Friday, March 23, 2012

Adventure classics -- Sanctuary from the world

Lost Horizon

by James Hilton


The year was 1933. In Germany, newly-chosen chancellor, Adolf Hitler consolidated his power through police state terror. Famine struck the Soviet Union, already suffering under Stalinist purges. In the United States, crowds looking for temporary escape from the Great Depression made the movie “Gold Diggers of 1933” one of the year’s top-grossing films.

And in Great Britain, James Hilton published his wistful fantasy, Lost Horizon.

Early reviews weren’t always appreciative. A contemporary review in The New York Times unearthed at John Unsworth’s “20th-Century American Bestsellers,” mentioned the paper-thin stock characters and “somewhat inept prologue.” (Although Hilton may have intended the prologue, already a somewhat dated literary device, to waft readers back to a more nostalgic time.)

As far as plots go, that of Lost Horizon is also fairly thin. British consul Hugh Conway is among a small group who disappear during an airplane hijacking on the far reaches of the British Empire. None of the group seem important -- two minor civil servants, a woman missionary, an American businessman. Their existence is forgotten until Rutherford, Conway’s old school friend, discovers him by accident in a Chinese hospital -- lost, ill, and suffering from amnesia.

Rutherford is tempted to dismiss the story Conway tells when his memory returns as an artifact of his physical and mental breakdown, except for the mysterious fragment of music he remembers. And the equally mysterious -- and mysteriously aged -- woman who accompanied him to the hospital.

But the tale of the remote Tibetan lamasery of Shangri-La, a land free of fanaticism of every kind; a land where aging slows to let its inhabitants savor time, “that rare and lovely gift. . .Western countries have lost the more they have pursued it”; a land whose terrain renders it free from any fear of invading armies, had an inordinate appeal for a
world longing to escape economic disaster and looming war.

No wonder when Conway leaves civilization again in search of his lost paradise, his friend follows. And no wonder that by 1934 Lost Horizon won the British Hawthornden Prize for imaginative literature and was on its way to becoming Hilton’s most popular novel.

The book was the basis for a film by Frank Capra (who filmed the equally fairytale-like It’s a Wonderful Life) in 1937, and enjoyed a resurgence of popularity during the 1960’s, thanks not only to Cold War hysteria but to the yearning escapist in all of us. It’s still widely available.

(Next Friday -- Adventure classics looks at a book that spawned its own genre of escapism, Ruritanian romance -- Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda.)

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