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James Clavell (10 October 1921[1] – 6 September 1994), born Charles Edmund Dumaresq Clavell, was a British (and later naturalized American) novelist, screenwriter, director, and World War II veteran and prisoner of war. Clavell is best known as a writer for his The Asian Saga series of novels and their televised adaptations. Clavell also authored screenplays, such as The Great Escape (1963) and To Sir, with Love (1967). Clavell wrote science fiction as well, including an episode of the early sci-fi TV series Men into Space in 1959, titled "First Woman on the Moon", as well as the film script for the original (1958) version of the sci-fi/horror film The Fly, starring Vincent Price.

James Clavell
James Clavell.jpg
Born (1921-10-10)10 October 1921
Sydney, Australia
Died 7 September 1994(1994-09-07) (aged 72)
Vevey, Switzerland
Occupation Novelist, screenwriter, director
Nationality British
Period 1958–1993


Early life and World War IIEdit

Born in Australia, Clavell was the son of Commander Richard Charles Clavell, a British Royal Navy officer who was stationed in Australia on secondment to the Royal Australian Navy from 1920 to 1922. Clavell was educated at Portsmouth Grammar School. During 1940, aged 19, Clavell joined the Royal Artillery, 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. According to the introduction to Clavell's novel King Rat (1962), over 90% of the prisoners who entered Changi never walked out.[2] Clavell was reportedly saved, along with an entire battalion, by an American prisoner of war who later became the model for "The King" in King Rat. By 1946, Clavell became 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).[3]

Peter MarloweEdit

Peter Marlowe is Clavell's author surrogate,[4] 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".[5]

Film industryEdit

During 1953, Clavell and his wife emigrated to the United States and settled in Hollywood.[where?] Clavell scripted the science-fiction horror movie The Fly (1958) and wrote a war movie, Five Gates To Hell (1959).[6] Clavell was nominated for a Writers Guild Award for The Great Escape (1963).[7] He also screenwrote, directed, and produced the box office success, To Sir, With Love (1967), featuring Sidney Poitier and based on E. R. Braithwaite's semiautobiographical 1959 book. Clavell's daughter Michaela Clavell appeared briefly as Penelope Smallbone.



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".[8] His first novel, King Rat (1962), was a semifictional 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 during 1986.

Clavell's third novel, Shōgun (1975), is set during 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 during 1980, produced by Clavell, it became the second highest rated miniseries in history with an audience of more than 120 million - following Roots.[citation needed]

Clavell's fourth novel, Noble House (1981), became a best-seller that year, and it was made into a TV miniseries in 1988.

After the success of Noble House, Clavell wrote The Children's Story (1981) (an adaptation of his 1964 story), Thrump-o-moto (1985), Whirlwind (1986), and Gai-Jin (1993).


The Asian Saga consists of seven novels:[9]

  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 feudal Japan, starting in 1600.
  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 storiesEdit


Interactive fictionEdit

  • 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[11]
  • 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[12]

Politics and later lifeEdit

In 1963 Clavell became a naturalized citizen of the United States.[4] 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."[13]


During 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.[14] The library was later closed pending the opening of a new facility in Salisbury, Wiltshire;[15] however, James Clavell Square on the Woolwich riverside remains.


  1. ^ "James Du Maresq or Charles Edmund Clavell, California, Southern District Court (Central) Naturalization Index, 1915-1976". FamilySearch. Retrieved 26 January 2014.  Date of birth often given as 10 October 1924.
  2. ^ 850 out of a total of 87,000 prisoners are known to have died at Changi, although many more died after being transferred out to other sites like the Burma Railway. Cf.
  3. ^ "FreeBMD Entry Info". FreeBMD. ONS. Retrieved 26 January 2014. .
  4. ^ a b Bernstein, Paul (1981-09-13). "Making of a Literary Shogun". The New York Times. Retrieved 2018-03-15. 
  5. ^ Clavell, James (1981). Noble House (Chapter 65). 
  6. ^ "Five Gates to Hell". IMDb. 1959. 
  7. ^ "Writers Guild Foundation Library Database". Writers Guild Foundation. Archived from the original on 9 September 2015. Retrieved 9 September 2015. 
  8. ^ Schott, Webster (1975-06-22). "Shogun". The New York Times. p. 236. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2018-03-15. 
  9. ^ Clavell, James (1986). Escape: The Love Story from Whirlwind (Asian Saga side story). 
  10. ^ Clavell, James & Sharp, George (Illustrator) (1986). Thrump-O-Moto (Hardcover ed.). Delacorte Press. ISBN 9780385295048. 
  11. ^ Infocom, Inc. (1988). "James Clavell's Shogun". Moby Games. 
  12. ^ Virgin Games, Ltd. (1986). "James Clavell's Shogun". Moby Games. 
  13. ^ Enright, Marsha Familaro (May 2007), "James Clavell's Asian Adventures", Fountainhead Institute 
  14. ^ "James Clavell Library - Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, London, UK". Retrieved 27 February 2017. 
  15. ^ "Firepower - The Royal Artillery Museum". The National Archives. Retrieved 27 February 2017. 

External linksEdit