Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 305
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).