Lost Horizon

By James Hilton


The philosopher Maimonides (1138-1204) considered the biblical story of the Garden of Eden as a parable, not an actual event, in his Guide of the Perplexed 1:2. He states that the Torah is speaking about morality. I think his interpretation is correct. I will not summarize it here, but I will add that I always thought that an additional interpretation of the parable, with the first humans disobeying God and eating forbidden fruit, is that there are many people living in a paradise who are unable to appreciate what they have and enjoy it. This message is also in the timeless 153 page 1933 international best-seller by James Hilton, Lost Horizon. In his book, Hilton shows that not everyone can appreciate a paradise.

Lost Horizon is the story of a 37-year-old English diplomat, Hugh Conway, who discovers that his pilot has kidnaped him and his three companions, Conway’s young 24-year-old assistant, a female missionary, and a man who is later revealed to be a criminal trying to escape capture by the police. They are flown to a city far from where Conway intended to go, somewhere in Tibet. Conway does not know why the pilot did so. In fact, the man who piloted the plane was not the man who was supposed to fly it. The city, called Shangri-La, is in a plain which is surrounded by huge snow covered mountains which protect the inhabitants from the cold. Unlike elsewhere, everybody in the city is friendly, welcoming, and smiling.

Conway discovers that the inhabitants of the city live in peace. A unique culture flourishes “here without contamination from the outside world.” The rule in this paradise is that one must respect others and be moderate in everything, even with moderation itself, and virtue generally, and even in regard to religion, which made the female missionary among the four newcomers remark that the inhabitants were obviously barbarians. There is no money in the city. The mountains have gold, but the inhabitants have no need of it. Remarkably, the climate is such that people live in Shangri-La for a long time. Beside the climate, the lack of stress, worry, and strife in the city, replaced by tranquility, contributes to the health of the population. The founder of the city began to live in it “in the year 1734, when he was fifty-three years of age.” He was still alive in 1931 when Conway met him in Shangri-La. People are told that if inhabitants who had longevity leave Shangri-La they will age and die.

Conway’s assistant wants to leave. While Conway prefers to remain, he agrees to accompany his assistant because he is certain that the assistant would be unable to make the trip without his help. The assistant takes with him a woman who seems to be twenty years old but has been in Shangri-La for many decades. She does not believe she will age when she leaves the paradise.

Two film versions were made of this splendid book. The first was in 1937 and is well worth the time to view it. The second version is a musical from 1973. Contrary to what is advertised, this musical is based more on the 1937 movie than on the book, it adds events that are not in the book and earlier film, some of the people are different, and there is lots of nice singing and dancing.

The two film productions make many changes from the Hilton novel. For example, in the book, Hugh Conway is not a very high British official, in the films he is very high. In the films, Conway is accompanied to Shangri-La by his younger brother, who is not in the book, instead of being Conway’s assistant. In the films one of the people accompanying Conway is a sick woman who recovers her health in Shangri-La, while the woman in the book is a healthy missionary. Also, in the films, Conway falls in love with a woman of Shangri-La, but this is not in the book. These and other changes in the films add drama.