This interview appeared in the Chicago Tribune on 21 December 1987, although it seems to have originated from the Los Angeles Daily News:
"Empire of the Sun" shines in Ballard's eyes
by John H. Richardson
Los Angeles - For many years, J.G. Ballard avoided writing about his horrifying experiences in a Japanese prison camp during World War II. Instead he wrote much-admired science-fiction novels such as "The Drowned World."
"I waited 40 years (to write 'Empire of the Sun')," he said. "Maybe I needed to wait that long; it took me 20 years to forget, and 20 years to remember it all again."
Several days ago he saw Steven Spielberg's movie of his childhood for the first time.
"It was very strange," he said the next morning. "At times I felt powerfully moved. For someone who wasn't even born at the time (meaning Spielberg), it was a marvelous re-creation."
In the movie, Ballard saw the house very like the house he lived in, a car like the elegant Packard his parents owned. He also saw himself scrambling in starvation for potatoes, risking his life to catch a pheasant.
"I must say I shed a few tears," he said.
Oddly, Ballard wasn't moved to tears by "the obvious points when Jim was in deadly peril." Instead he wept when he saw his fictive alter ego, Jim, jump with excitement when American Mustang planes flew over the camp and at the moment when Jim says he can't remember his parents' faces - odd because this was one of the few real "fictions" in his novel. Ballard wasn't separated from his parents in real life, as Jim is in the book and movie.
"It was curious. It moved me tremendously, even though my parents were in the camp. It captured the feeling of estrangement I had."
Ballard, now 57, was born and brought up in Shanghai. The son of a British businessman, he lived in an elegant home, waited on by servants. Beyond the high walls of his home was the "menacing" tumult of Asia.
That tumult intruded on his placid life soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. In the film we see Jim being torn from his parents in the frenzied crowd fleeing from Japanese tanks.
He changed that one major detail because the fictional separation was "psychologically truer to my experience," he said.
"In the camp I was alone, running wild. Parents in the camp had no traditional levers - no pocket money to give, no food."
Again, Ballard used the word "estrangement." One of the shocking things about the movie and book is how little adults care about the children interned in the prison camp with them. "There's a lot of truth to that. It's shocking, but true to life."
Aside from that detail and a few others - telescoping several American merchant sailors into the character of Basie, for example - the book is relatively free of his trademark fantastic style.
"This wasn't a subject for fantasy," he said. "It was too extraordinary and bizarre. I didn't need to fantasticate it further."
One reason for that, Ballard said, is because he wrote the book to "demythologize" the supposedly noble ways that people behave in war.
"I don't want to sound pompous about this, but I set up to debunk an awful lot of clichés that spring up about human behavior in a war. Most people don't behave heroically. The opportunities for heroism don't exist.
"Take 2,000 people from Los Angeles and starve them for three years, and how would you expect them to behave? A few do heroic things; there are a few malingerers, but most people sink into a torpor."
One of the people damaged by the war is Jim, more so in the book than in the movie.
"Physically I recovered," Ballard said. "But one is shaped by those sorts of experiences mentally, not in a good way. That sort of experience can be corrupting. I hate to admit it, but I don't think suffering makes people nobler.
"It's dangerous to expose children to too much violence," he said. "In a curious way they get a taste for it. I don't mean they enjoy it, but you're living in a world where the only thing you can respond to is the extreme. Part of the message of the book is, the boy survives but pays a terrible price."
Ballard said he believed that it is particularly important now to "demythologize" war, and that is why movies such as "Empire of the Sun," "Hope and Glory" (about the bombing of Britain) and so many Vietnam movies are coming out these days.
"The whole mythology of heroism could demand a terrible price from the next generation," he said. "We can't send another generation off singing 'Land of Hope and Glory' with nuclear shells coming down."
From the beginning, Ballard had no doubts about Spielberg's abilities to bring "Empire of the Sun" to the screen.
"I had complete confidence in Spielberg," he said. "Listening to him talk, his commitment to all the more serious elements in my book, it seemed right from the start."
Spielberg is a "lucid, highly intelligent and articulate man," he said.
His reactions to the producers and others connected with the production were the same.
"It was a complete reversal of all the stereotypes that writers have about Hollywood. They were all extremely serious-minded. I was absolutely happy to leave it in their hands. When I go to a restaurant I don't tell the chef how to grill the trout."
Ballard was also happy "knowing that [Spielberg] had this unparalleled gift for handling children. That was very important. To see the world through the eyes of a 13-year-old boy - that is something that Spielberg is a master at."