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Dream's Ransom: Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun

Author: • Sep 14th, 2007 •

Category: autobiography, David Cronenberg, features, film, filmography, flying, Shanghai, Steven Spielberg, WWII, YouTube

Ballardian: Empire of the Sun

    Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun (more at YouTube.)


by Pedro Groppo



Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Tom Stoppard, based on the novel by J.G. Ballard
Starring: Christian Bale, John Malkovich


Whereas the sensibilities of J. G. Ballard and David Cronenberg, who directed Crash (1996), seem to overlap and complement each other, one would be hard-pressed to think of someone like Steven Spielberg as the ideal director of a Ballard adaptation. Empire of the Sun (1987) was the first of the more mainstream adaptations of Ballard’s work, and still remains today the most widespread and popular work based on his fiction, even if it is Spielberg’s least successful movie to date in box office terms. It is however, a landmark in the development of Spielberg’s sensibilities as a director and in the popularization of Ballard.

Ballardian: Empire of the Sun LEFT: Bale, Spielberg, Malkovich.

The novel had met relative success upon its publication in 1984, being shortlisted for the Booker Prize and winning the Guardian Prize for Best Fiction, and David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago) was at first interested in making a film of it. Spielberg was asked by Lean to acquire the rights and produce the film, which he hoped to direct. Interestingly, after a year of preparation, Lean abandoned the project because he decided the book “lacked sufficient dramatic structure for a film and dropped the project to adapt Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo. It was for the better, as Spielberg later admitted he had “secretly wanted to do it himself.” The shadow of Lean hovers over the picture, much like Stanley Kubrick’s would in Spielberg’s later A.I. (2001). Echoes of Oliver Twist, The Bridge on the River Kwai and A Passage to India figure prominently. Ian Freer notes that Spielberg even consciously echoes Lean’s “sense of scope, sweep, and camera stylings — in particular, Lean’s signature crane shot moving from a lone figure to reveal a mass of swarming people.”

Spielberg was, and still is, associated with a particular kind of Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking, having directed a number of box office record breakers, such as Jaws, Jurassic Park, and the Indiana Jones series. His work is often seen as naive, ideological, corny, lacking in subtlety, and even uncritical; but it’s almost a fact that he has a superb visual sense and a genuine flair for storytelling. Empire of the Sun shows a marked development of Spielberg’s abilities and range as a filmmaker, being probably one of (if not the) most mature of his films to date.

As Spielberg has noted:

I really had come to terms with what I’ve been tenaciously clinging to, which was a celebration of a kind of naiveté. … But I just reached a saturation point, and I thought Empire was a great way of performing an exorcism on that period. I had never read anything with an adult setting … where a child saw things through a man’s eyes as opposed to a man discovering things through the child in him.

What Spielberg shares most with Ballard is his ability to immerse the viewer in a world of complete subjectivity, adopting the logics and desires of their protagonists in full. There is hardly, if ever, a critical distance between the viewer and the action on screen in a Spielberg film. He or she accepts it and revels on this acceptance of a subjective and even internal world, safe and desirable in its peculiar kind of escapism. The success of many of Ballard’s texts also depend on a similar stance to be taken by the reader, perhaps most notably in the case of Crash.

Ballardian: Empire of the Sun

    ‘Complete subjectivity’: Ballard’s iconic drained swimming pools make an appearance…

Robert Kolker, in his analysis of American cinema, A Cinema of Loneliness, describes Spielberg’s films as a kind of “encyclopedia of desire, a locus of representations into which audiences wished to be called,” based on their frequency, success, and influence. Spielberg’s success in conveying such subjectivity in such a congenial and influential way has allowed him to become a true mythmaker of the cinema. Ballard is unquestionably a mythmaker in his own right, but Spielberg is in a position, as the most powerful and influential filmmaker of contemporary American cinema, to actually construct and impose his values artistic choices as ideology. In this sense, his films do not present ideology, but become ideology, as it were, a kind of projection of our own desires.

Empire of the Sun is Spielberg’s most realized attempt at a conscious exploration of these ideas. In the recent documentary “Spielberg on Spielberg,” produced for Turner Classic TV, he acknowledged that the novel “made selections of what a child grabs onto with his eyes compared to what an adult chooses to look at,” and that was what caught his interest. He explicitly wanted to make his film very visual, by showing the world through a child’s eyes, and later, the child losing it all because it was a story of “the death of childhood.” Although Tom Stoppard’s screenplay is very clever and literate, with uniformly excellent excellent dialogue, Spielberg tells his story primarily through visual means, and many of the key scenes do not feature any dialogue — and no narrator. Janet Maslin, on her 1987 New York Times review, said even that the film’s “first half hour, for example, could exist as a silent film — an extraordinarily sharp evocation of Shanghai’s last prewar days, richly detailed and colored by an exquisite foreboding.” In a number of instances, this keen visual sense helps to heighten the drama and translate implicit notions of Ballard’s source very effectively without having to resort to language.

Take for instance the scene where Jim (Christian Bale) is separated from his parents, during the attack on the Petrel (parallel with chapter 4). The panic-stricken crowd at Shanghai is so dense and chaotic that Jim and his mother quickly find themselves separated from Jim’s father, who is going on a different direction, warning him not to let go of her hand. They struggle to get to safety, but in a poignant moment, Jim is distracted by the Japanese fighters flying over his head. He stops to admire them and drops his silver toy plane, and at that point lets go of his mother to retrieve the toy: almost immediately he realizes he’s lost her. In the novel, Jim gets separated from his father after he has been taken to a hospital after the attack. Jim assumes he’s on another floor and never sees him again until the last chapter. Mainly through visuals, Spielberg manages to condense and intensify the sense that Jim is quite able to choose and pursue his own desires over what is responsible, even if he’s not completely aware of the consequences. It foreshadows the air raid on the camp, where he stands on the roof of a tall building, oblivious of the danger of doing so. It also makes explicit the notion that somehow Jim has chosen his individuality, even if that has forced him to abandon the security of his family. These are all ideas from Ballard’s novel, but that are compressed in this single sequence.

Spielberg’s understanding of the novel is clearly stated in the China Odyssey documentary on the making of the production: he believes “half of what happened, happened [in Ballard’s head]”. The middle portion of the film, parallel to part 2 of the novel, takes place in Lunghua Camp (Soochow in the film). Ballard’s narrative condenses all the action in a single day, beginning with Jim going under the wire (“The Pheasant Hunt”), getting food, doing homework, watching the air raid, burying the dead, and helping out Dr. Ransome (Rawlins in the film). Because they are condensed into a continuous action, these events seem to take place on a different level. The way one event leads to another is of an unnatural fluidity, as if this is Ballard’s artificial dramatization and selection of what would happen in a given day at Lunghua, rather than a faithful account. It suggests in a structural level that much of what happens is informed by Jim’s imagination.

This portion of the film is unfortunately its weakest, as it is greatly expanded, probably to give more screen time to many of the secondary characters, especially Basie (John Malkovich). The action, instead of being continuous and condensed, is put in a conventional narrative frame, losing perhaps too much of its force and rhythm. This is a concern also voiced by the film’s screenwriter, Tom Stoppard, who believed the camp scenes lacked the “compression” and “density” of the first hour, which he thought were “somewhere in the masterpiece class … The balance for me there just seemed to be perfect.” The notion that Jim’s imagination is in full gear, however, is maintained: during the air raid, Jim is on the roof of a tall building at Lunghua, observing with delight the American planes. As he identifies his favorite, a P-51 Mustang, everything stops. In slow motion, the fighter flies in front of him: Jim is ecstatic as the pilot looks directly at him and waves. It’s a powerful moment, and although it doesn’t happen quite like this in the novel, it translates well the concept that what we are seeing is not concrete reality, and that Jim finds liberation and mental nourishment in this hostile but fervent environment.

Ballardian: Empire of the Sun

    The ecstasy of the P-51: mental nourishment in Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun.

It is worth mentioning that the most Ballardian character in Spielberg’s entire body of work is Richard Dreyfuss’ Roy Neary from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). In this pivotal film, Spielberg shows a man obsessed with an image that he can’t quite articulate — it’s a vague feeling and is supposed to be a sign of a site (a peak in Wyoming) where aliens (who communicated the image) will be landing. One of the most memorable moments is when he builds a huge model of the peak inside his living room, his obsession making him oblivious to his wife and children — who end up abandoning him. In the end, he is chosen by the aliens to leave Earth and go up on their spaceship with them — Roy leaves his family and responsibilities behind to actively pursue his obsession and doesn’t look back. In the TCM documentary, though, Spielberg says he wouldn’t have this ending if he made the movie today, and that maybe his sensibility has changed since 77. Looking at his recent films it’s clear that for him, the importance of redemption by love, camaraderie, and especially the family unit is paramount. Empire of the Sun may be transitional in this shift in sensibilities, as its ending is untypical for Spielberg, although it softens the dread of Ballard’s vision.

Ballard’s last chapter is titled “The Terrible City.” Jim is leaving Shanghai, perhaps forever, and is already estranged from his family and his home. The chapter is about the future, but for Jim, the future is foreboding and perhaps even unimaginable. He has lost his innocence not at Lunghua, but in the seemingly endless last stages of the war (part 3 in the novel) where he couldn’t tell if it had ended or not, and all sense of security had been taken away from him, much more so than when the war began. In a sense it is at this point that the hard times begin: he’s reunited with his family and is safe from harm, yes, but spiritually, he’s dead:

He stepped on to the gangway, conscious that he was probably leaving Shanghai for the last time, setting out for a small, strange country on the other side of the world which he had never visited, but which was nominally “home”. Yet only part of his mind would leave Shanghai. The rest would remain there forever, returning on the tide like the coffins launched from the funeral piers at Nantao.

J.G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun.

The image of the coffins, symbolizing the part of his mind that is lost forever in Shanghai, is not only one of death, but an echo of the opening paragraph of the novel: “Wars came early to Shanghai, overtaking each other like the tides that raced up the Yangtze and returned to this gaudy city all the coffins cast adrift from the funeral piers of the Chinese Bund.” It suggests that while “dead”, his mind will be always coming back to this place, his memories haunting him. The last shot of the film is a fine visual equivalent of Ballard’s penultimate paragraph (quoted above), as we see Jim’s suitcase floating in the river in Shanghai (which he had thrown in the water during the march to Nantao stadium). We know that inside are Jim’s cherished cutouts of American magazines, the closest thing he has to memories, and aptly echoes the opening shot of a coffin floating in the same river. Ballard’s bookends are maintained, even if with a somewhat different flavor.

Ballardian: Empire of the Sun LEFT: Wishing he’d never left the camp… Christian Bale in Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun.

The final scene shows Jim’s parents looking for him among other children that supposedly were collected from other camps. Jim is aloof, not interested or it’s as if he has no hope of ever seeing his parents again. As his mother spots him, it takes Jim a moment or two to recognize her. They embrace, and the last we see of him are his tired eyes, closing finally in (a sort of) tranquility. There is a sense that he’ll never be the same again — but Spielberg refuses to look past this moment and consider any kind of closure for Jim other than rejoining his parents and recovering the security of the family unit. It’s ambiguous and circumspect, as if Spielberg didn’t want to commit to the bleakness of Ballard’s original vision or an all-out “happy” ending. It overstates the importance of family, as if what Jim had been through was only consequence of them being separated. It’s the death of childhood, whereas Spielberg’s earlier films were all about a rediscovery of childhood or its celebration, and he even acknowledged that Empire was the opposite of Peter Pan.

Unfortunately Empire is probably the most undervalued of Spielberg’s more serious outings, and it is by far his least successful film commercially. When it was released, it had to compete with the public’s attention with two other films about boys in WWII or Oriental backdrops: John Boorman’s Hope and Glory (about the London Blitz) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (which got the most attention). The general impression is that the film was panned by the critics, but it was nominated for six Oscars, and won the National Board of Review award for Best Picture, Best Direction and Best Juvenile Performance (Christian Bale’s acting is indeed astonishing). Perhaps most importantly, Ballard himself responded quite well to it. In a 2006 interview conducted by Travis Elborough (included in the Harper Perennial 2006 edition of Empire), he said:

I liked the film. I think it is a very impressive piece of work. I see it once every couple of years. … It seems to have got richer and more interesting as the years pass. I see it not as the film of my book but a film in its own right.

He further elaborated his feelings for the film in an excellent article for the Guardian, in which he shared his memories of the writing process and his reception to the film:

I was deeply moved by the film but, like every novelist, couldn’t help feeling that my memories had been hijacked by someone else’s. … Actors of another kind play out our memories, performing on a stage inside our heads whenever we think of childhood, our first day at school, courtship and marriage. The longer we live — and it’s now 60 years since I reluctantly walked out of Lunghua camp — the more our repertory company emerges from the shadows and moves to the front of the stage. Spielberg’s film seems more truthful as the years pass. Christian Bale and John Malkovich join hands by the footlights with my real parents and my younger self, with the Japanese soldiers and American pilots, as a boy runs forever across a peaceful lawn towards the coming war. But perhaps, in the end, it’s all only a movie.

Empire of the Sun being a novel that is a mixture of memories, facts, and imagination, represents Ballard’s attempt to come to terms with his wartime experience. The film adaptation is a reimagining of the same material by someone else, and it can’t possibly fulfill the same purpose for Ballard as the book does. But for everyone else, Spielberg’s film remains a powerful cinematic adaptation of Ballard’s work, unusually clever and subtle for a Hollywood production. It benefits greatly from repeated viewings, as previously unnoticed details suddenly throw new light on Spielberg’s treatment. Although some may feel it’s a little too saccharine or somewhat pasteurized for mass consumption, the film is never cheap and the emotions are all genuine, as great a film as could have been made in mainstream American cinema in 1987.


Pedro Groppo, 2007.



+ Ballard, J. G. Empire of the Sun. London: Harper Collins, 2006.
—. “Look Back at Empire.” The Guardian. March 2006.
+ Friedman, Lester B. Citizen Spielberg. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006.
+ Kolker, Robert. A Cinema of Loneliness. London: Oxford University Press, 2000.
+ Maslin, Janet. “Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun.” The New York Times.

+ McBride, Joseph. Steven Spielberg: A Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.



Shanghai Jim: Form Dictated by Time.

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10 Responses »

  1. Thanks Pedro for an excellent account of Spielberg’s Empire. I have to say I am not that keen on Spelberg’s movies, but he is master of the mise-en-scene and I love the big scenes in this film such as the air-raid and the early sequences you discuss. That is interesting about Lean. I always thought that Oliver Twist was (partly) a movie about WWII and displaced children. (Probably because I first saw it in the 50s with my father who had been a London evacuee.) So there is a nice pattern there. I will also look more sympathetically at Spielberg’s ending of Empire having read your comments!

  2. For me, sound design and music are major elements of the filmgoing experience. And unfortunately John Williams’ score completely undermines whatever point the visuals may have been striving for. His bombastic orchestration renders this film with the same generic, perceptual afterglow as any other Spielberg blockbuster.

    Any thoughts on that, Pedro?

  3. You have a point there, Simon. I don’t think Williams’ music completely undermines the visuals. There are sequences it works extremely well, I’d say. The main themes, present in “Cadillac in the Skies” and “Toy Planes, Home, and Hearth” (as on the CD) heighten the mood in an E.T. flying over the moon or the final scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind sort of way — it does add to the majestic feeling of spectacle in an old-fashioned way, seeing that Williams’ models himself after guys like Max Steiner and Alfred Newman.

    But it does come dangerously close to doing too much and telling us how to feel. There are even a couple of scenes that it can seriously get in the way – like the “Pheasant Hunt” sequence, full of clichéd “Asianesque” instruments or when Jim is being chased in Shanghai by the homeless boy. I think the music does betray in a way Spielberg’s uncertainty towards the material, and by choosing to do the music in the most conventional way possible, he does get rather generic, and brings the film down with it. It betrays the fact that deep down, Spielberg wants this film to please everybody. And that’s something he has always done. He is at his best when he does not pamper to our expectations and actually teaches us what to like. He did that brilliantly in Jaws and Close Encounters, not surprisingly two of John Williams’ most “experimental” scores.

    It’s rather an unfortunate choice. I think Spielberg has come to rely a bit too much on Williams. He does not even consider doing a movie with another composer, which is odd. (The Color Purple was scored by Quincy Jones but he was also the producer) It’s like he takes that aspect of the movie for granted even.

    David Cronenberg, on the other hand, always gets Howard Shore to score his movies, but not only is Shore much more versatile than Williams, he also knows he has to abandon a certain style of music making in order to accommodate a film — he even collaborated with Ornette Coleman in Naked Lunch. Spielberg and Williams are far from that, and would always rather play it safe.

  4. Funnily enough, for me ‘Pheasant Hunt’ is the most listenable piece — at least it’s somewhat abstract, a blank enough slate on which can be projected at least some semblance of psychological gravitas. The rest is purely Williams telling us how to feel.

    Imagine if Spielberg had continued to mine the Duel/Sugarland Express vein.

  5. […] of the Sun, which put Ballard firmly in the ‘general’ public arena, especially after the film arrived, his short stories seem to have been somewhat ignored. Plus, his actual output of short […]

  6. In some ways impressive but done in by sappy, over-stated climaxes
    –and a typically faceless and mawkish John Williams score. We sure
    missed David Lean, Alex North and Bernard Hermann on this one.

    BTW —made as a pean to all things Chinese and Asian at a time
    when Hollywood’s fanchise slum enabling of history’s –MOST–
    awesomely genocidal regime was well underway —and scarcely
    a year before the Tiennamen Massacre.

    Since, it’s come to light that that same regime( -which NOW underwrites
    our entire bankrupt economy )—exterminated 70 million of its people
    decades AFTER WWII –in ‘peacetime’.

    Hollywood, PC or otherwise, has yet to say anything about it
    —even as millions continue to suffer and die FOR REAL on this,
    the once again ‘mysteriously overlooked’ 60th Anniversary of
    the epically, staggeringly relevant —STILL unfolding —-KOREAN WAR…

    —Getting the picture?

    -Good- —now pass it on.


  7. Tiger, what does China now have anything to do with this movie set in WW2? Make sense at least. The movie does have some scenes where there’s some overacting, and a poor choice of music, but it’s an undeniably strong film, especially considering it’s told through Bale’s childlike point of view until the last 20 minutes or so.

    And Williams has done plenty of “experimenting” this past decade. It’s been his most varied work in years.

  8. I’m very late to this party but I have to comment, Pedro, on your post from October 1, 2007 about the music for “Empire of the Sun.” It’s incredible that you wrote such an observant and engaging analysis of the film but completely missed the boat on the John Williams score. You say the score was done in the “most conventional way possible” when it is quite possibly the most unconventionally approached score in the history of the movies. Notice how we don’t even hear any John Williams music for several minutes. Instead we get the Welsh lullaby and the Chopin piano music. Also notice that there are long stretches with no music at all. Therefore when music is used, it represents something. It’s not music that speeds up the action or makes things more dramatic. That’s conventional. What’s happening in this film is that the music is coming from Jim’s imagination and from inside the film, not outside like normal. It’s almost like when there’s no music we’re seeing what’s really happening but when music plays it’s how he is imagining it. I don’t think I’m expressing this very well but you should really look at it again with this in mind.

  9. What was the wonderful arc sculpture at the entrance to the stadium with of the stolen valuables? It’s towards the end of the film

  10. Hi,

    this is one of the longest & scantiest running discussions on the web methinks !

    I watched this film again with my 12 year old daughter last weekend and spent a fair amount of time researching the history of the Shanghai conflict.

    And yes Murray, what IS the wonderful sculpture at the entrance to the (alleged) Nantao Stadium ?

    Anybody know?

    Paul G.

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