Time for J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun. Indeed. The chances are most of you will know of this from the often forgotten Steven Spielberg gem from 1987. It starred a then 13 year old Sir Christian Bale as the precocious Batman… er, Jim. Sorry, it’s easy to misjudge these things.
33 year old John Malkovich was his co-star as the devious Basie, alongside Joe Pantoliano as the hapless Frank, Nigel Havers as studious Dr. Rawlins, and smaller parts went to Miranda Richardson (famous for her portrayal as the childishly insane Queenie in Blackadder II), Ben Stiller, Paul McGann (I), and author J.G. Ballard in a brief cameo. Thusly, this was our knowledge of Empire of the Sun since having first seen it back in 2004.
J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun
We put off reading the novel, for whatever reason. It’s based on Ballard’s childhood experiences in Shanghai as the Second World War erupted. He was subsequently interned in a POW camp with his parents, and Ballard used this to adapt a literary device whereby English schoolboy Jim is stranded by himself in Shanghai. From there he attempts to surrender to the Japanese before being swept up by the entirely unreliable Americans Basie and Frank.
What follows is a sweeping tale of survival against the odds and, above everything else, a dramatic coming-of-age story. In the harshest of environments, Jim moves from being a spoiled and naive young kid into a pretty brutal teenager who’s willing to risk life and limb for a potato.
As a book it’s excellent – one of the best from the 20th century, we’d argue. It’s really a damning portrait of the chaos of humanity during WWII, but the human condition shines through – as in, everyone comes across as half mad. Whether it’s someone dying of lurgy, or Jim attempting to fathom Basie’s latest trickery, the book encapsulates a time and place quite magnificently. It’s not a portrait of humanity at its best, unfortunately, but this does make it fascinating.
Steven Spielberg adapted the film in 1987 and it received Ballard’s seal of approval, although he noted it differs from his book in numerous ways (principally, the involvement of the Americans is brought forward a great deal – in the novel, Basie isn’t quite so prevalent). He did, however, consider it a very impressive piece of work, which is good to know.
It’s a brilliant film and something of a forgotten gem, which is odd considering the big name director behind it. It’s nearing its 30th anniversary (we edited this section in June ’17), so hopefully we’ll see it promoted in late ’17 and a new generation of cinema-goers can discover its charms.