Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun is often touted as a kind of coming of age story, or in Spielberg’s own words, a story about “the loss of innocence.” For the J.G. Ballard’s award-winning novel on which the film was based, such a reading seems justified. But Spielberg’s adaptation of the novel strives to be much more than that—and where it succeeds, it succeeds spectacularly. The difference between the novel and the film is simply Spielberg himself, which is of greater artistic consequence than might appear. The plot of the novel is straightforward: 11-year-old British boy Jamie Graham—supremely sheltered and privileged (“luxuriate” is a part of Jamie’s spontaneous working vocabulary)—is living in Shanghai in 1941, the year that the Japanese take over the settlement following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. During the course of the invasion, he is separated from his parents, and in a series of traumatic encounters in a concentration camp and during liberation, Jamie all-too-early grows up and adapts to the brute facts of war, and of life.
The film remains entirely faithful to this central thrust of the novel. There is, however, a crucial difference between the two. Whereas the novel indeed follows a relatively simple loss-of-innocence theme, Spielberg’s characteristic direction style introduces an enthralling new dynamic: that between fantasy and reality. In the novel, Jamie adapts to war life largely organically; the film, however, is an onslaught of psychological defenses and escapes into fantasy by Jamie in response to what would appear to us as an intolerably brutal reality. In the novel, the adult characters express a concern that Jamie doesn’t want the war to end, but in the film, Jamie is unmistakably hopeful for the war to end.
Jamie (a 13-year-old Christian Bale) is present in every scene in the entire movie, and the film is presented almost entirely from Jamie’s childlike perspective: a perspective that reshapes the meaning of otherwise devastating events and makes them conform them to an innocuous, childlike understanding. Jamie believes that the Japanese battleship opened fire on the hotel because of the light signals that he playfully sent it; Jamie, as a result, believes that he started the war. In a scene belonging more to a The Three Stooges episode than a war movie, we see Jamie comically slap a Japanese soldier in the face—as if we are not in the real world, where this would have caused Jamie serious problems. During a dramatic attack on the concentration camp by Japanese warplanes, we see three phases of Jamie’s reaction: first, we join Jamie in celebrating the surreal (and inappropriate) beauty of the action, with dream-like action sequences and musical score; then, after confronted by his doctor-friend for not recognizing the terrible danger, we see Jamie continue to evade reality by manically discussing a range of unrelated issues about the ownership of the runway; last, we see Jamie finally break down in the face of the doctor’s rebukes and attains a glance at the tragedy of his situation while still not entirely comprehending it, and it is finally revealed to us just how protected yet fragile (and disintegrating) Jamie’s view of the world is. Twice when confronted with the dying, Jamie recuperates from the event by imagining in himself omnipotent powers of resurrecting the dead. The second time, Basie tries to pull Jamie back from his fantasy, back to reality, and is hated as much as the reality that Jamie unsuccessfully tries to avoid. Finally, we are left with the intractable problem of how to distinguish between Jamie and Spielberg’s perspectives: are we seeing things from Spielberg’s overblown, rapid-fire vision of the story, or are we seeing the story from the point of view of Jamie’s overactive, compensatory mind. During an interview in 1987, the young Christian Bale is asked how it was like to work with Steven Spielberg, to which Bale responded, “He’s like another kid.” The oft-praised musical score of John Williams is stands out in this film for the eerie way that it redefines the meaning of the scenes into something ghostly and fantastical: something alien from accepted, adult reality. All this and more lends the film a comical, almost absurdist feel. Are we not watching a film more about the Empire of the Son than the Empire of the Sun?
From one point of view, this tendency of Spielberg’s direction makes the film endearing, and from another, obnoxious. But if we realize that the film’s naïveté may also be a symptom of insurmountable tragedy—a tragedy that surpasses direct expression—we see real artistry in Empire of the Sun. The strength of the film is also its weakness. We might ask of Empire of the Sun, as some viewers ask of Spielberg’s films: can’t you simply give us reality, unadorned by all these ploys to comfort us? In Empire, however, can we not also see Jamie’s childishness as revealing a truth about our own sense of “reality”—as when Jamie breaks down national distinctions between Japanese, British, and Americans in singing Welsh anthem at the end of a Japanese ceremony celebrating an impending kamikaze attack? Although we often take for granted our “unadorned” adult view of the world as the correct or real one, Spielberg’s regression into childhood perspectives—comforting they may be—actually seems to uncannily call into question certain assumptions of our so-called “serious” “real world.” Apart from ending only by posing this question, the only other problem I have with Spielberg’s film, which is also a source of fascination, is that I’m not sure how much of all this is intentional. However, the possibility that Spielberg may not be conscious of the effect of his personality on his film may well be the source of Spielberg’s artistic power and financial success. Coming from the heart for Spielberg, it comes naturally.