Evan's Reviews > Lost Horizon

Lost Horizon by James Hilton
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May 23, 2009

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bookshelves: __in-my-collection, adventure-fiction, asia, philosophy, religion, 2016-reads
Read from November 23, 2011 to July 01, 2016

[To fully capture my moment of reading this book and re-watching Frank Capra's 1937 film version of Lost Horizon simultaneously, I've penned a mighty review of both that exceeds the Goodreads 20,000-character limit. To get around this, I have posted the rest in my personal writing section, where it fits snugly. It can be found: here. First part of the review starts here. Continuation link is below.]

In 1937, director Frank Capra made a masterful, heart-rending movie out of James Hilton's immensely popular 1933 Utopian novel, Lost Horizon. It is one of the perennial classics of Golden Age Hollywood, and the circumstances of its making -- and ironically, its partially "lost" state through the years due to several rounds of injudicious cutting -- have become as legendary as the film's stature.

I've now read Hilton's original novel, and re-watched Capra's movie after having not see it for many years, and I have to say, unequivocally, that the Hollywood director -- working from a brilliant script adaptation by the ingenious Robert Riskin -- wins the contest hands-down; the movie is a masterpiece, while the much more austere book is merely a good tale boosted by some choice philosophical musings, almost all of which make it into the film but in expertly compressed form.

In the book, Hilton leaves much to the imagination, which is fine, but Riskin and Capra took up the challenge of filling in gaps in the tale, adding and subtracting characters, fleshing out motivations and personalities and heightening the sense of scope, adventure and romance. The ideas are still there, but where Hilton only gives us the "head," the filmmakers give us heart as well. I am not the only one out there who prefers the film to the book. Google tells me this.

Nonetheless, it is very easy to see why the book was popular in the depths of the Great Depression. The book ponders the existence of an uncharted Utopia, Shangri-La, hidden away in an inaccessible valley in the Tibetan Himalayas; a place where the pace of life is slow, where warfare and strife and intolerance and hunger and the backstabbing ways of the outside world do not exist; where there is no want and no pressure to even succeed in any conventional way; where a benign religious order of monk-like ascetics lords it over a docile population of contented villagers; and where aging itself has been slowed, doubling the lifespan of its inhabitants.

The inherent take-away from this tale is that, of course, there is nothing about Shangri-La that doesn't already exist in the "normal" world -- if only we would put down our arms and open our hearts and use our resources wisely and treat each other preciously and tolerantly. The battle going on in our world today, as it has for so long, is between idealists striving for something like the Shangri-La vision in a collective context and those dedicated to the proposition that selfishness is the only way that individuals can achieve it. So far, as we tragically know, the world has only known warped versions of both these paradigms -- and the masses have never won in them.

The idea of the benevolent dictator was a powerful one in the 1930s, especially prior to the rise of the malevolent Hitler, and can still be seen today in the unquestioning trust some people have put in Donald Trump. In Lost Horizon, that overarching presence of authority takes the form of the High Lama, a remote inaccessible figure who seems to do nothing yet somehow maintains by his mere existence the balance and equilibrium of his society. President Franklin Roosevelt, to some degree, represented the Great White Father to Americans during the Depression, and the power he assumed was granted by fiat from a Depression-weary public. His looming place in the psyche could be seen in America's movies at the time, in the folksy benign strongman president in 1933's bizarre pseudo-messianic political fantasy, Gabriel in the White House, in the Lincoln-like populist leader hero of King Vidor's 1934 film Our Daily Bread, and even in the Great and Powerful Oz in the 1939 classic film of The Wizard of Oz. Like the great Oz, the High Lama sees nobody, he is remote and inaccessible, but is somehow assumed to be good. His high perch in his lamasery is as exalted as Oz's throne in the deep bowels of the Emerald City.

I note these points for context in trying to understand the public mind at the time of the publication of Lost Horizon. Today, we have to overcome no small amount of jadedness and incredulity to suspend disbelief about the particulars of this tale. When Lost Horizon was published, King Kong had just opened in theatres, and I could not help but immediately make the connection between the two. In 1933, it was still possible for audiences to believe that there were uncharted places on the map where secret civilizations remained hidden from the modern world. Skull Island in ...Kong ...somewhere west of Java -- somewhere ... and Shangri-La, somewhere in an uncharted Tibetan mountain range untraversed by white man (of course, a place does not exist unless traversed and mapped by white man; and Asia seemed to still represent "the other" for the convenience of these tales).

Well, by now, Whitey has had his run of the map, and if Shangri-La does exist it's somewhere deep down below the ground, and might remain there unless Whitey destroys it by fracking.

Before this review goes entirely off the rails and becomes the rambling socio-political essay that it partially already has, let's explore the book and film a bit...

The hero, in both the book and film version of Lost Horizon is a suave British diplomat in early middle age named Robert Conway. In the book, Conway's story -- at least as much of it as the narrator has been able to gather from various sources -- is one as enigmatic as the man himself. The unnamed narrator of the book, a neurologist and old college acquaintance of Conway's, learns from another old Oxford pal of Conway's (a novelist named Rutherford), of the apparent fanciful exploits of Conway, which Rutherford has written into book form. Conway, it seems, has surfaced after a mysterious adventure and suffered some anmesia in the course of events, but over time regains his memory and begins to relate a fantastic tale to Rutherford about his unwitting discovery (via his own kidnapping) of Shangri-La. Before Rutherford can get more of the tale from Conway, the adventurer disappears again, leading his old pals to speculate later in the book if Conway ever managed to again find Shangri-La. At this point, I wondered if Rutherford, being a novelist, was merely an unreliable narrator, taking a tale and scribing it into his own fiction. Hilton does not answer this, and probably by the vagueness he imparts in much of the book meant the reader to ponder such speculations about the reality of Shangri-La and about the mere philosophical concept of it.

The neurologist narrator, Rutherford and another college pal, Wyland, are entirely absent in the film version. Riskin and Capra go at the tale directly, jettisoning the omniscent narrator/flashback devices of the book, apart from a lovely scene contrived for the end of the film. There is a possibility that some of these scene devices were in the original 3.5-hour cut of the film that bombed in a test screening. Whatever dragged down the narrative to engender such audience enmity we may never know; Capra claims to have thrown the first two reels of the film in a furnace and re-cut the movie for pacing. (Like many Capra stories, the likelihood of this being entirely true is doubtful. Throwing reels of flammable nitrate film into a furnace would have caused an explosion that would have killed him).

The differences between the Robert Conway of the book and film are notable ones. In the book, Conway's reputation seems to be largely that of a rakish charmer, a low-ranking member of the diplomatic corps whose lack of ambition and unfulfilled possibilities within the service of the Empire seems part of his notoriety. In the film, Conway is presented as a famed world adventurer, and well-known diplomat, whose loss in the film is seen as so grievous as to alarm the prime minister at 10 Downing Street. It leads to one of those classic scenes of Capraesque hubbub in which frenzied phone calls and telegraph transmissions pass in a skillfully edited flurry across the screen as the leaders call for action.

Troubling world events inform both book and film versions of the story. World War I is clearly an impetus for the story and for the character of Conway. Like the shell-shocked pilot, Larry Darrell, in Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge, Conway defines himself and his attitude by his experience in war. Conway is part of the Lost Generation, and like the characters in Maugham and in Hemingway, he seems to be eternally searching the world for his place, his truth, his happiness, and his authentic existence. In a conversation with the High Lama, Conway describes himself pithily: "[I am] 1914-1918."

Conway seems to suggest that cheating death in war seems to trump all motivations to do the system's bidding as a way toward self identity, worth and success, The resultant attitude in Conway, the High Lama notes, marks him as not quite a cynic, not inordinately bitter, but partly disillusioned -- as well as very self aware, uncommonly so. These are poor traits for those expected to build families, companies and nations, so goes the wisdom. Conway has the temerity to think and question -- always disconcerting and sometimes debilitating activities.

The pressures of Conway's diplomatic station have afforded him admirable small and large pleasures, he notes, and even some occasional notoriety, but he remains dogged by an internal guilt: that is, his failure to achieve either greatness or authenticity. And, as I understand the internal psyche of Conway, achieving some kind of greatness does not necessarily equate to authenticity, whereas authenticity may, in fact, be his definition of greatness. This is actually a message that I like, if, in fact that is what Conway represents. As Conway says in the book, "It always seemed to me in my profession that a good deal of what passed for success would be rather disagreeable, apart from needing more effort that I felt called upon to make."

In one of the conversations between the High Lama and Conway, in fact, the very concept of the "slacker" is brought up, and the Lama seems OK with the notion. Such notions, as well as the book's sympathetic views toward pacifism and utopianism, have actually earned it criticism, not surprisingly, from Right-Wingers through the years. There actually were those who blamed this book for planting weak notions in political leaders and the elite class, resulting in the geopolitical "loss" of China and Vietnam to the communists. Seriously, I have read this.

Some of these anti-war and anti-duty sentiments are in the movie, but barely, and when the film was re-released for theatrical showing during World War II, these bits of dialogue were cut so as not to demoralize a nation gearing up to fight.

Inexorably woven into the notion of what values are most important in life, the book explores the notion of the fleetingness of life and the value of precious time. If life is not ideal, the book says, we make it less so by how much time we lose in living it inauthentically. The notion of extending time is both a literal and metaphorical concept in the book. If Shangri-La existed in the world at large, the notion of slowing aging would seem less necessary, since people would have more time to pursue their passions unimpeded by the imperatives and pressures of the system.

This quote, possibly the best one in the book, is spoken by the High Lama in conversation with Conway: "You are still, I should say, a youngish man by the world's standards; your life, as people say, lies ahead of you; in the normal course you might expect twenty or thirty years of only slightly diminishing activity. By no means a cheerless prospect, and I can hardly expect you to see it as I do--as a slender, breathless, and far too frantic interlude.The first quarter-century of your life was doubtless lived under the cloud of being too young for things, while the last quarter-century would normally be shadowed by the still darker cloud of being too old for them; and between those two clouds, what small and narrow sunlight illumines a human lifetime!”

That is followed by this: "And most precious of all--you will have Time--that rare and lovely gift that your Western countries have lost the more they have pursued it."

These passages in which Conway and the High Lama converse on philosophical issues are the highlights of the book, and, it seems that Hilton has constructed a somewhat austere and uneventful tale around them just to get to them. The movie captures the essence of these conversations, repeating some of them verbatim or in beautifully compressed form as scribed by screenwriter Riskin. The film also fleshes out and humanizes Shangri-La in ways that Hilton seemed reluctant to do. There are arguments to made for the more or less literal approaches.

A bit about the movie, and changes from the book

Jane Wyatt (as Sondra) gives Ronald Colman (as Conway) the look we men like to see in our woman's face at that key moment of rapture. Both are worked up and sweaty after having ridden horses in a romantic chase. They have just kissed, and are about to kiss again. They are in Shangri-La, but this is the Shangri-La in microcosm that we cherish no matter where it is. None of this is in Hilton's novel; it is entirely contrived by Riskin and Capra for the film.

James Hilton was on a roll in Hollywood during this period. At least two of this other books of the time, Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Random Harvest, were also made into splendid classic films.

Lost Horizon was in some sense an odd choice as a property for Columbia Studios at the time. Only a few short years before, the studio was considered just a cheapjack Poverty Row Hollywood laughingstock. Its head, Harry Cohn, was the biggest tightwad in the business, and until his ace in the hole, Frank Capra, started winning the studio a shit-ton of Academy Awards in the mid-'30s, its films were forgettable low-budget programmers.

Lost Horizon was to become Columbia Studios' first super-production. Capra loved the novel and thought its utopian populism fit perfectly with the themes of his previous movies, in which the everyman triumphs over the unjust system. Having won so much prestige for the studio, Cohn assented to Capra's demand to make the film and offered the director a $1.5 million budget, an amount that must have pained the mogul. Still, Capra knew that wasn't going to be enough. The budget was upped to $2 million. After all was said and done, it ballooned to nearly $3 million. And these were in Depression-era dollars. One buck was a lot of money then.

At a studio like MGM, $3 million was an easily digestible expense. That studio could toss off a half dozen expensive prestige epics a year, and did -- and made money at it. For Columbia, though, this was an astronomical sum, and meant a real risk.

The film's first preview threw the studio into a quiet panic. It was a disaster. The audience laughed at scenes that were not meant to be funny. Capra was so spooked, he left the theater while the movie was still in progress and walked the streets and hung out at a coffee shop.

Harry Cohn, allegedly, reassured Capra, who responded by cutting at least 20 minutes from the film, supposedly destroying the first two reels. As the movie stands now, it begins with the action-packed evacuation of Anglos from revolution-racked Baskul in China, a scene that also occurs early in the book.

Lost Horizon was a popular release but it took the studio five years to recoup its cost. It soon became a classic but various cuts through the years shaved it down to a shadow of its former self. At one point, the movie was a slender 92 minutes long compared to its original pre-release cut length of 210 minutes. After much effort, the movie was restored in the 1970s to a 132-minute length that got close to its first theatrical length. Only seven minutes are missing. The current releases supplement the lost passages with still photos from the production and -- miraculously -- the original soundtrack elements which all completely survived.

The expenditures on Lost Horizon can be seen on the screen. It's all there and it's beautiful: the sweeping mountain vistas, the large sets of the lamasery and the village, the airplane wreckage scenes that were filmed in a large refrigerated warehouse in L.A. at great cost, partly because Capra wanted the realism of seeing the actors' breath in the cold (a bit of visual veritas often overlooked in most movies of the period).

While Capra reaped much of the glory for the film, it was his eight-film collaborator, the screenwriter Robert Riskin (an Oscar winner and Writer's Guild lifetime achievement inductee) who deftly turned Hilton's book into a superb movie narrative.

Two performances in the film stand out. Ronald Colman was born to play Robert Conway. There is no possible better bit of casting. H.B. Warner as Chang the guide of Shangri-La might seem to be another unfortunate instance of a white guy playing an Asian part, but his physical "Asianess" is not emphasized and he plays the role with fetching gentility and authority. It's a lovely performance that earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination from the Academy, and rightly so.

The most significant changes that occur from the novel to the screen version involve the characters. I suspect it was these changes, and the resulting new plot tangents and relationships they entail, that most irritated Hilton. Based on what I've read, the author was bemused and resigned to the changes, understanding Hollywood's needs to entertain, but the air of condescension is detectable in his response. I wonder if, to some degree, there was a bit of jealousy in his true feelings. This is entirely speculation on my part.

What Hilton sought in his tale was something that imparted the feeling of a fragile vase, a whiff of lilacs, or -- in the case of the one "desired" woman in his tale -- the beauty of undebauched womanhood. He wanted a book of ideas that would not succumb to the conventional passions, because Shangri-La to some degree smacks of a religious ideal, a hybrid between Jesuit Catholicism and Zen Buddhism, where an ideal state of mind can be achieved through restraint.

Conway meets the High Lama

Riskin and Capra decided that those things were OK within context, but would not make for a very dramatically interesting movie. Based on their results, I think they were correct.

In the book, Conway and a very small crew find themselves kidnapped and whisked away by plane to a mysterious mountainous destination. Once there, the main conflict involves those who decide to stay in paradise and those who want to risk the perils of escape. Over time, as the advantages of Shangri-La begin to convert even the most reluctant members of the party, the central conflict shifts to Conway and his aid, Mallinson, who opposes what he sees as nothing but indolent decadence in the Shangri-La way of life.
[Review continues in complete form: here .

(kr@Ky '16)
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Reading Progress

11/23/2011 page 10
10/15/2013 marked as: to-read
06/29/2016 marked as: currently-reading
06/29/2016 page 20
10.0% "This edition was published by Reader's Digest Assn., but is the full text, not abridged."
06/29/2016 page 50
26.0% "Not even to Shangri-La yet. Capra was right to chop all this down."
06/30/2016 page 88
46.0% "I can see the power this tale would have had during the Depression, but it seems a bit thin now. I say this as a huge fan of Capra's movie. Reading on."
06/30/2016 page 121
63.0% "This is a good point in the story to begin re-watching Capra's 1937 movie for comparison. Already I can see many differences. I prefer Capra's depiction of the airplane journey. He even makes a plane refueling stop viscerally exciting."
07/01/2016 page 191
100.0% "Considerable differences between the book and film I have to think about; and, honestly, I think I prefer the film in this case."
07/01/2016 marked as: read
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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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message 1: by Emilyjungian (new)

Emilyjungian Woah, duder. I know what my next book report is going to be on...cuz I'ma just gonna steal this shit straight up. ;D

Evan Have at it. If you get an A, though, you have to send me a bottle of something. Not soda.

message 3: by Emilyjungian (new)

Emilyjungian Parfum en route.

Evan I don't want perfume -- in glass.

message 5: by Emilyjungian (new)

Emilyjungian Hmm, clever, Mr. Suavecito. :)

Steve Excellent review (or essay) Evan.

Evan Thanks, Steve. Eyes collectively glazed over when I posted this. I was starting to think it would serve the singular purpose of satisfying my own archival gratification.

Steve wrote: "Excellent review (or essay) Evan."

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