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."
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.
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.
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."