Lost Horizon

February 25th, 2003 § 10 comments

Last week, I reread Lost Horizon, by James Hilton, one of the classical Utopias described in literature and also one of the most known of them. In fact, the place in which the story takes place, Shangri-La, became, partly because of a homonymous movie directed by Frank Capra, a synonymous of Utopia itself.

For those who never heard about it, the book tells the adventures of a group of four persons (three English citizens and an American one) who, while escaping a revolt in Indian lands, found that they have been kidnapped for an unknown purpose, and that they are being taken to a similarly unknown place. The flight ends when the plane crashes in the high Tibetan plateaus. The pilot dies and the four companions are left stranded in the snow to hope for survival and a return to civilization. They start seeking shelter just to be greeted by a mysterious Mr. Chang who invites them to visit a “monastery” in the vicinity. Lacking options, they agree to follow him, and a few hours later are presented to the idyllic valley of Shangri-La where they will find themselves involved in equally mysterious secrets.

To avoid telling more about the plot, I will just say the story is much more about the loss of a Utopia and the human contradictions when searching for such a condition than the usual sermon about the benefits of this kind of society. Even so, the book follows the typical pattern of describing an unknown culture in which a character belonging to the latter explains to the outside characters his civilization in deliberate infodumps.

I liked the book as much as when I read it for the first time, although its weak points are rather evident. The most obvious relates to the characters that seem too superficial. Also, the interactions that take place in the book feel unnatural sometimes. Hilton better handles the main character, Hugh Conway, but by the end of the history Conway is as one-dimensional as the others. To Hilton’s credit, however, he marvelously constructs Shangri-La’s atmosphere.

I’m going into details about the philosophy present in the book because I think each reader should take his own conclusions about them. Merely as information, I reproduce what Chang says about it at a given point in the book: “We rule with moderate strictness, and in return we are satisfied with moderate obedience. And I think I can claim that our people are moderately sober, moderately chaste, and moderately honest.”

In short, although the book has some weaknesses, it makes for a pleasant reading, and Shangri-La will likely remain in the reader’s mind for a long time. As one of the classical Utopias, it’s also a required reading for any book lover.

§ 10 Responses to Lost Horizon"

  • Laurie says:

    Did Hilton write a follow up to Lost Horizon?

  • Ronaldo says:

    I don’t know if Hilton wrote any follow-up to Lost Horizon, but I don’t believe he did. At least he didn’t publish it if he wrote. I think Lost Horizon was intended to stand by itself, with an open ending. I know, however, that other authors wrote sequels and stories set in or related to Shangri-La. One such a book is Messenger, by Franco DeMarco. You may find more information about those books in Google or Amazon. I never read them so I don’t know if they are good.

  • Aida says:

    I was wondering if you have seen the film? If so what comparisons between the book and the film do you find significant?

  • Ronaldo says:

    No, I haven’t seen the movie, although I’ve heard of it. Depending on the book, I don’t like to see movie because of the differences in the story.

  • Brooke says:

    Hi I just read the book recently and i was wondering excalty how old was the chinese girl in the book?

  • Katalina says:

    I too read the book and found Conway’s character to be well written and continue to be strong until he falls at the end of the novel. It was quite dissapointing I must admit.

  • Stretcher says:

    Answer for Brooke… I just finished watching the movie, again, after 15 years absence. The second girl (they call her a Russian girl in the movie) came to Shangra-la in 1888, according to the story line.

  • HELEN McCARTHY says:


  • Jonathan Gayton says:

    I have read the book and seen the 1937 movie(I saw the film many years before reading the book), and I have to say that I think that the movie is a fairly close representation of the book with few deviations.In any case, the movie stands up itself as a fantastic piece of entertainment in it’s own right.It’s interesting to see a film made so long ago where they actually filmed many scenes outside; instead of on contrived, unconvincing sets inside a Hollywood studio.This is one reason why the film is so convincing! I haven’t seen the film for some years, but I ordered it on DVD over the internet yesterday. If you have read the book, take the opportunity to see the film – it really brings it to life!

  • Tony Stephens says:

    I’ve not read the book yet but judging your comments i’m looking forward to it.

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