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A Better World

I went through a few weeks of reading utopian novels in high school (with a handful of dystopias as a chaser). One of those was Lost Horizon. A few months ago, browsing through Amazon's DVD listings, I discovered it had also been made into a movie, not long after the book was originally published, and added it to our rental list. It's an engaging reflection on the sudden discovery of dreams-come-true. The main character wasn't even actively seeking his dreams; he'd published them, and a fan of his, a reader, decided that he deserved to be imported to Shangri-la, to learn that his idealism could - and did - exist in reality.

In Shangri-La, there are no native discontents, and the accidentally imported ones vent their discontent on a desire to leave. If voluntary exile from a place one has no liking for is the "punishment" for being discontent, it hardly seems a bad one. Yet those who are not happy in the best of all possible worlds are those short-sighted enough not to realize the consequences of leaving it. Both book and movie rely on benevolent paternalism as a form of government. Father knows best.

In Lost Horizon, happiness is a geographic destination. In Stupid, Stupid Rat Tails, it's experience, the endless process of discovering the world. Although storytelling pervades the story, the stories within are a way of reliving the past and entertaining others who haven't the gumption to live as as Big Johnson Bone does. He experiences the world carelessly and widely. Happiness is action and exploration, in making up the places which lie beyond the map, in passing on to the soon-to-be-known.

In contrast, Terry Pratchett's characters find their happiness in the adequacy of daily life. Daily life, chores and duty, are the reprieve granted at the end of an adventure. Sufficiency is the reward for apocalyptic success. Save the world, and you too can go milk the cows, gather the eggs, sweep the floors. It is enough. The wintersmith is a source of disruption and disturbance, an annoyance, even if one with ego-building side-effects.

Strikingly, in these three stories*, only in Wintersmith is happiness, such as it is, necessarily attained at the narrative's conclusion.

* These all happen to be the books and movie I've watched/seen this week. I also read These Old Shades, where happiness is obtained by the mutual negotiation of positive social relationships, whether friendship or marriage, but that ending was mandated by genre to a degree that isn't true of these others. In my limited experience, there's a great deal of creativity in dealing with insurmountable barriers and the way a plot develops in romance, with greater strictures on the ending. Other genre's limitations tend to apply themselves to other aspects of a narrative.


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 19th, 2007 02:40 am (UTC)
OMG, you make me feel so old! i can't even remember the first time I saw Lost Horizon (please tell me we're talking about the classic one with Ronald Colman -*sigh* - and not the horrid, possibly musical, one with Peter Finch??). Possibly sometime in the 1970s? It's a wonderful movie, in its way, and I'm sure you'll note a lot of important tropes, not just of utopian fiction but of lost world stories and their adaptations to film.
Feb. 19th, 2007 09:15 am (UTC)
You know, me not having known of a movie from the '30s shouldn't make you feel any older than me not having read, say, a particular novel from the eighteenth century. Neither of us were alive at either time.

Yes, it was the classic one. Until you mentioned it, I didn't know it had been at least twice made into a movie. My ignorance of classic movies is quite substantial; including lost world movies.
Feb. 19th, 2007 11:29 am (UTC)
I think maybe it's because the TV of my youth showed so many classic movies, that they never seemed old to me, whereas they clearly do to you? To a certain extent, my youthful TV-watching (except Saturday morning cartoons) was very much like my parents', even to the extent that I watched many of the shows they had watched, albeit as re-runs. My knowledge of films from the 30's, 40's, and 50's is far better than my knowledge of films from the 60's and 70's, because we didn't go to many movies, and they didn't come on TV much before the big cable boom. Have now depressed myself remembering that I knew life before MTV. Have just remembered that no one watches MTV for "videos" any more anyway.

Thank goodness I can talk about the Ottoman Empire today.
Feb. 19th, 2007 11:52 am (UTC)
See, I grew up without a television and only saw classic movies if they were re-released for the movie screen in my lifetime. (Which is why I've seen things like The Wizard of Oz and Citizen Kane. I didn't start renting videos until I acquired a new laptop with DVD-playing capabilities (in 2001?), since then I had something to play them on.

This is why my knowledge of classic movies is so spotty, and my ignorance of television shows so vast. They don't seem necessarily old (I'm a medievalist; we have perspective on these things, as you know), just not something I'm familiar with. I still read a decent selection of early twentieth-century books growing up though.
Feb. 19th, 2007 09:26 am (UTC)
The 1973 remake WAS a musical! (And the set from Camelot was reused for its making.) My initial impression is that the songs aren't overly compelling - but they're definitely perky.
Feb. 19th, 2007 04:15 am (UTC)
If you are still into dystopian novels, you need to read Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Feb. 19th, 2007 09:27 am (UTC)
Thank you for the recommendation. Did you read it recently?
Feb. 19th, 2007 09:15 pm (UTC)
Never Let Me Go is a wonderful, wonderful book. It's very recent, but available in pb. I'm teaching it this term, and looking forward to it, but unsure about how to have discussions early on without revealing MASSIVE SPOILER
Feb. 20th, 2007 06:57 am (UTC)
yes, it is the last book I finished. Kind of reminded me of the Handmaid's Tale, but much more subtle.
Feb. 19th, 2007 08:35 am (UTC)
I read a really rather annoying sequel by Another Hand to Lost Horizon (book lying around in room in B&B) - I think it was by Leslie Halliwell who mostly writes on film.
Feb. 19th, 2007 09:20 am (UTC)
I fail to see why it requires a sequel. I suppose there are endless possible iterations available on new people discoverying Shangri-la or New Threats To Its Continued Existence, but neither concept is actively compelling.
Feb. 19th, 2007 10:05 am (UTC)
I think this was 'new people discover S-L' in more or less the present of the time of writing - I've just looked it up on Amazon and it was published in the late 80s with the title Return to Shangri-La. I recall a lot of boring/annoying retro snarkiness about Modern Society, much more than anything that happened in the so-called plot.

As you say, inessential.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )