James Clavell: American novelist (1921 - 1994)
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James Clavell
American novelist

James Clavell

James Clavell
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro American novelist
Known for King Rat
Was Screenwriter Film director Film producer Writer Novelist
From Australia United States of America
Field Film, TV, Stage & Radio Literature
Gender male
Birth 10 October 1921, Sydney, Australia
Death 7 September 1994, Vevey, Switzerland (aged 72 years)
Star sign Libra
The details (from wikipedia)


James Clavell (born Charles Edmund Dumaresq Clavell, 10 October 1921 – 6 September 1994), was an Australian (and later naturalized American) novelist, screenwriter, director, and World War II veteran and prisoner of war. Clavell is best known as the author of his Asian Saga novels, a number of which have had television adaptations. Clavell also authored such screenplays as those for The Fly (1958) (based on the short story by George Langelaan) and The Great Escape (1963) (based on the personal account of Paul Brickhill).


Early life

Born in Australia, Clavell was the son of Commander Richard Charles Clavell, a Royal Navy officer who was stationed in Australia with the Royal Australian Navy from 1920 to 1922. Clavell was educated at Portsmouth Grammar School, after which he returned to Australia.

World War Two

During 1940, Clavell joined the Royal Artillery. Though trained for desert warfare, after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 he was sent to Singapore to fight the Japanese. The ship taking his unit was sunk en route to Singapore, and the survivors were picked up by a Dutch boat fleeing to India. The commander, described by Clavell years later as a "total twit," insisted that they be dropped off at the nearest port to fight the war despite having no weapons.

Imprisoned in Changi

Shot in the face, he was captured in Java in 1942 and sent to a Japanese prisoner of war camp on Java. Later he was transferred to Changi Prison in Singapore, where only 1 in 15 prisoners survived.

In 1981, Clavell recounted:

"'Changi became my university instead of my prison. Among the inmates there were experts in all walks of life -the high and the low roads. I studied and absorbed everything I could from physics to counterfeiting, but most of all I learned the art of surviving, the most important course of all."

Prisoners were fed a quarter-pound of rice per day, one egg per week and occasional vegetables. Clavell believed that if atomic bombs were not dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki he would not have survived the war."

Clavell did not talk about his wartime experiences with anyone, even his wife, for 15 years after the war, For a time he carried a can of sardines in his pocket at all times and fought an urge to forage for food in trash cans. He also experienced bad dreams and a nervous stomach kept him awake nights.

Post-war career

By 1946, Clavell had become a captain, but a motorcycle accident ended his military career. He enrolled with the University of Birmingham, where he met April Stride, an actress, whom he married in 1949 (date of marriage sometimes given as 1951). He would visit her on set while making films and began to be interested in becoming a film director.

Early work on films

Clavell entered the film industry via distribution and worked at that in England for a number of years. He tried to get into producing but had no luck so started writing screenplays. In 1954 he moved to New York, then to Hollywood. While trying to break into screenwriting he paid the bills working as a carpenter.

In 1956, he sold a script about pilots to RKO, Far Alert. The same year Michael Pate bought a story of his Forbidden Territory for filming.

Neither was filmed but Far Alert kept being sold and re-sold. "In 18 months it brought in $87,000," he later said. "We kept getting paid for writing it and rewriting it as it went from one studio to another. It was wonderful." It was later sold to Fox where it attracted the attention of Robert L. Lippert who hired Clavell to write the science-fiction horror movie The Fly (1958). This became a hit and launched Clavell as a screenwriter.

He wrote Watusi (1959) for director Kurt Neumann, who had also made The Fly.

Clavell wrote Five Gates to Hell (1959) for Lippert, and when they could not find a suitable director, Clavell was given the job.

Paramount hired Clavell to write a film about the Bounty mutineers. It ended up not being made. Neither was a proposed movie about Francis Powers made. Clavell did write, produce, and direct a Western at Paramount, Walk Like a Dragon (1960).

In 1959, Clavell wrote "Moon Landing" and "First Woman in the Moon", two episodes of Men into Space, a "day after tomorrow"-style science fiction drama, which depicted, in realistic terms, the (at the time) near future of space exploration.

In 1960 he had written a Broadway show with John Sturges, White Alice, a thriller set in the Arctic. It was never produced.

Early prose and screenplay work

In 1960 the Writers Guild went on strike, meaning Clavell was unable to work. He decided to write a novel, King Rat, based on his time at Changi. It took him three months and several more months after that to rework it. The book was published in 1962 and sold well. It was turned into a film in 1965.

In 1961, Clavell announced he had formed his own company, Cee Productions, who would make the films King Rat, White Alice and No Hands on the Clock.

In 1962 he signed a multi picture contract with a Canadian company to produce and direct two films there, Circle of Greed and The Sweet and the Bitter. Only the second was made and it was not released until 1967.

He wrote scripts for the war films The Great Escape (1963) and 633 Squadron (1964).

He wrote a short story, "The Children's Story" (1964) and the script for The Satan Bug (1965), directed by John Sturges who had made The Great Escape. He also wrote Richard Sahib for Sturges which was never made.

Clavell wanted to write a second novel because "that separates the men from the boys". The money from King Rat enabled him to spend two years researching and then writing what became Tai-Pan (1966). It was a huge bestseller, and Clavell sold the film rights for a sizeable amount (although the movie would not be made until 1986).

Leading film director

Clavell returned to filmmaking. He wrote, produced and directed To Sir, With Love (1967), featuring Sidney Poitier and based on E. R. Braithwaite's semiautobiographical 1959 book. It was a huge critical and commercial success.

Clavell was now in much demand as a filmmaker. He produced and directed Where's Jack? (1969), a highwayman film which was a commercial failure. So too was an epic film about the Thirty Year War, The Last Valley (1971).

Career as novelist

Clavell returned to novel writing, which was the focus of the remainder of his career. He spent three years researching and writing Shōgun (1975), about an Englishman who becomes a samurai in feudal Japan. It was another massive best seller. Clavell was heavily involved in the 1980 mini-series which starred Richard Chamberlain and achieved huge ratings.

In the late 1970s he spent three years researching and writing his fourth novel, Noble House (1981), set in Hong Kong in 1963. It was another best seller and was turned into a miniseries in 1986.

Clavell briefly returned to filmmaking and directed a thirty-minute adaptation of his novelette The Children's Story. He was meant to do a sequel to Shogun but instead found himself writing a novel about the 1979 revolution in Iran, Whirlwind (1986).

Clavell eventually returned to the Shogun sequel, writing Gai-Jin (1993). This was his last completed novel at the time of his death.


  • 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 (1967) (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 TV miniseries (1980)
  • Tai-Pan (1986) (based on his novel)
  • Noble House TV miniseries (1988)


The New York Times said that "Clavell has a gift. It may be something that cannot be taught or earned. He breathes narrative ... He writes in the oldest and grandest tradition that fiction knows". His 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 as a movie. His next novel, Tai-Pan (1966), was a fictional account of Jardine Matheson's successful career in Hong Kong, as told via the character who was to become Clavell's heroic archetype, Dirk Struan. Struan's descendants were characters in almost all of his following books. Tai-Pan was adapted as a movie in 1986.

Clavell's third novel, Shōgun (1975), is set in 17th century Japan, and it tells the story of a shipwrecked English navigator in Japan, based on that of William Adams. When the story was made into a TV miniseries in 1980, produced by Clavell, it became the second highest rated miniseries in history with an audience of more than 120 million, after Roots.

Clavell's fourth novel, Noble House (1981), became a bestseller that year and was adapted into a TV miniseries in 1988.

Following the success of Noble House, Clavell wrote Thrump-o-moto (1985), Whirlwind (1986), and Gai-Jin (1993).

Peter Marlowe

Peter Marlowe is Clavell's author surrogate and a character of the novels King Rat and Noble House (1981); he is also mentioned once (as a friend of Andrew Gavallan's) in Whirlwind (1986). Featured most prominently in King Rat, Marlowe is an English prisoner of war 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.

In Noble House Marlowe 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".


The Asian Saga consists of seven novels:

  1. King Rat (1962), set in a Japanese POW camp in Singapore in 1945.
  2. Tai-Pan (1966), set in Hong Kong in 1841
  3. Shōgun (1975), set in Japan from 1600 onwards
  4. Noble House (1981), set in Hong Kong in 1963
  5. Whirlwind (1986), set in Iran in 1979.
  6. Gai-Jin (1993), set in Japan in 1862
  7. Escape: The Love Story from Whirlwind (1994), a novella adapted from Whirlwind (1986)

Children's stories

  • "The Children's Story" (1964 Readers Digest short story; adapted as a movie and reprinted as a standalone book in 1981)
  • Thrump-O-Moto (1986), illustrated by George Sharp


  • The Art of War (1983), a translation of Sun Tzu's book.

Interactive fiction

  • 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 improve his/her rapport with other people, battling and working to becoming a Shōgun

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 during 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. After sponsorship by his widow, the library and archive of the Royal Artillery Museum at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, in southeast London, was renamed the James Clavell Library in his honour. The library was later closed pending the opening of a new facility in Salisbury, Wiltshire; however, James Clavell Square on the Woolwich riverside remains.

The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article on 23 Mar 2020. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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