Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy Lost Horizon Analysis

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Still in print six decades after it was first published, Lost Horizon attained classic status as a fantasy of an imaginary refuge from the twentieth century’s confusion. Moderation, temperate habits, and the life-extending powers of their mountain bastion enable its inhabitants to achieve insights denied to the rest of humanity. Hilton’s powers as a storyteller, his warnings of a world war to come, and his evocation of the mysteries of Shangri-La combined to capture readers during the 1930’s. Frank Capra’s film version, with Ronald Colman as Hugh Conway, brought the Hilton tale to a worldwide audience. The story received another boost in 1942. When General James Doolittle carried out a bombing raid on Tokyo in 1942, reporters asked President Franklin D. Roosevelt where the raid had started; the president answered, “Shangri-La.” The United States Navy even named one of its aircraft carriers Shangri-La in 1944. A popular song of the 1950’s, “Shangri-La,” conveyed the idea of the story to another generation of listeners. The 1972 musical film version of Lost Horizon was an artistic and commercial flop.

Lost Horizon succeeded as a utopian story because Hilton grounded his narrative in realism and historical information. His idea of a secluded oasis where monks aged slowly in a society of moderation and restraint offered a perceptive commentary on a war-torn world. Now that explorers have uncovered most of the mysteries of the earth’s surface, the emotional power of Hugh Conway’s story has receded. Shangri-La, however, has become part of the English language and part of modern mythology. Hilton’s creation has gained the timeless permanence that he sought to convey in his account of a man’s quest for inner peace. Lost Horizon was Hilton’s only venture into the fantasy genre, but he succeeded in creating a twentieth century equivalent of Thomas More’s Utopia (1516).