“King Rat” was the first novel by James Clavell. It is set in the Changi Prison Camp in Singapore in WWII. The camp holds British, Canadians, Australians, and a few Americans. Clavell had been a prisoner in the camp and the Peter Marlowe character is based on him. The book was published in 1962. The movie was released in 1965 and was directed by Bryan Forbes. Forbes wrote the screenplay with Clavell. Earlier I reviewed the movie and now I am comparing the movie to the novel.
The movie is about survival in a Japanese prison camp. The main character is an American corporal named King (George Segal) who is not just surviving like most of the enlisted men, but is actually thriving because he is a talented black marketeer and amoral. He is well-dressed and well-fed and has a gang of Americans in his hut on his payroll. Everyone calls him “the King”. He also has bribed several of the camp leaders to look the other way. His nemesis is the Provost Marshall Lt. Grey (Tom Courtenay). Grey is a lower class Brit that is obsessed with catching King breaking the camp rules against profiting while others are suffering. The movie becomes something of a buddy film when King strikes up a relationship with an upper class RAF pilot named Marlowe (James Fox). Marlowe agrees to act as King’s interpreter in his deals with the guards since he speaks Malay. He is unlike King’s other toadies because he is not interested in the largesse that King shares with them. He is instead attracted to the charismatic King and intrigued by his “every man for himself” philosophy. The two develop a friendship as Marlowe is corrupted by the unadulterated American capitalism of King. King is intrigued by a man who is not interested in his money and has an upper class sheen to him. At one point he even saves Marlowe’s life, although it is unclear what his motives are. Meanwhile, Grey is in hot pursuit of both of them and the Japanese are hunting for clandestine radios. We also learn that while King uses his talents to his advantage, some of the British Majors and Colonels are using their status to their advantage.
The movie tracks the book very closely and much of the dialogue in the book appears in the film. All the characters in the movie appear in the book and the roles are untampered with. All of the major incidents in the movie are straight from the novel. Nothing significant was added in the movie. Naturally the novel has some subplots and characters that the movie does not include partly because of time constraints. For instance, the book has a subplot involving a friend of Marlowe’s named Sean who has found his calling as a transvestite actor in the camp plays. He comes to believe that he is a girl. (I wonder why that subplot was left out of the movie. lol) Also, in the book, King and Marlowe sneak out of the camp and visit a local village to conduct some business. There are even some women involved. (The movie does not have a single woman in it.)
The book differs from the movie mainly in depth. The movie confines itself mainly to the King character and Marlowe’s reactions to him. Although the movie delves into whether King has any redeeming virtues, he is more multi-dimensional in the book. The friendship is much more developed in the book. There is a strong bond between the two. In the book it is clearer that King saves Marlowe’s life because he cares for him. The book is also less enigmatic about the effects King has on Marlowe. There is a key passage in the book where Marlowe justifies to himself making a profit on a solo deal.
The novel spends more time highlighting the social distinctions within the camp in general and the British army in particular. Grey despises Marlowe because of who he is more than who he is associated with. He is embittered by England’s rigid class structure. The novel also has the luxury to spend more time focusing in on the corruption of the brass. It seems clear that Clavell knew someone like King when he was a prisoner. But it is also clear that he had some anger towards the upper officers. Both the movie and the book ask the question whether King or the brass were more evil. It could be argued that the hypocrisy of the camp leadership made them more loathsome. One thing you can say about King, he did not hide his avarice. Another aspect that the book pushes is the difference between American culture and British culture. Clavell’s King represents American capitalism at its worst. Or best. If you are a Republican, King is a hero.
My theory is that a movie should be better than the book it is based on. The movie makers have the advantage of making improvements on the source material. In this case, it is not clear that the movie is an improvement. What we have is the symbiotic relationship that can exist between a movie and its source material. The movie does not have the time or desire to cover all of the themes in the book. What the screenwriter retains is very close to the book and seeing a stellar cast bring life to the characters is neat. “King Rat” works best if you watch the movie first and not vice versa. The book fills in some of the gaps and explains little details that might go unnoticed in the film. For instance, you learn why the doctor seems too rude towards his aide.
In conclusion, in this case I will say that the book is superior to the movie. The reason for this opinion is you get the plot and characters from the movie plus more. More is usually better.
BOOK = B
MOVIE = B-