Lost Horizon

Lost Horizon is a 1933 novel by English writer James Hilton. The book was turned into a film, also called Lost Horizon, in 1937 by director Frank Capra. It is best remembered as the origin of Shangri-La, a fictional utopian lamasery located high in the mountains of Tibet.

Lost Horizon
Dust jacket from the first edition
AuthorJames Hilton
CountryUnited Kingdom
GenreFantasy, Fiction, novel, adventure
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
ISBN978-1840243536 (UK)
ISBN 978-0060594527 (US)

Plot summary


Hugh Conway, a veteran member of the British diplomatic service, finds inner peace, love and a sense of purpose in Shangri-La, whose inhabitants enjoy unheard-of longevity.

The prologue and epilogue are narrated by a neurologist. This neurologist and a novelist friend, Rutherford, are given dinner at Tempelhof, Berlin, by their old school-friend Wyland, a secretary at the British embassy. A chance remark by a passing airman brings up the topic of Hugh Conway, a British consul in Afghanistan, who disappeared under odd circumstances. Later in the evening, Rutherford reveals to the neurologist that, after the disappearance, he discovered Conway in a French mission hospital in Chung-Kiang (probably Chongqing), China, suffering from amnesia. Conway recovered his memory, told Rutherford his story (which Rutherford recorded in a manuscript), and then slipped away again.

Rutherford gives the neurologist his manuscript, which becomes the heart of the novel.

In May 1931, during the British Raj in India, the 80 white residents of Baskul are being evacuated to Peshawar due to revolution. In the aeroplane of the Maharajah of Chandrapore are: Conway, the British consul, aged 37; Mallinson, his young vice-consul; an American, Barnard; and a British missionary, Miss Brinklow. The plane is hijacked and flown instead over the mountains to Tibet. After a crash landing, the pilot dies, but not before telling the four (in Chinese, which only Conway speaks) to seek shelter at the nearby lamasery of Shangri-La. The location is unclear, but Conway believes the plane has "progressed far beyond the western range of the Himalayas towards the less known heights of the Kuen-Lun".

The four are taken there by a party directed by Chang, a postulant at the lamasery who speaks English. The lamasery has modern conveniences, like central heating, bathtubs from Akron, Ohio, a large library, a grand piano, a harpsichord, and food from the fertile valley below. Towering above is Karakal, literally translated as "Blue Moon," a mountain more than 28,000 feet high. Mallinson is keen to hire porters and leave, but Chang politely puts him off. The others eventually decide they are content to stay: Miss Brinklow because she wants to teach the people a sense of sin; Barnard because he is really Chalmers Bryant (wanted by the police for stock fraud) and because he is keen to develop the gold mines in the valley; and Conway because the contemplative scholarly life suits him.

A seemingly young Manchu woman, Lo-Tsen, is another postulant at the lamasery. She does not speak English, but plays the harpsichord. Mallinson falls in love with her, as does Conway, though more languidly. Conway is given an audience with the High Lama, an unheard-of honor. He learns that the lamasery was constructed in its present form by a Catholic monk named Perrault from Luxembourg, in the early eighteenth century. The lamasery has since then been joined by others who have found their way into the valley. Once they have done so, their aging slows; if they then leave the valley, they age quickly and die. Conway guesses correctly that the High Lama is Perrault, now 250 years old.

In a later audience, the High Lama reveals that he is finally dying, and that he wants Conway to lead the lamasery. Mallinson has arranged to leave the valley with porters and Lo-Tsen. They are waiting for him five kilometers outside the valley, but he cannot traverse the dangerous route alone, so he convinces Conway to go along and assist him. This ends Rutherford's manuscript.

The last time Rutherford saw Conway, it appeared he was preparing to make his way back to Shangri-La. Rutherford completes his account by telling the neurologist that he attempted to track Conway and verify some of his claims of Shangri-La. He found the Chung-Kiang doctor who had treated Conway. The doctor said Conway had been brought in by a Chinese woman, who was ill and died soon after. She was old, the doctor had told Rutherford, "Most old of anyone I have ever seen," implying that it was Lo-Tsen, aged drastically by her departure from Shangri-La. The narrator wonders whether Conway can find his way back to his lost paradise.

Cultural significance

The book, published in 1933, caught the notice of the public only after Hilton's Goodbye, Mr. Chips was published in 1934. Lost Horizon became a huge popular success and in 1939 was published in paperback form, as Pocket Book #1. Because of its number-one position in what became a very long list of pocket editions, Lost Horizon is often mistakenly called the first American paperback book, when in fact paperbacks had been around since the mid-1800s. What made Pocket Book #1 of revolutionary importance was that it was the first "mass-market" paperback; mass market paperbacks allowed people of modest means not only to own books they otherwise could not afford, but also to slip the paperback into their pocket for casual reading on the go, hence the name "Pocket Book".

By the 1960s, Pocket Books alone, over the course of more than 40 printings, had sold several million copies of Lost Horizon, helping to make it one of the most popular novels of the 20th Century.[1]

United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt named the Presidential hideaway in Maryland after Shangri-La. (It has since been renamed Camp David.) In 1942, to insure the safety of returning U.S. forces, Roosevelt answered a reporter's question about the origin of the Doolittle Raid by saying it had been launched from "Shangri-La". The true details of the raid were revealed to the public a year later.[2] This inspired the naming of the aircraft carrier USS Shangri-La, commissioned in 1944.



  • A one-hour adaptation by James Hilton and Barbara Burnham was broadcast on the BBC National Programme at 20:30 on 1 August 1935,[3] with a cast that included Esme Percy as "the High Lama", Ben Welden as "Barnard", Barbara Couper as "Miss Brinklow", Jon Swinley as "Conway" and Cathleen Cordell as "Lo Tsen".[4] It was broadcast again on 2 August 1935, 30 and 31 January 1936, 30 October 1939 and 9 April 1945.


The book has been adapted for film three times:


The book also served as the basis for the unsuccessful 1956 Broadway musical Shangri-La.


Lost Horizon is currently available in paperback format and is now published by Summersdale Publishers Ltd , ISBN 978-1-84024-353-6 in the UK and by Harper Perennial, ISBN 978-0-06-059452-7 in the United States.


  1. For an example of an early paperback edition, learn more about the Tauchnitz editions.
  2. Klein, Sandor S. (20 April 1943). "One year later, Tokyo raid story told". United Press International. Retrieved 3 October 2019.
  3. "Broadcasting". Arts and Entertainment. The Times (47131). London. 1 August 1935. p. 12.
  4. "Broadcast Drama". Reviews. The Times (47132). London. 2 August 1935. p. 10.
  5. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00tq4lx
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