Friday, June 23, 2017

FFB: Lost Horizon -- James Hilton

I'd never read Lost Horizon or seen any of the movies based on it, but when I read Michael Dirda's comments on the book in the Wall Street Journal, I figured it was time I did.  The essay is behind a paywall, but here's how it begins:  "Now and again, a novel seems to achieve a kind of perfection, a faultless balance in its tone, structure and style. Think of Ford Madox Ford’s 'The Good Soldier,' F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 'The Great Gatsby,' Vladimir Nabokov’s 'Lolita.' It may seem sacrilege, but I would add to any such list of 20th-century masterpieces James Hilton’s "'Lost Horizon.'”  I think you'll agree that he puts the novel into some pretty heady company, so I checked my local library's holdings, and was a little surprised to find that they had a copy.  It hadn't been weeded from the shelves, although it's been there so long that it has a cardholder pasted in front.

The problem with reading a book like this when you're my age is that even if you've never read it before or seen the movies, you know what it's about.  You've heard of it all your life because it was so famous at one time, even though it wasn't a success on its original publication.  There's not likely to be a lot of suspense involved in the reading.  

It also turns out that almost nothing happens in the novel.  There's a prologue that is mostly a conversation between three old school chums, followed by an airplane hijacking.  What follows after the plane sets down and the four passengers are rescued is mostly a series of conversations and ruminations.  That didn't matter to me, however, because there are secrets and a well-developed plot, the conversations and ruminations were interesting, and the idea of Shangri-La is as appealing as ever to me, although not to one of the characters in the novel.  

To me, that was the weakest part of the book, not that that the character didn't like the idea of Shangri-La but that the protagonist, Conway, has such an affection for a querulous and complaining young man.  There's nothing in the book to make him attractive in the least (or not to me, anyway). Aside from that, this short novel kept me entertained all the way.  I'm glad I finally got around to reading it.

[SPOILER ALERT]:  What's the secret of Shangri-La?  When Conway says, "Perhaps the exhaustion of the passions is the beginning of wisdom . . . ."  The lama replies, "That also, my son, is the doctrine of Shangri-La."[END OF SPOILER ALERT]

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

I can't believe that you've never seen the Colman/Capra version of Lost Horizon! Do so Real Soon Now. Highly recommended. In the movie, the annoying young man is said to be Conway's brother, which makes more sense of Conway's actions and feelings.

Avoid the musical version, 1973, with Peter Finch and Liv Ullmann.

sas

Bill Crider said...

My movie education is sadly lacking in some areas.

jrlindermuth said...

Sometimes an overlooked classic really is a classic.

Jeffrey Meyerson said...

What Steve said.

Can't believe you didn't have to read it in school. What kind of education does Texas give, anyway? I'm sure I read it in 9th or 10th grade.

Anonymous said...

I'd be happy to lend you my copy of the dvd. Always assuming I can lay my hands on it.

What Jeff said about when he read it. And Texas education. Hah.

sas

Tom Johnson said...

I was in my twenties when I read the book, and like Bill says, except for the hijacking of the plane, there is little action in the novel, but I was absolutely blown away by the book. There was a hidden power to it that grabs you. I've read numerous books since that borrowed the concept of a hidden land of eternal romance, but none has come close to Lost Horizons.

Mike Stamm said...

I read it 3-4 years ago (when I was 60, give or take), on my father's recommendation. (He had read it when he was in his 30s, perhaps.) I thought it was a good idea not particularly well handled, but nevertheless oddly memorable. I found a VHS tape of the original film (I've heard nothing good about the '73 musical version), but have yet to watch it; this is an incentive to do so soon.

Rick Robinson said...

I read it a couple of years ago, though I'd seen the Coleman film on TCM a decade or more ago. I didn't remember much about the movie, so it was like coming to the book fresh. I thought it was pretty good, but not as good as I'd expected.

Todd Mason said...

John Simon approvingly quoted Judith Crist about the 1973 musical: "It would take Ross Hunter to remake a 1937 film as a 1933 film."

Yvette said...

I read this late in the day as well. Dropped right into it. Loved it perhaps a bit more than you did. But I do remember seeing the film eons ago though if you asked me about it, I would not be able to say much except that I know I enjoyed it.

Cap'n Bob said...

I saw the Coleman movie when I was a kid and liked it, but remember little. Wasn't this the first paperback from Dell or one of those publishers?

Anonymous said...

Don't know if it was first, but it came from Pocket Books, I think.

And, it is Colman, not Coleman. Yes, I am a pedant.

sas

Todd Mason said...

I believe that between them, the last two comments have it correct--the first Pocket Book was thei pb of LOST HORIZON...

James Reasoner said...

I remember reading this when I was in college and liking it, and I even recall that it was one of the books I read sitting on the front porch of the house I grew up in, but that's all I remember.

Mathew Paust said...

Damn, now I've got to read it! My dad spoke endlessly of Shangri-la (where I hope he's finally made it to) but I don't think I've read the book or the movies, either. **heading back to the stacks to see if our library has a copy**

James Reasoner said...

When I was growing up, about ten miles from where I lived was the Shangri-La Dude Ranch. For whatever that's worth.

Abbey said...

Mum was a Ronald Colman fan, so when I grew up in the late 1950s I knew exactly who he was, what Shangri-La was too. I first read the book at age 12, bless libraries!

Never saw the film until the old Brattle Cinema in Cambridge ran a marathon - possibly somebody who didn't have a precise understanding of the story figured since it had some fantasy in the plot, that therefore it could logically be part of a 24-hour SciFi Marathon? But that's how I first came to view Shangri-La the film, in an awful black'n'white chopped up (not "restored") version in the mid-1970s, but on a big screen. early morning..., think I was one of the four remaining patrons awake? anyway, most of the fans had come for the goofy - and some wonderful - Big Bug and Earth Collides films from the 50s, this wasn't their thing. (pre-Star Wars btw).

Since then have seen entire restored Library of Congress version as well as the wonderful film made about restoring it, both shown on PBS and/or TCM at least ten years ago.

Anybody read the mystery Hilton wrote, something about a school? Think he may have written two mysteries, actually.

Bill Crider said...

I've read only this one. Might give one of the mysteries a try.