Shangri-La has come to represent a forgotten world of youth & beauty. We’ve all heard of it even if we’ve never read the book, Lost Horizon, or seen the famous Frank Capra movie. James Hilton seems to have had a knack of writing stories that have been made into successful movies. His other books include Random Harvest (one of my favourite movies) & Goodbye, Mr Chips. Lost Horizon is an exciting adventure story with a core of melancholy & loss which I wasn’t expecting to find.
The story is told in the form of a manuscript within the narrative. The narrator is having dinner with a group of people in an unnamed European capital. Berlin or Vienna, I think, as they dine at the Templehof. He’s come across a couple of old school friends & they hear a curious story from another man about a plane hijacked in central Asia in the middle of a revolution. The plane disappeared, along with the four passengers. One of the passengers was Hugh Conway, a man they knew from school. After dinner, Rutherford takes our narrator aside & says he saw Conway long after he was assumed to be dead & heard the remarkable story of what happened to the hijacked plane. Rutherford is an author & he wrote down Conway’s story & now gives it to the narrator to read.
Conway & his fellow passengers – Charles Mallinson, a young attache at the Embassy, Henry Barnard, an American businessman & Miss Roberta Brinklow, a missionary – had boarded the plan to escape from Baskul during a revolt. Instead of being taken to Peshawar, they soon realise that the pilot is headed in another direction entirely. The plane stops to refuel in a remote valley & armed men prevent them leaving the plane or asking any questions. Eventually, Conway realises that they are heading for Tibet by the mountainous terrain.
The pilot bungles the landing & dies before he can be questioned. While the passengers are debating their next move, a small party of men descend the mountain & take them by a tortuous route to a lamasery high in the mountains. Their guide, Chang, is Chinese but speaks good English & makes them comfortable. Conway asks many questions but Chang politely refuses to answer most of them. They are all surprised by the modern conveniences but anxious to leave & frustrated by Chang’s inability to answer their questions. Conway soon relaxes into the curious atmosphere of the lamasery called Shangri-La as do Barnard, who turns out to be a fugitive from the law, & Miss Brinklow, who sees an opportunity to convert the inhabitants. Mallinson is desperate to leave & impatient with everyone & everything. He refuses to relax & is suspicious of the motives of Chang & the other inmates.
Conway is taken to see the High Lama & hears an amazing story of the founding of the lamasery by a European missionary called Perrault. The missionary brought Christianity to the inhabitants of the Tibetan mountains but the lamasery he founded has elements of all religions. The peculiar atmosphere of the mountains leads to Perrault & the other people there living long lives as long as they stay at Shangri-La. When Conway realises that the High Lama is Perrault, who came to Shangri-La in the 18th century, he is not as shocked as he should be as he has gradually come to realise that the lamasery is a magic place. Few outsiders ever discover the way in & the lamas are adept at enticing in the people they want as once you enter Shangri-La, you can only experience eternal youth if you never leave. The story takes place in the 1930s but there is a young Manchu girl there who arrived in the 1880s. There’s also a man who learnt the piano from Chopin & can play unknown works by the composer. The inhabitants do grow old & die but so slowly that their lifespan is measured in decades rather than years.
The High Lama has chosen Conway to succeed him & when he dies soon after, Conway must decide his own fate & that of the others. Barnard & Miss Brinklow are quite prepared to stay but Mallinson rejects Conway’s fantastic story. He is determined to leave, taking the Manchu girl, Lo-Tsen, with whom he has fallen in love, with him. He needs Conway’s help to escape & Conway has to decide where his own future lies.
Lost Horizon is certainly an adventure story but it’s not a swashbuckling adventure in the tradition of The Prisoner of Zenda. Conway is a man who has fought in WWI & been changed by the experience. His career in the diplomatic service has been mediocre but his experiences in the War have left him empty & directionless. The shadows of the next war are present & the idea of escaping from the world & the horrors to come are very attractive. However, I found the whole atmosphere of the book sadly melancholy & the idea of eternal youth quite depressing. Conway is tempted by the thought of seclusion & safety but he’s a realist as well. We already know that he does leave Shangri-La but not how & what the consequences are for himself, Mallinson & Lo-Tsen.
Now that I’ve read the book, I’d like to see the movie with Ronald Colman. Looking at the cast list on imdb, I think a few changes have been made to the story. Jane Wyatt doesn’t look like a female missionary to me & Conway appears to have acquired a younger brother! Still, I’ve requested the DVD from work so I’ll be able to compare the two.