Well, it had to happen one day, I suppose. This year we actually found a film we enjoyed as much as we did the book. Sorry, I’ve sort of begun in the middle there. One of the book groups to which I belong has a special meeting every year on the second Sunday in September. Instead of our usual evening gathering we get together for the whole day to discuss a novel in the morning, catch up on our Summer break over lunch and then see the film of the book in the afternoon. The day usually ends with us vilifying whatever film we’ve just seen over afternoon tea. Over the years (sixteen now) we’ve become dab hands at vilifying. This year our chosen novel was JG Ballard’s 1985 Booker shortlisted Empire of the Sun, which was filmed by Steven Spielberg two years later with screen play by Tom Stoppard. The latter fact is perhaps a main reason why we all enjoyed the screen version far more than has ever before been the case.
The novel, as I’m sure you all know, is a semi autobiographical account of Ballard’s own childhood experience of being interned by the Japanese after the fall of Shanghai, where he lived with his family in the privileged International Settlement. Probably the greatest difference in the fictionalised version is that Ballard’s Jim is separated from his parents and has to find a way of surviving on his own, whereas Ballard himself was not separated from the rest of his family, including a three year old sister who doesn’t feature at all in the book.
The aspects of the novel that I found most interesting were emphasised by this change. What his solitary internment means is that while Jim has to find a way to survive on his own he can also concentrate fully on his own survival. My father was a Japanese POW, ‘fortunately’ in what is now North Korea rather than on the Burma railways, and he always said that the people for whom he felt most sorry were two brothers who were in the camp together, because they had to worry about each other’s survival as well as their own; no one had the energy to worry about two people. The internees fears of what would occur at the end of the war, when they were forced to leave the camp was also familiar. Everyone expected their captors to turn on them and contingency plans were made in case that happened. Likewise, Ballard’s Jim recognises that the forced march that the internees are subjected to after the fall of the atomic bombs is going to end with a bullet and feigns an early death to escape this fate.
While the film is excellent and the performance that a young Christian Bale gives as Jim, quite exceptional, it isn’t exactly the film of the book. Inevitably, the texture is much thinner, especially in the earlier part of the adaptation when Jim is making his way to the camp. Even a lengthy two and a half hours isn’t time enough to include all the set backs that the eleven year old encounters. And the ending is considerably more ‘happy families’ than Ballard’s original, although I did think that the way in which his father fails to recognise Jim on first pass there was a hint of the estrangement that was to exist between the real Ballard and his father for the rest of their lives. But, it works as a film in its own right and it is true to the author’s intentions. In fact, the only criticism that anyone offered was that at the very end all the children who were waiting to be reunited with their parents looked far too robust and healthy to be believable as having been internees for over two years but, as I pointed out, starving a whole class-worth of seven year olds just for artistic effect probably wasn’t a goer, however realistic Spielberg might have wanted to be.
I saw the film when it was first released back in 1987 but hadn’t caught up with it since and I was surprised at how much I remembered, especially of Jim’s fascination with aircraft and the ‘relationship’ he forged with the young Japanese Kamikaze pilot. Its quality clearly imposed itself on me way back then and yesterday did nothing to change my original opinion. However, this morning, perversely, I find myself slightly miffed that I can no longer claim that we have never yet seen a film that did justice to the novel because Empire of the Sun definitely bucks the trend.