James Clavell Clavell, James (Vol. 87) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

James Clavell 1925–1994

(Full name James duMaresq Clavell) Australian-born English-American novelist, screenwriter, and author of children's books.

The following entry presents criticism on Clavell's works from 1981 through 1994. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 6 and 25.

Clavell is known primarily for his best-selling novel Shōgun (1975) and his other fictional works that focus on East Asian customs, history, and economic and political power struggles. Although Shōgun was praised by Asian historian Henry Smith for "[conveying] more information about Japan to more people than all the combined writings of scholars, journalists and novelists since the Pacific War," other scholars and critics have questioned the authenticity of Clavell's portrayal of feudal Japan and accused him of willfully distorting reality and sensationalizing history. In response, Clavell stated that he "played with history—the where and how and who and why and when of it—to suit my own reality and, perhaps, to tell the real history of what came to pass."

Biographical Information

Born in Australia, Clavell was the son of a British Royal Navy captain and cultivated his ear for storytelling listening to the sea tales of his father and grandfather, who was also a seaman. Intent on a military career, he joined the Royal Artillery in 1940 and was stationed in the Far East in 1941. Wounded by machine-gun fire while fighting in Malaysia, he hid in a local village for several months before the Japanese discovered him and sent him to Changi, a prisoner-of-war camp near Singapore. There, he survived three and one half years of severe living conditions and brutal treatment. Years later Clavell said of his experience: "Changi was a school for survivors. It gave me a strength most people don't have. I have an awareness of life others lack." After his release he returned to military service and was subsequently discharged in 1946 when disabled in a motorcycle accident. He briefly attended Birmingham University, but found the film industry alluring when he began to visit movie sets with his future wife, an aspiring actress. Working first as a distributor and then in production, Clavell and his wife emigrated to the United States in 1953, becoming naturalized citizens ten years later. Eventually earning a screenwriting contract, he completed his first screenplay—the enormously successful science-fiction film The Fly—in 1958. Based on a short story by George Langelaan, The Fly concerns an atomic scientist whose life is drastically changed by his work: when a common house fly is inadvertently caught in one of his experiments, the protagonist and insect exchange physical qualities. A screenwriters' guild strike in 1960 necessitated that Clavell search for alternate means of employment in the publishing industry. Haunted by his memories of the Changi prison, Clavell recorded these experiences in his first novel, King Rat (1962). He died of cancer in September 1994.

Major Works

Clavell's writings are characterized by convoluted plots and a focus on such themes as war, advanced technology, power, romance, espionage, and international commerce. Based on historical incidents and figures, his works dramatize the tensions resulting when divergent cultures meet. First in a six-novel series known as the Asian Saga, King Rat is set in Changi, a prisoner-of-war camp, and focuses on the relationship between a British and an American soldier as they struggle to survive the brutal conditions. Tai-pan (1966) begins in 1841 and traces the founding of Hong Kong and the establishment of Noble House, an English trading empire controlled by Dirk Struan, the taipan, or merchant overlord of the company. The third novel of the series, Shōgun, concerns William Blackthorne, a character loosely based on Will Adams, an Englishman who arrived in Japan in 1600 after serving as a pilot on a Dutch ship and who remained in Japan until his death in 1620. After arriving in Japan, Blackthorne becomes a trusted foreign advisor to the shōgun, or overlord, Toranaga, and eventually the lover of Toranaga's polyglot, Christian wife. For introducing his Japanese host to Western warfare and navigational technology, Blackthorne is transformed from a "barbarian" into an honorable samurai. Noble House (1981) continues where Taipan concluded, portraying the modern-day financial power struggles of foreign trade. Whirlwind (1986) takes place in Iran in 1979 during the weeks following the revolution. Centering on a group of pilots employed by S-G Helicopters, a company owned by Noble House, the novel delineates their attempt to transfer the company's equipment out of the country before the government of Ayatollah Khomeini can seize it. Gai-jin (1993) also concerns the continuing saga of the Noble House trading dynasty. The novel is set in 1862 Yokahama, Japan, where the protagonist, Malcolm Struan, grandson of Dirk Struan of Taipan, struggles for dominance in the realm of foreign trade. In addition to his novels, Clavell has written two children's books, The Children's Story (1963), a fable on the dangers of not questioning authority and the vulnerability of children to propaganda, and Thrump-o-moto (1986), a fantasy tale about a young Australian girl suffering from polio and her apprentice-wizard mentor who leads her on a journey in search of self-discovery and the magical cure for her disease.

Critical Reception

Despite Clavell's astonishing success with popular audiences, reviews have been largely mixed. Many critics have agreed that Clavell's novels hold readers' attention because of their rich historical detail, suspenseful plots, and abundant information about East Asian culture and customs. However, other commentators have viewed these same attributes negatively, arguing that the novels tend to be too detailed, the plots too convoluted to follow, and the characters too stereotyped. In praise of Shōgun, which sold a record-breaking 3.5 million copies and was on the New York Times best-seller list for thirty-two weeks, novelist Tom Clancy stated "my favorite sort of novel is one in which two cultures meet—or collide—for the first time. Probably the best-ever book in this genre is James Clavell's Shōgun."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Fly (screenplay) 1958
Five Gates to Hell (screenplay) 1959
Watusi (screenplay) 1959
Walk like a Dragon (screenplay) 1960
King Rat (novel) 1962
The Children's Story (children's book) 1963; first appeared in Ladies Home Journal
The Great Escape (screenplay) 1963
Tai-pan: A Novel of Hong Kong (novel) 1966
The Last Valley (screenplay) 1969
To Sir with Love (screenplay) 1969
Shōgun: A Novel of Japan (novel) 1975
Noble House: A Novel of Contemporary Hong Kong (novel) 1981
Thrump-o-moto (juvenilia) 1986
Whirlwind (novel) 1986
Gai-jin (novel) 1993

∗Clavell was also the producer and director of these films.

†These works are collectively referred to as the Asian Saga.

Eliot Fremont-Smith (review date 2 September 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Capture the Flag," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXVI, No. 36, September 2, 1981, p. 37.

[In the following review, Fremont-Smith traces the publication history of The Children's Story and offers a negative assessment of its literary, political, and social value.]

Once upon a time—this was before "Finlandization" and "secular humanism" were coined, and before James Clavell (King Rat, Tai-Pan, Shogun, Noble House) became a U.S. citizen and got really rich and famous (though not to weep, he was doing okay in Hollywood)—a little girl dashed home to tell her father what she had just learned by heart in school. "Daddy, Daddy, listen!" she cried, her...

(The entire section is 2131 words.)

Henry Smith (essay date October 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Reading James Clavell's Shogun," in History Today, Vol. 31, October, 1981, pp. 39-42.

[An American educator and historian, Smith has written widely on Japanese history and was the editor of Learning from "Shōgun": Japanese History and Western Fantasy (1980). In the following essay, Smith relates Clavell's sources and manipulation of Japanese culture and history in Shōgun.]

When confronted with an extremely popular modern novel which is based on historical themes the first instinct of the historian, naturally enough, is to ascertain the 'historicity' of the work. The models for the major characters in James Clavell's Shōgun are easy to...

(The entire section is 2539 words.)

Terry Teachout (essay date 12 November 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "James Clavell, Storyteller," in National Review, New York, Vol, XXXIV, November 12, 1982, pp. 1420-22.

[In the following essay, based on an interview with Clavell, Teachout discusses Clavell's ideas on writing, political views, and his novels, particularly Noble House.]

At 18, Sub-Lieutenant James Clavell of the British army was thrown into Changi, a Japanese prison camp in Singapore, where he spent the last three and a half years of the Second World War. At 29 he emigrated to Hollywood and made a name for himself as one of the most successful writer-producer-directors in town; he eventually became a naturalized American citizen. At 35, idled by a...

(The entire section is 2667 words.)

Burton R. Pollin (essay date June 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poe in Clavell's Shōgun: A Novel of Japan," in Poe Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1, June, 1983, p. 13.

[In the essay below, Pollin cites thematic and stylistic similarities between Edgar Allan Poe's 1849 poem entitled "A Dream within a Dream" and Clavell's Shōgun.]

Poe did not originate the title phrase of his 1849 poem, "A Dream within a Dream"; as T. O. Mabbott indicates [in Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, 3 vols., 1969–1978], it had previously appeared in two works known to Poe, Margaret Fuller's Summer on the Lakes (1844) and C. A. Washburn's sentimental story in Graham's Magazine (October 1848). But surely, the currency of the...

(The entire section is 677 words.)

Everett Groseclose (review date 7 October 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Kids' Stuff from an Old Asia Hand," in The Wall Street Journal, October 7, 1986, p. 30.

[In the following review, Groseclose praises Clavell's Thrump-o-moto for its appeal to adults as well as children.]

Has success bored James Clavell?

How else can one explain the author's latest entry into the world of books? Not another Tai-Pan or Shogun—but rather a handsome, oversized children's story called Thrump-O-Moto.

Since Mr. Clavell's only other children's story was published 23 years ago, this new one is a departure worthy of note. His Whirlwind, the fifth in his series of Asian sagas that...

(The entire section is 639 words.)

Susan Crosland (essay date 2 November 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Maybe I'm James Clavell," in The Sunday Times, London, November 2, 1986, pp. 41, 43-4.

[In the following essay based on an interview with Clavell, Crosland discusses Clavell's experiences as a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II and his writing career.]

James Clavell was 18 when he was captured in Java in 1942. The next three years were spent in Changi. Even among Japanese prison camps, Changi was notorious. One in 15 men survived. Not until the early Sixties was Clavell able to write about it in his first novel, King Rat. Yet 10 years after that, he wrote Shogun, the colossal historical novel that seems to be pro Japanese....

(The entire section is 2761 words.)

Dick Davis (review date 5 December 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "How the Tough Get Going," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4366, December 5, 1986, p. 1368.

[Below, Davis provides a negative assessment of Whirlwind, claiming that the "version of Iranian society offered is tripe."]

Whirlwind, which its author calls an "adventure story", is set in Iran shortly after the Islamic revolution: the plot concerns a rich international company's attempt to evacuate its pilots and helicopters to a friendly Arab Emirate on the other side of the Gulf. The first scene shows us a helicopter flying low over a praying mullah who furiously and incompetently shoots at the departing foreign intruder: this scene more or less...

(The entire section is 706 words.)

Thomas R. Edwards (review date 18 December 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gulp!" in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXIII, No. 20, December 18, 1986, pp. 58-60.

[Edwards is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt, he faults Whirlwind for its lack of appeal and believability, lamenting that the novel "has nothing to do with any life I've ever heard of."]

Whirlwind, a "now" book for which the publisher reportedly paid Clavell $5 million, the highest price ever paid for a novel, takes place in Iran between February 9 and March 4, 1979, just after the flight of the Shah and the advent of Khomeini but well before the hostage crisis. Almost 1150 densely printed pages are devoted to these twenty-four...

(The entire section is 1371 words.)

F. G. Notehelfer (review date 18 April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Wild West of the Far East," in The New York Times Book Review, April 18, 1993, p. 13.

[Notehelfer is an American educator, historian, and critic who specializes in Japanese history. In the following review of Gai-jin, he asserts that despite Clavell's gifts as a storyteller, Clavell treats Japanese history in a stereotypical and sensationalistic manner.]

Few eras of Japanese history were more violent, turbulent and politically exasperating than the 1860's. Caught between a dying old regime and the revolutionary forces that sought to create a new Japan, the country seethed in what appeared to be a chaotic series of intrigues, plots, coups and...

(The entire section is 856 words.)

Ron Scherer (review date 12 May 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Drama and Intrigue in Emerging Japan," in The Christian Science Monitor, May 12, 1993, p. 13.

[In the following review of Gai-jin, Scherer provides a mixed assessment of the novel, lamenting the often stereotyped characters but praising its suspense.]

The Japanese love fine jubako—lacquered boxes that fit within boxes that are in boxes. In Gai-Jin: A Novel of Japan. James Clavell has written a jubako of a novel. Its 1,038 pages are filled with plots within plots within plots.

The scheming takes place at a critical moment in Japan's history—September 1862 to January 1863, only 10 years after American Commodore...

(The entire section is 520 words.)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (review date 24 May 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Sixth Episode in James Clavell's Asian Saga," in The New York Times, May 24, 1993, p. C16.

[Below, Lehmann-Haupt provides a negative assessment of Gai-jin.]

At the opening of James Clavell's intermittently absorbing but over-long new novel. Gai-Jin two previous works in the author's so-called Asian Saga collide with each other, producing a thousand pages of complications that never do get completely straightened out, although by the end the reader is happy to take a rest from them, at least until the three-pound sequel is born.

At the start of Gai-Jin which means foreigner in Japanese, Tai-Pan crashes into...

(The entire section is 1027 words.)

The New York Times (obituary date 8 September 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An obituary in The New York Times, September 8, 1994, p. D19.

[In the obituary below, the critic provides an overview of Clavell's career.]

James Clavell, the author of Tai-Pan, Shogun, Noble House and other richly detailed historical novels set in the Far East, died on Tuesday in Vevey, Switzerland. He was 69 and had homes in Vevey and Cap Ferrat, France.

The cause was cancer, said his wife, April.

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. "It's almost impossible not...

(The entire section is 946 words.)

William F. Buckley, Jr. (essay date 10 October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "James Clavell, RIP," in National Review, New York, Vol. XLVI, October 10, 1994, pp. 23-4.

[Buckley is an American political commentator, nonfiction writer, and novelist. In the following tribute, he reminisces about his friendship with Clavell.]

A dozen years ago Chilton Williamson, at the time our book-review editor, called me to deliver a mildly complicated diplomatic message. It was this, that the young writer Terry Teachout (this was before he became famous) wished to have an interview with James Clavell, for publication in National Review. But Mr. Clavell, or perhaps someone on his staff, had passed along the word that Mr. Clavell would grant the...

(The entire section is 1229 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Allen, Louis. "Images of Undivided Souls." The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4100 (30 October 1981): 1261-62.

Reviews three books inspired by the success of Shōgun and the ensuing interest in Japanese history: Richard Tames's Servant of the Shōgun, Henry Smith's Learning from Shōgun, and Michael Macintyre's The Shōgun Inheritance.

Andrews, Peter. "Abandoned in Iran." New York Times Book Review (7 December 1986): 28.

Laments Whirlwind's excessive length and confusing, overly-detailed plot.


(The entire section is 244 words.)