Dinosaurs and Other Dangers at the Lost World

Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on May 22, 1859. He was the second of seven children. In 1876, he attended the Faculty of Edinburgh to study medicine. He also began to write short stories. His first short story was published in 1879. After graduation in 1881, Arthur enlisted as a doctor on a steamer for an adventure filled trip to Western Africa. During the trip he suffered through a storm, a fire, and even malaria. In 1887, Arthur sold the first story featuring what would eventually become his most famous character, Sherlock Holmes. The story, A Study in Scarlet, was first rejected, then sold for only £25, and basically went unnoticed when it was finally published. But Arthur kept writing and by 1891 he was able to quit medicine to concentrate on a literary career. Arthur had a very “ambivalent attitude towards Holmes” and early on planned to kill off his great detective. He finally sent Holmes to his death in 1893 in “The Final Problem”. There was a public outcry at the loss of Holmes. Even Arthur’s mother was appalled. He brought Sherlock Holmes back in a prequel story in 1901’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and again in 1903’s “The Adventure of the Empty House” that continued the Holmes timeline with the explanation that the detective had only faked his own death. Altogether, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories and four novels that featured Sherlock Holmes.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 1914

In 1912, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote The Lost World and introduced his second best known character, Professor Challenger. The two literary characters are almost exact opposites. Where Sherlock Holmes is laid back and analytical, George Edward Challenger is aggressive, loud, temperamental, and rude. Professor Challenger was based on a real life “professor of physiology named William Rutherford, who had lectured at the University of Edinburgh” while Arthur studied medicine there. All told, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote three novels and two short stories that featured Challenger.

Challenger’s first literary adventure, The Lost World, was originally “published serially in the popular Strand Magazine and illustrated by New Zealand-born artist Harry Roundtree”. The story follows an expedition to a remote plateau in South America where dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals survive. Not only was expedition leader Professor Challenger based on a real person, but two other characters, reporter Ed Malone and adventurer Lord John Roxton, were also based on real people Arthur knew, in this case, a reporter and a diplomat who were “leaders of the Congo Free State reform campaign (the Congo Reform Association)”, which Arthur supported. The remote jungle plateau setting in The Lost World is believed to have been inspired by an expedition led by another real life friend of Arthur Conan Doyle. The Serrania de Huanchaca, a table-mountain located in modern day Noel Kempff National Park in Bolivia, was first explored in 1908 by Arthur’s friend Percy Harrison Fawcett. Arthur took part in one of Fawcett’s lectures and was impressed by Fawcett’s description of the remote heights where “monsters from the dawn of man’s existence might still roam”. According to Fawcett, Arthur asked him for more information and mentioned his idea for a novel set in a similar South American location.

In the novel, The Lost World, Professor Challenger had been in South America on an expedition of his own when Cucama Indians alerted him to the sudden appearance of a dying white man. Challenger rushed to help but the man had already died. When he checked the man for identification, Challenger discovered a sketch-book with drawings of strange creatures. Backtracking the dead man, Challenger saw a mysterious plateau and a huge flying reptile.

Challenger is back in England at the start of our book to get backing for a new expedition to explore the plateau. Unfortunately, all the photographs he took of his incredible discoveries were lost in a boat accident on his return trip. Nobody believes him. Even the two foot portion long of a wing from one of the flying reptiles is considered a hoax. E. D. Malone is an Irish reporter who wants an interview with Challenger. The lecture is chaotic but a return expedition is established. Malone, along with adventurer Lord John Roxton and scientist Professor Summerlee volunteer to search for the lost plateau. After a few adventures and much bickering, the expedition reaches the plateau and finds a way to climb up into the mysterious lost world. But they soon wish they had stayed safely in their base camp on lower ground. Two of their servants leave the expedition stranded with no way down, they are attacked by a large flock of deadly Pterodactyls, other frightening creatures menace the Europeans, and they discover that hideous half-human, half-ape creatures are spying on them. The expedition’s chances of surviving let alone ever returning home diminish each day.

The novel, The Lost World, is a pretty quick read that keeps a good pace accented by one adventure after another. Professor Challenger is a fun, colorful character but he is not the focus of the story as I thought he would be. He even sort of fades into the background in the second half of the story. The reporter Malone is the main protagonist from his lovelorn interest in a stand-offish English girl to his daring acts on the plateau, Malone leads the adventure and writes about it in his reports to his newspaper. Lord Roxton also gets to shine as his knowledge and skill save the day several times. While the explorers are very interested in the prehistoric flora and fauna they find, the group shows a great deal of arrogance towards the non-European humans they encounter. Their black servant Zambo goes above and beyond in his efforts to help the stranded white men but they are not very complimentary of him, describing him as a “gigantic negro” and “as willing as any horse and about as intelligent”. The Ape-men are described as hideous and murderous and the explorers have no problem killing off the males and leaving the females and young to be enslaved by the plateau Indians. Those Indians are described as “little red fellows”. The women are wildly admiring of Professor Challenger who does not think much of them and tends to beat them off with a branch. But the Indians are helpful and so tolerated. Challenger remarks, “They may be undeveloped types, but their deportment in the presence of their superiors might be a lesson to some of our more advanced Europeans. Strange how correct are the instincts of the natural man”. While the expedition members are at first very interested in the prehistoric animals and dinosaurs they find, those creatures are quickly eclipsed by the conflict between the Ape-men and the Europeans and the Indians and by the search for a way to escape the plateau.

The Lost World has been adapted for film, radio, and television many times. The first adaptation was the 1925 silent film, The Lost World, starring Wallace Beery as Professor Challenger, Lloyd Hughes as Malone, Lewis Stone as Sir Roxton, and Arthur Hoyt as Professor Summerlee. The film adds a new character, Bessie Love as Paula White, daughter of the missing man who originally discovered the plateau. She provides Malone with a new love interest besides his stand-offish girlfriend. There is even a bit of a love triangle between Malone, Paula, and Lord Roxton. But, wow, is Bessie White as Paula a fragile, waif-like girl. She looks like a mild breeze will blow her over but she goes on the expedition through the steaming hot Amazon to the dangerous plateau. The expedition servants are whittled down to one slightly daffy guy and a white man in blackface portraying Zambo. The Ape-men in the movie are reduced to one Ape-man in decent make-up and a monkey and the plateau Indians are completely left out. They all get reduced roles because the film’s focus is on the dinosaurs because – wow!

Even after 90 years, the dinosaurs in The Lost World are magnificent. Sure the movements are not as smooth as the CGI dinos of modern blockbuster movies like Jurassic Park or its upcoming sequel Jurassic World but they still put shame to some of the crappy creatures that the Syfy channel turns out today. The Lost World dinosaurs are based on artwork by Charles R. Knight and are brought to life by pioneering stop-motion special effects artist Willis O’Brien. O’Brien (March 2, 1886 – November 8, 1962) is perhaps better known for his fantastic stop-motion creations in the classic film King Kong (1933). He won an Academy Award for his stop-motion special effects in Mighty Joe Young (1949). O’Brien started out making and animating models, including a dinosaur and caveman, on his own. A 90 second stop-motion test film led to his “discovery” and his work on his first film in 1915. Marcel Delgado (whom O’Brien would work with for most of his career) made the models of the dinosaurs in The Lost World based on O’Brien’s designs. The models were very detailed “with rubber skin built up over complex, articulated metal armatures”. They even put bladders inside the models that could be “inflated and deflated to give the illusion of breathing”. The fantastic scene toward the end of the movie where entire herds of dinosaurs flee an exploding volcano was created on a tabletop that was 75 feet wide by 150 feet long and features more than 50 dinosaur models all animated independently. Besides his pioneering stop-motion techniques, Willis O’Brien also combined animated dinosaurs with live-action footage of actors. The effects were so fantastic that author Arthur Conan Doyle showed a short test reel for The Lost World to a meeting of the Society of American Magicians, including legendary illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini. Many thought the dinosaurs were real. And the dinosaurs really do look great. I can easily see how even trained magicians who had never seen anything like those dinosaurs before could think them real living animals. After the film, the dinosaur models were donated to the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles, California. Over time the models started to sulphurize and disintegrate so they were packed up and stored away. Unfortunately, they were forgotten about and accidentally sealed between the walls when a new wing was added to the facility.

The Lost World film amazed audiences and was so successful that there were plans to make a sequel. First National Pictures made a deal to withdraw The Lost World from distribution and destroy all release prints and the foreign negative. They were supposed to keep the domestic negative but over time it disappeared, maybe destroyed in a fire. For years only a few still photos, the original trailer, and an abridged Kodascope print were all that remained of The Lost World. Then a nearly full-length print was found in the Film Archive of the Czech Republic in 1992. That footage was combined with film segments from private collectors to restore to the film to nearly it’s full original glory. This restored version is a fantastic treasure. Not only are the dinosaurs mind-boggling for 90 year old effects but most of the film is in excellent condition – sharp and clear. There are some blurry moments and a few hints of scratches and other damage but most of the version I watched looks brand new. The Internet Archive has several versions of the film available. Three versions run one hour and 8 minutes long and are tinted in one color. Version #M1 is the most popular with more than 260,000 downloads. Version #M2 has more than 35,000 downloads. Version #M3 has 3,000 plus downloads. The version I watched, Version #M4, is one hour and sixteen minutes long, the most complete and best restored version of the film, and is tinted in a variety of colors from pink to yellow to blue depending on the scene. The Internet Archive even has a seven minute long collection of unused dinosaur footage that provides some excellent scenes of close-ups, breathing, and simple real-life things like dinosaurs eating and scratching an itch.

The Internet Archive also has several versions of The Lost World the book. Version #B1 was digitized by Google complete with illustrations. Version #B2 is also a digitized book but some of the early illustrations are missing. Version #B3 and Version #B4 are also digitized. Version #B5 is a bit slanted and says it is from microfilm. Version #B6 has a few photos from the 1925 movie. These versions can all be read online at IA or downloaded. Version #B7 is download only. IA also has a script of the 1925 film. Feedbooks has a free copy of The Lost World which can be downloaded. Project Gutenberg has a free copy that can be read online or downloaded. There is also a Project Gutenberg audio book version. And, finally, LibriVox has three free audible book versions. Version #L1 is read by several different volunteers. Version #L2 is read by Mark F. Smith and Version #L3 is read by Bob Neufeld.

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