And, once again, Steven Spielberg blows it. Based on a novel by J.G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun shows China during World War II from the perspective of an adolescent—by which I mean Jim, the young protagonist of the film, although Spielberg’s outlook is scarcely more mature than the boy’s.
Ballard’s novel is a fascinating piece of work: a thinly fictionalized analysis of the author’s actual childhood experiences, it uses a detached third-person narrative voice to describe the often horrific experiences of Jim as he loses his parents in the chaos of the Japanese attack on Shanghai and spends the bulk of the war in prison camps. It’s a harrowing story, and one made all the more powerful by Ballard’s clear-eyed depiction of it. There are plenty of obviously maudlin notes that could be played in the story of a child enduring such suffering, but Ballard never stoops to that level.
Ah, but that’s precisely the sort of song Spielberg likes to sing. Where Ballard refuses to tell his audience what to feel or think, Spielberg is all too happy to jump into the breach and lead us along to all of the facile sentiment that lays buried in the novel. The score by John Williams is particularly oppressive in this regard, and it fairly molests the audience—the swelling strings and angelic choir paw viewers in advance of every predictable grab for the heartstrings. If you treat the score as an alarm and fast-forward whenever it kicks in, you might actually have a more enjoyable experience of the film than I did. At the very least, you won’t feel so cheap and used.
Spielberg is actually reasonably faithful to Ballard’s basic story, although many details are altered, sometimes with little obvious justification. Character names, for example, are changed seemingly at random, with Ransome and Vincent in the novel becoming Rawlins and Victor in the film (I hate to quibble over small things, but the fact that someone felt such innocuous details needed to be changed in the first place makes me wonder if some studio head or marketing flunky felt audiences would be more sympathetic to someone named Mrs. Victor instead of Mrs. Vincent. Given the film’s many pandering moments, it only makes sense that the filmmakers’ condescension towards their audience would extend towards the choice of character names).
But the film’s main sin in alteration lies in showing Jim’s reunion with his parents, which the novel smartly avoids. The moment is too overloaded with emotion for Ballard’s restrained rendition of his story, and he actually pushes Jim’s parents into the background after the war in order to suggest the great distance between Jim and his childhood after his wartime experiences. “For all their affection for him,” Ballard writes, “they seemed older and far away.” The loss of childhood is depicted ambiguously in the novel, as Ballard surely knows we all grow up sometime, albeit rarely in such dire situations as he experienced.
But in Spielberg’s world, the threatened loss of childhood is merely a bit of dramatic conflict to set up a joyful third-act resolution, and the ending is a retreat from the darkness of the story—a retreat that applies on both a personal and a political level. In a telling departure from the novel, the word “Communist” is never uttered once during the film. The civil war between the Kuomintang and the Communists that arose from the ashes of WWII in China is completely cut out of Spielberg’s version of the story. Instead, we are left with Jim safe and secure in his mother's arms as he returns to a childhood innocence thought lost, while the film cheerfully embraces its own holiday from history.