The History of FX’s Shōgun and the Many Adaptations of James Clavell’s Epic Book

The History of FX’s Shōgun and the Many Adaptations of James Clavell’s Epic Book

preview for 'Shōgun' | Tráiler oficial

“IT’S ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE” not to continue to read “Shogun” once having opened it,” said New York Times book reviewer Webster Schott upon the novel’s release in 1975. “Yet it’s not only something that you read—you live it.” Since the release of James Clavell’s groundbreaking novel, Shōgun has captured the world’s imagination as a totemic work of historical fiction. Legend has it that Clavell drew inspiration for the story based on a line from a school textbook used by his daughter, stating, “In 1600, an Englishman went to Japan and became a samurai.”

Blackstone Publishing Shōgun, Part One (The Asian Saga)

Shōgun, Part One (The Asian Saga)

Blackstone Publishing Shōgun, Part One (The Asian Saga)

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In addition to becoming a massive success with over six million copies sold by 1980 across 14 hardcovers and 38 paperback printings, the novel helped drive, foster, and cultivate a deeper understanding of Feudal Japan. In fact, writer Henry Smith, who served as the editor for the book Learning from Shōgun, estimated that “Shōgun has probably conveyed more information about Japan to more people than all the combined writings of scholars, journalists, and novelists since the Pacific War.”

With such a massive impact, Shōgun is now poised to capture another generation’s attention. Arriving on FX, the network’s prestige limited series adaptation is just one of many different kinds of re-imaginings of Clavell’s masterwork dating back to the immediate release of the original novel. A splash series that’s arriving with substantial (and warranted!) critical acclaim, the series will likely be this spring’s big breakout hit. But what of Shōgun stories past? Here’s everything you need to know about prior versions of the story that’s captured the hearts and minds of readers for generations.

Watch FX’s Shōgun Here

Adaptations of Shōgun Past

shogun poster

NBC Universal

Not only after the release of the novel, it’s said that Clavell tapped screenwriter Robert Bolt of Lawrence of Arabia (!) to pen a theatrical version that would have featured Richard Attenborough directing and Sean Connery as the lead—but it eventually fell apart as some Hollywood projects do. Instead, Shōgun found a new life as a made-for-television mini-series after Roots landed to much acclaim. This version, helmed by stalwart television creatives Eric Bercovici and Jerry London, featured Richard Chamberlain, Yoko Shimada, John Rhys-Davies, and the legendary Toshiro Mifune, the frequent collaborator of Akira Kurosawa. The nine-hour mini-series was filmed entirely in Japan on-location with some additional soundstage production at Toho (yes, the home of Godzilla), broadcast on NBC, and received an Emmy for Outstanding Limited Series, a Peabody Award, and a Golden Globe for Best Television Series, Drama.

Buy Shōgun (1980) Here

Not long after the initial television series, Shōgun took to the Broadway stage for a musical adaptation that included two Tony Award nominations—one for Best Actress and another for Best Costume Design. The initial version debuted at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, in 1990, rivaling that of The Phantom of the Opera or Les Misérables in scope, scale, and production. Despite the accolades, audiences largely found it too dense for it to become a massive hit.

FX CEO John Landgraf announced this newest adaptation at the Television Critics Association’s Summer Press Tour in 2018. The original report stated that despite having the green light on the series, it took FX “more than seven months” to figure out its logistics. A further delay in filming took place in 2019 after FX felt that the existing project wasn’t “in good enough shape” to move forward with, despite the fact Landgraf stressed that the new version would expand the aperture of the series by including more of a dedicated Japanese point of view. Right before the pandemic in 2020, star Hiroyuki Sanada did a brief day of filming to ensure FX could keep the rights as they reworked under the guidance of writer and producing duo Justin Marks & Rachel Kondo. The series was finally shot in September 2021 and wrapped at the end of June 2022, making for quite an extensive production.

Critically, Marks stated he initially felt the work had too many derived works—Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai, while not a one-to-one adaptation, certainly draws inspiration from Shōgun—before Kondo picked up the book and became drawn to the project with an eye to real authenticity, noting that in doing so, it “made the storytelling better.” Now, with Shōgun hailed as “The Most Transportive TV Epic Since ‘Game of Thrones,’” it seems like the long road to making it was well worth it.

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William Goodman

William Goodman is a freelancer writer, focused on all things pop culture, tech, gadgets, and style. He’s based in Washington, DC and his work can also be found at Robb Report, Complex, and GQ. He’s yet to meet a jacket or cardigan he didn’t love. In his free time, he’s probably on Twitter (@goodmanw) or at the movies.

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