added: "Its narrative pace is numbing, its style deafening, its language penny dreadful…. It isn't art and it isn't truth. But its very energy and scope command the eye." Since its publication in 1966 and its forty-four-week stay on the bestseller lists, it has sold more than two million copies. It too has been made into a motion picture, released in 1986.

According to the Washington Post's Gorney, Clavell's best-known novel, Shogun, began almost by accident. She wrote, "James Clavell, his imagination awash with plans for the modern-day Asian chronicle that was to be his third novel, picked up one of his nine-year-old daughter's school books one afternoon in London, and came upon an intriguing bit of history." He read the following sentence from the text: "In 1600, an Englishman went to Japan and became a Samurai." Fascinated by that possibility, Clavell began to read everything he could find about medieval Japan and Will Adams, the historical figure in question. The research led Clavell into the story of Shogun, but it also gave him a new understanding of the culture that had kept him in captivity during the Second World War. "I started reading about Japan's history and characteristics," he told the New York Times, "and then the way the Japanese treated me and my brothers became clearer to me." After a year of research in the British Museum and several visits to Japan, Clavell created the tale of John Blackthorne, an Elizabethan sailor cast upon the shores of Japan during a period of internal conflict between rival warlords. Bringing in a variety of elements of seventeenth-century Japanese society, the adventure recounts Blackthorne's transformation from a European "barbarian" into a trusted adviser to the powerful Shogun Toranaga.

Most critics have praised Shogun for its historical detail as well as for its riveting plot. "Clavell offers a wide-ranging view of feudal Japan at a time of crisis," stated Bruce Cook in the Washington Post Book World, adding, "Scene after scene is given, conversation after conversation reported, with the point not merely of advancing the narrative (which does somehow grind inexorably forward), but also of imparting to us the peculiar flavor of life in feudal Japan and the unique code of conduct (bushido) which dominated life there and then." Other reviewers have cited the story itself as the source of Shogun's appeal. Gorney of the Washington Post described it as "one of those books that blots up vacations and imperils marriages, because it simply will not let the reader go," and Library Journal contributor Mitsu Yamamoto deemed it "a wonderful churning brew of adventure, intrigue, love, philosophy, and history." "Clavell has a gift," contended Schott in the New York Times Book Review. "It may be something that cannot be taught or earned. He breathes narrative. It's almost impossible not to continue to read Shogun once having opened it. The imagination is possessed by Blackthorne, Toranaga and medieval Japan. Clavell creates a world: people, customs, settings, needs and desires all become so enveloping that you forget who and where you are."

Critics have also praised Noble House, Clavell's 1981 bestseller about financial power struggles in modern Hong Kong. Washington Post correspondent Sandy Rovner informed readers of the mass of the novel—"1,207 pages long, two-and-one-half inches (not counting covers) thick and three pounds and thirteen ounces"—but noted that Noble House must be carried around nonetheless, since "you can't put it down." Henry S. Hayward commented on the book's mass as well in the Christian Science Monitor. "James Clavell is a master yarn-spinner and an expert on detail," Hay-ward asserted. "Indeed, one sometimes feels overwhelmed with the masses of information and wishes a firmer editing pencil had been applied. But the author, nevertheless, is in a class with James Michener and Robert Elegant in his ability to handle a massive cast and hold your attention through the intricacies of a 1,200 page plot." National Review's Teachout remarked that one "races through Noble House like a fire engine, torn between savoring each tasty bit of local color and wanting to find out as soon as possible what new outrage [the hero] will put down next." In the New York Times Book Review, Schott concluded that the novel "isn't primarily about any particular story or character or set of characters. It's about a condition that's a place, Hong Kong. Mr. Clavell perceives that city to be a unique setting for extremes of greed and vengefulness, international intrigue and silky romance." Commenting on Clavell's plotting, New York Times columnist Christopher Lehmann-Haupt opined: "Curiously enough, its staggering complexity is one of the things that the novel has going for it. Not only is Noble House as long as life, it's also as rich with possibilities…. There are so many irons in the fire that almost anything can plausibly happen."

Noble House, the Far East trading company featured in Tai-Pan and Noble House, is also a part of James Clavell's Gai-Jin. Set in Japan in the 1860s, Gai-Jin offers a fictional chronicle concentrating on early Yokohama, Japan, and its turbulent history. It was based on events which actually happened in the late 1800s. Gai-Jin introduces Malcolm Struan, twenty-year-old heir to the Far East English shipping firm Noble House. The novel received mixed reviews. Lehmann-Haupt observed, "At the start of Gai-Jin, which means foreigner in Japanese, Tai-Pan crashes into Shogun." He referred in part to the intermixing of characters and action between the three novels. Lehmann-Haupt added, "At its best, Gai-Jin achieves a grand historical perspective that makes us feel we're understanding how today's Japan came into being with its ambivalence toward outsiders." The critic questioned the inclusion of stereo-typical English pronunciations by Japanese characters, comparing this aspect of the story to a "World War I comic book." Lehmann-Haupt concluded that the thousand-page tome "is in the mainstream of a great and enduring storytelling tradition, full of rich characters and complicated action. It's just that modernism makes such fiction seem unreal."

Reviewer F.G. Notehelfer commented in the New York Times Book Review, "Gai-Jin is not without interest. Many of the period's colorful characters are here in thin disguise, and so are many episodes from the early days of Yokohama." Yet the critic described the plot and action as "a kind of comic-book portrait of Yokohama and its people," pointing out several instances of a "gap between fiction and reality." Notehelfer concluded that "such reservations do not detract from what is a well-told story, but I feel obliged to mention them because Mr. Clavell prefaces his book with the remark that his tale 'is not history but fiction,' adding that works of history 'do not necessarily always relate what truly happened.'"

Clavell's successes with his novels were not limited to the sales of books. As Teachout noted in the National Review, "Even non-readers have gotten pleasure out of his lucrative knack for telling an appealing story." Through movies and television miniseries, Clavell's works have reached audiences estimated in the hundreds of millions. The best known of these efforts are King Rat, a film produced in 1965; Shogun, which aired on television in 1980; Tai-Pan, a 1986 movie; and James Clavell's "Noble House," a 1988 television miniseries. Clavell, who served as executive producer for the Shogun and Noble House miniseries, expressed approval for the use of his work in that medium. "Television keeps you current, and so do movies," he told Publishers Weekly. "People are seeing your name regularly enough that they remember you…. In a way, it makes me almost a brand name."

The publishing industry seemed to concur that Clavell's name alone was quite appealing to book buyers. An auction of his 1986 novel Whirlwind brought Clavell an unprecedented five million dollar advance from the William Morrow Company, which had based its bid on a preview of only ten percent of the manuscript. Morrow also ordered a first printing of 950,000 hardcover copies, another unprecedented move. Set in Iran during the hectic weeks after the overthrow of the Shah, Whirlwind charts the activities of a group of helicopter pilots trying to move their precious machinery out of the country before the new Islamic fundamentalist government can seize it. Dorothy Allison described the work as "1147 pages of violence, passion, cutthroat business, religious obsession, and martyrdom—exactly what his readers expect and want along with their exotic settings." Although Whirlwind received mixed reviews, it was also a bestseller.

In various interviews, Clavell discussed both his aims as a writer and his methods of putting a book together. He told the Los Angeles Times: "I look at storytelling in picture form," he explained. "I watch the story happen, and I describe what I see. When you write a screenplay, you write only what you can photograph and what you can hear. As a result, my books have no fat, no purple prose, and they're very visual." Writing a lengthy novel, he told the Washington Post, requires "pertinacity, you know, grim determination. And a marvelous selfishness to finish, to exclude everything. I begrudge the time spent away from my novel…. I've got this need to finish, to find the last page." Clavell mentioned in the National Review that his basic goal was entertainment—for himself as well as his readers. "I'm not a novelist, I'm a storyteller," he contended. "I'm not a literary figure at all. I work very hard and try to do the best I can; and I try and write for myself, thinking that what I like, other people may like."

Many critics held that Clavell achieved his goal as an entertaining writer. Teachout declared: "To call Clavell a 'popular novelist' is an understatement: incredibly, he is … among the most widely read authors of the century." New York Times contributor William Grimes summarized: "Although historians sometimes disputed the historical accuracy of Mr. Clavell's novels, no one doubted his gifts as a storyteller, or his ability to draw the reader into a faraway time and place." And National Review's William F. Buckley opined: "[Clavell] was the supreme storyteller."



Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 6, 1976, Volume 25, 1983, Volume 87, 1995.

MacDonald, Gina, James Clavell: A Critical Companion, Greenwood Press (Westport, CT), 1996.

The Making of James Clavell's "Shogun," Dell, 1980.


Best Sellers, July 15, 1966; October, 1981.

Chicago Tribune, April 12, 1981; February 18, 1982; November 21, 1986.

Christian Science Monitor, August 9, 1962; June 24, 1981, May 12, 1993, p. 13; May 13, 1994, p. 12.

Detroit News, May 3, 1981; May 12, 1993, p. 13.

Fantasy Review, June, 1987, p. 42.

Far Eastern Economic Review, May 20, 1993, p. 46.

Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), January 4, 1986.

Guardian (London, England), October 4, 1975.

History Today, October, 1981, pp. 39-42.

Los Angeles Times, November 7, 1986; December 11, 1986.

Maclean's, May 11, 1981; November 24, 1986.

National Review, October 12, 1982, pp. 23-24; November 12, 1982, pp. 1420-1422.

New Republic, July 4, 1981.

New Statesman, November 21, 1975.

Newsweek, November 10, 1986, p. 84.

New York Herald Tribune Books, August 5, 1962.

New York Review of Books, September 18, 1975; December 18, 1986, pp. 58-60.

New York Times, May 4, 1966; April 28, 1981; May 17, 1981; February 18, 1982; December 28, 1985; January 7, 1986; January 11, 1986; November 1, 1986; November 7, 1986; November 17, 1986; May 24, 1993, p. C16.

New York Times Book Review, August 12, 1962; May 22, 1966; June 22, 1975; May 3, 1981; April 18, 1993, p. 13.

New York Times Magazine, September 13, 1981.

Observer, July 4, 1993, p. 62.

People, May 10, 1993, pp. 27, 29.

Poe Studies, June, 1983, p. 13.

Publishers Weekly, October 24, 1986; March 22, 1993, p. 69.

Saturday Review, August 11, 1962.

Time, June 17, 1966; July 7, 1975; July 6, 1981.

Times (London, England), November 2, 1986, pp. 41, 43-44.

Times Literary Supplement, December 5, 1986; December 26, 1986.

Village Voice, September 2, 1981, p. 37; December 16, 1986.

Wall Street Journal, October 7, 1986, p. 30.

Washington Post, February 4, 1979; May 5, 1981; November 11, 1986.

Washington Post Book World, July 13, 1975; October 26, 1986; December 7, 1986, p. 4.



Current Biography, November, 1994, p. 58.

Facts on File, September 15, 1994, p. 672.

National Review, October 10, 1994, p. 23.

Newsweek, September 19, 1994, p. 75.

New York Times, September 8, 1994, p. D19.

Time, September 19, 1994, p. 27.

Times (London, England), September 9, 1994, p. 21.

U.S. News & World Report, September 19, 1994, p. 24.

Variety, September 12, 1994, p. 67.

Washington Post, September 8, 1994, p. D4.