How 'Shōgun' Adapted James Clavell's Novel for a Modern Audience

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How 'Shōgun' Adapted James Clavell's NovelKatie Yu/FX
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When FX sent Shōgun by James Clavell to Justin Marks and Rachel Kondo, it was not a book the husband and wife creative team had read before—but it was one they were very aware of. "We came to it as the book that was on everyone's parents' nightstand growing up," Marks jokes.

The task of adapting the story for television (it had previously been adapted as a miniseries back in 1980, starring Richard Chamberlain, Toshiro Mifune, and Yoko Shimada) was not something that initially interested Marks and Kondo. "It had a huge impact on the culture," Marks tells T&C, "and because of that, I think it cast a very big silhouette."

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Anna Sawai, right, as Mariko. Katie Yu/FX

That silhouette, for him, made him wary to tackle Shōgunfirst and foremost because he is a white man. "I remember looking at that book from a modern lens, [and] I was a little conflicted by it. There's the representational side of this, where you have a gentleman who looks like me, wearing clothes that belong to a culture that's not his own. That, I was troubled by."

Marks continues that his second hesitation was rooted in how often the "stranger in a strange land" story has been told in the decades since Clavell published Shōgun. "The side that I could really approach it from, as someone who looks like me, was to look at it from the creative place—where I just frankly had seen that story before a thousand times," he says. The impact of this book is so great that there have been so many movies, so many television shows that have ripped off from it over the years. As writers, we like to say we're always in search of new clichés and I don't know where to find new cliches in that [story]. And so we were really worried going in: Is there really anything new to say?"

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But then Marks and Kondo read the book—eight hours a day, for three weeks.

"It's a big book, and what you find is all the answers are actually right there. In spite of the things that have parroted it over the years, this book has a lot to say through a modern lens. This book is an amazing story of how we encounter other cultures, how we otherize other cultures, and how we encounter ourselves when we do that," he says.

While reading it, Marks found that the "stranger in a strange land" narrative—of English sailor John Blackthorne washing up on the shores of Japan—didn't come through. "That savior narrative that we all assume belongs to Shōgun, it's actually quite the opposite when you read the text," he says.

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Cosmo Jarvis as John Blackthorne, who is no longer the "hero" of the story.Katie Yu/FX

The new direction for Marks and Kondo's adaptation actually comes straight from Clavell's original story. Instead of a white savior narrative, the series explores what it's like to "show up with all the bluster and all the, 'here I am ready to bring my culture's technology and all this stuff to another culture," and then find that they're generally indifferent to it, because they're doing just fine. It's great and unexpected. So we wanted to use that."

Blackthorne no longer became the only main character—instead, he's one of three leads, alongside Toda Mariko (Anna Sawai), a noblewoman, and Lord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada). What results is an adaptation that's true to the original book—but one rooted in authenticity, and deep care for the Japanese point of view.

The first two episodes of Shōgun are now streaming on Hulu, with new episodes dropping weekly. Watch now

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