James Clavell

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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

James Clavell (10 October 1921[1] – 6 September 1994), born Charles Edmund Dumaresq Clavell, was an Australian-born 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.

Early life and World War II[edit]

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. He was educated at Portsmouth Grammar School. In 1940, aged 19, he 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 King Rat, written by Clavell, 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 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 1949.[3]

Peter Marlowe[edit]

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. Ancestors of the character Peter Marlowe are also mentioned in other Clavell novels. The character of Marlowe as a novelist is a clear reference to Clavell; in Noble House he is mentioned as having written a novel about Changi which, although fictionalized, is based on real events (like Clavell and King Rat). When asked which character was based on him, Clavell answers "Perhaps I'm not there at all," although in a later scene admits that he was "the hero of course."

Film industry[edit]

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 screenwrote, directed and produced a 1967 box office hit, To Sir, With Love, based on the book by E. R. Braithwaite and starring Sidney Poitier.

Clavell's daughter Michaela appeared briefly as Penelope Smallbone, Moneypenny's would-be successor, in the James Bond 007 movie Octopussy. The character, however, did not catch on and was dropped after the film.


Tai-Pan and King Rat were adapted as feature films, but Clavell was not directly involved in their writing.


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 the character 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 Shōgun in 1975, the story of an English navigator set in 17th century Japan, based on that of William Adams. 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:

Several of Clavell's books have been adapted as films or miniseries; Shōgun was also adapted into interactive fiction.

Other books include:

Politics and later life[edit]

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 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 September 81."[4]


Clavell died of a stroke while suffering from cancer in Switzerland in 1994, one month before his 73rd birthday. Following 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 honour.[5]


  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 Death Railway. Cf. http://www.awm.gov.au/journal/j33/blackburn.htm.
  3. ^ "FreeBMD Entry Info". FreeBMD. ONS. Retrieved 26 January 2014.  Date of marriage sometimes given as 1951.
  4. ^ Enright, Marsha Familaro (May 2007), "James Clavell's Asian Adventures", Fountainhead Institute 
  5. ^ James Clavell library

External links[edit]