James Clavell

From New World Encyclopedia

James Clavell
Born October 10 1924(1924-10-10)
Sydney, Australia
Died September 7 1994 (aged 69)
Occupation novelist, screenwriter, director
Nationality British
Writing period 1958–1993

James Clavell, born Charles Edmund Dumaresq Clavell (October 10, 1924 – September 7, 1994) was a British (later naturalized American) novelist, screenwriter, director and World War II veteran and prisoner of war. Clavell is best known for his epic Asian Saga series of novels and their televised adaptations, along with such films as The Great Escape and To Sir, with Love.

An admirer of Ayn Rand, Clavell embraced the ethic of individualism. Coming of age during the era of World War II, Clavell rejected fascism and communitarianism in favor of the virtues of capitalism and freedom. His characters often serve as examples of these virtues.

Early life and World War II

Clavell was the son of Commander Richard Clavell, a British Royal Navy officer who was stationed in Australia on secondment from the Royal Navy to 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, at the age of 16 he joined the Royal Artillery in 1940, 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 in Singapore.

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 Michaela, over 90 percent 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.

Peter Marlowe

Peter Marlowe is a character in the Clavell novels King Rat and Noble House, although he is also mentioned once as a friend of Andrew Gavallan, in the novel Whirlwind. Featured much more prominently in King Rat, he is an English FEPOW in Changi prison during World War II. In Noble House, set two decades later, he is a novelist researching a book about Hong Kong. He is a thinly veiled fictionalization of Clavell placed inside his own works. Ancestors of the character Peter Marlowe are also mentioned in other Clavell novels. In addition Peter Marlowe was said to be very important to Clavell as a character due to reports that Clavell suffered great mental anguish after his stay in Changi prison and wrote King Rat to deal with his experiences and memories of the time.

Film industry

In 1953, Clavell and his wife emigrated 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 1967 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.


  • 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)
  • To Sir, with Love (1966) (writer and director)
  • The Sweet and the Bitter (1967) (writer and director)
  • Where's Jack? (1968) (director)
  • The Last Valley (1970) (writer and 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.


Clavell is the author of a series of novels known as The Asian Saga. The series includes six novels written Clavell between 1962 and 1993. The novels all center on Europeans in Asia, and together they explore the impact on East and West of the meeting of these two distinct civilizations. Clavell's first 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. 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).


The Asian Saga consisting of six novels:

  • 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

Several of Clavell's books have been adapted as films or miniseries;Shogun was also adapted into a computer Interactive Fiction game.

Other books include:

  • The Children's Story (1980)
  • The Art of War a translation of Sun Tzu's famous book (1983)
  • Thrump-O-Moto Illustrated by George Sharp (1986)
  • Escape (1994) - shorter novel adapted from Whirlwind

Apart from Shogun and King Rat, all the books follow the dealings of the great trading company Struan's, the Noble House of Asia (based on Jardine Matheson Holdings Limited), its founder Dirk Struan, and his various descendants. Gai-Jin provides the major link between the Shogun and Struans storylines, while two characters from King Rat (Robin Grey and Peter Marlowe) appear in Noble House.

Some of the characters make appearances in multiple books, and many characters from one book are referred to in later books. There are dozens of characters throughout the series, with very complex family relationships and a great deal of history that is hinted at but never described in detail.

Later life

In 1963, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

He died of a stroke while suffering from cancer in Switzerland in 1994, one month before his 70th birthday.


Clavell was an ardent individualist, anti-fascist 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 Ayn Rand a copy of Noble House in 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 Sept 81." Rand's philosophy and fiction emphasize the concepts of individualism and rational egoism ("rational self-interest") within a framework of free trade between actors motivated solely by value enhancement, unfettered by political or religious constraint.

Clavell indentified with the Randian hero, a man or woman whose ability and independent creative and responsible action causes conflict with individuals and systems that exploit through appeals for charity ("mooching") and the use of coercion and power ("looting") under the guise of government and religion. Rand viewed this hero as the personification of reason.

Following generous sponsorship by his widow, the library and archive of the Royal Artillery Museum at Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, in London has been renamed the James Clavell library in his honor[1].


  1. Royal Artillery Museum firepower.org.uk. Retrieved November 25, 2008.

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External links

All links retrieved March 16, 2018.


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