James Clavell

James Clavell
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 (1963) and To Sir, with Love (1967).

Early life and World War II

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, 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 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

Peter Marlowe is a character in the Clavell novels King Rat and Noble House (1981); he is also mentioned once (as a friend of Andrew Gavallan's) in the novel Whirlwind (1986). Featured most prominently in King Rat, Marlowe 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. Marlowe's ancestors are also mentioned in other Clavell novels. The character Marlowe the 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 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".[4]

Film industry

In 1953, Clavell and his wife emigrated to the United States and settled in Hollywood. Clavell scripted the science-fiction horror film The Fly (1958) and wrote a war film, Five Gates to Hell (1959).[5] Clavell was nominated for a Writers Guild Award for the The Great Escape (1963).[6] He also screenwrote, directed, and produced the box office hit, To Sir, With Love (1967), starring Sidney Poitier and based on E. R. Braithwaite's semi-autobiographical 1959 book.

Clavell's daughter Michaela appeared briefly as Penelope Smallbone, Moneypenny's would-be successor, in the James Bond 007 movie Octopussy (1983). The character, however, did not catch on and was dropped after the film.



Clavell's first novel, King Rat (1962), was a semi-fictional 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 for film. His next novel, Tai-Pan (1966), was a fictional account of Jardine-Matheson's rise to prominence in Hong Kong, as told via the character who was to become Clavell's heroic archetype, Dirk Struan. Struan's descendants would inhabit almost all of his forthcoming books. Tai-Pan was adapted as a film in 1986.

Clavell's third novel, Shōgun (1975), is set in 17th century Japan and relates the story of an English navigator, 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.

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

Following 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 six novels and one side story:[7]

  1. King Rat (1962): Set in a Japanese POW camp in Singapore, 1945
  2. Tai-Pan (1966): Set in Hong Kong, 1841
  3. Shōgun (1975): Set in feudal Japan, 1600
  4. Noble House (1981): Set in Hong Kong, 1963
  5. Whirlwind (1986): Set in Iran, 1979
  6. Gai-Jin (1993): Set in Japan, 1862

Children's stories


Interactive fiction

Politics and later life

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."[11]


In 1994, Clavell died in Switzerland, from a stroke while suffering from cancer. He died 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 was renamed the James Clavell Library in his honour.[12]


  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. Clavell, James (1981). Noble House (Chapter 65).
  5. "Five Gates to Hell". IMDb. 1959.
  6. "Writers Guild Foundation Library Database". Writers Guild Foundation. Retrieved 9 September 2015.
  7. Clavell, James (1986). Escape: The Love Story from Whirlwind (Asian Saga side story).
  8. Clavell, James & Sharp, George (Illustrator) (1986). Thrump-O-Moto (Hardcover ed.). Delacorte Press. ISBN 9780385295048.
  9. Infocom, Inc. (1988). "James Clavell's Shogun". Moby Games.
  10. Virgin Games, Ltd. (1986). "James Clavell's Shogun". Moby Games.
  11. Enright, Marsha Familaro (May 2007), "James Clavell's Asian Adventures", Fountainhead Institute
  12. "James Clavell Library". firepower.org.
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