The Lost World (1960)

I was watching an old movie on Film4 on Sunday evening that brought back many good old memories for me. It was one of those oldies that I’d first seen way back when I was a kid, sometime during the first seven or eight years of my life, and is one that I hadn’t seen in many, many years.

The film in question was the second cinema version (1960) of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic 1912 novel The Lost World (the first version was the 1925 silent movie classic). The story involves an expedition to one of those “lost” regions of the world which were so popular back in the days before pretty much the entire world was explored and mapped. “Lost World” stories were very popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Lost civilizations in the jungles of darkest Africa and South America, beneath the sea, at the Earth’s core, indeed anywhere as yet unexplored, which could still harbour exciting adventures and unknown mysteries.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story was originally published as a serial in the Strand Magazine during the months of April–November 1912, and it took an expedition of explorers and scientists to South America, and up into the deepest, most unexplored regions of the Amazon, to a previously undiscovered plateau, where dinosaurs and other extinct prehistoric creatures had survived and still thrived. There were also cannibalistic native humans, who proved to be more dangerous than the dinosaurs, and who had wiped out a previous expedition.

The 1960 film adapts the original novel very loosely, taking a lot of liberties. And it was produced by Irwin Allen, king of the cheap and cheerful (in other words, terrible) special effects. Huge chunks of stock footage were later lifted from this film and just plonked down wholesale into several of Allen’s 1960’s television series, notably Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Land of the Giants and The Time Tunnel. Irwin Allen was the biggest cheapskate ever in the history of sci-fi television and cinema. He’s right up there alongside Ed Wood and Plan 9 from Outer Space. 🙂

Did I mention that the SFX are dire? Even for 1960, the special effects are terrible, and, by comparison, the ancient 1925 silent version, with the legendary Willis O’Brien producing the effects, was far superior technically. And O’Brien’s dinosaurs were proper dinosaurs, too. The 1960 film? Dinosaurs? Don’t make me laugh. The “dinosaurs” were a bunch of iguanas, monitor lizards and a baby alligator, all with bumps and horns glued to them. “Triceratops” was the baby alligator. “Stegosaurus” was a monitor lizard. “Iguanodon” (a bipedal dinosaur) was a four-legged iguana lizard (Allen must’ve looked at the names and thought “Iguana = Iguanodon”). And worst of all, “Tyrannosaurus”, the most famous dinosaur of all, the fearsome alpha predator, was played by a four-legged monitor lizard with glued-on horns and fins (Tyrannosaurus was two-legged and had neither horns nor fins). Even as a seven or eight year-old child, I knew my dinosaurs, and found these pathetic attempts totally hilarious. Anyone over the age of five these days would be howling with derision.

After all that slagging off, what is there good that can be said about the film? Granted that it is pretty lame by modern cinema standards, most of the criticisms are on the technical and SFX side of things. There is still an old-fashioned charm to this old movie, and it is certainly fun to watch. And even the so-called “dinosaurs” are hilarious, in a rather pathetic (“they aren’t dinosaurs!”) way. But the biggest redeeming feature of the film is definitely the cast, which included a number of big names – Michael Rennie, Claude Rains (as the cantankerous and hilarious Professor Challenger, the real star of the film), David Hedison and Jill St. John. They all played their parts straight and extremely well, which most likely elevated the film to a higher rating than it should otherwise have received (in my book, at least).

But most of the attraction for me is certainly on a personal level, namely the life-long nostalgia effect that links me to this film. I saw it at a very early age and it left a lasting impact on me, which led to bigger, better things. It lead directly to me reading the vastly superior original novel shortly afterwards at about age eight or nine, just as seeing George Pal’s classic 1960 cinema version of The Time Machine had led to me reading the original H. G. Wells novel a year or so before reading The Lost World.

Watching The Lost World for the first time all those years ago, was one of those formative encounters that helped lay the foundations that made me the geek that I am today. The film may not have dated very well by twenty-first century standards, but it still holds that old charm and nostalgia for me, and I’ll always make sure to watch it occasionally on TV when it gets shown every few years.

Reading Science Fiction

Reading Science Fiction literature has always been one of my main interests in life, and I’ve been reading “proper” science fiction since I first signed out H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine from the local library at the tender age of about eight or nine years old (circa 1969-1970).

I usually prefer older (classic) SF, pre-“New Wave”, with a particular fondness for the vintage SF of the “Golden Age” and the SF “Pulps”. Any list of my favourites classic SF authors would contain some very familiar and famous names:

H. G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Jack Williamson, Robert A. Heinlein, John W. Campbell Jr, Stanley G. Weinbaum, Henry Kuttner, Edmond Hamilton, Leigh Brackett, C. L. Moore, Frederik Pohl, Cyril M. Kornbluth, Philip K. Dick, Poul Anderson, Brian W. Aldiss, Harry Harrison, H. Beam Piper, Cordwainer Smith, Alfred Bester, Algis Budrys… and many, many others (I’d be here all night listing them).

Although I’m mainly a reader of older SF, there are a few types of modern SF that I do like to read, in particular New Space Opera, Hard SF, and good old Classic Space Opera, which never seems to go out of fashion, no matter how hard the literary wannabes among the SF writing and reading fraternity have tried to kill it off over the years. Some of the modern SF authors that I’m a huge fan of would include:

Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, Peter F. Hamilton, Greg Bear, Greg Egan, Linda Nagata, Iain M. Banks, Ken MacLeod, Wil McCarthy, Peter Watts, Ian R. MacLeod, Paul J. McAuley, Iain MacDonald and a few others.

Although I do still like the occasional good SF novel by my favourite old and modern authors, the volume of novels that I read has declined sharply over the years. I used to read a lot more novels when I was younger, particularly during my teens (the 1970s), but that started to drop off sharply from about 1978 onwards, as the increasingly intensive study commitments during my A-Levels and university years totally wiped out most of my previously plentiful free reading time.

Once I finished university (1983, at the age of twenty-two), started work, discovered a social life (I didn’t even know what a social life WAS back in my teens, no going out, no drinking, no women – it’s really no wonder that I’d had so much reading time), and with the many trials and tribulations of adult life kicking in, any free time that I may have had left for reading disappeared as quickly as Roadrunner with Wile E. Coyote on his tail. So the number of novels that I read declined sharply during those years, and has never recovered to its former levels, even now, thirty years later.

I also loved reading short story collections and anthologies back in my teens. At that time, it was pretty much 50-50 between novels and short fiction, but as the number of novels that I read declined sharply during the late-1970s and early-1980s, the balance swung sharply towards short fiction, which began to take up more and more of what reading time I did have remaining. I’ve always considered short fiction to be the bedrock of the science fiction genre anyway, and, if you add to that the fact that it’s simply much easier to fit the occasional short story into a hectic lifestyle, particularly in these days of monstrously bloated and padded novels, nine times out of ten, you’ll find me reading a good anthology or author collection, rather than a novel.

I do NOT like (and never have liked) reading a novel piecemeal, a few chapters at a time, and prefer to do it all in one go. But that pretty much became impossible once the size of the average SF novel went above four hundred pages or so. I can usually manage about 300-350 pages max before I want to call it a day. That was okay with most classic SF novels, which usually came in at about 250-300 pages, and which I can read in one sitting. I can’t do that with these bloated modern bricks. I have to read a few chapters at a time, but I often find it very hard to go back and just pick up where I left off. My train of thought and enjoyment of the story has been broken, and before I start on new chapters of the novel I almost always have to go back and do a recap, and re-read the earlier chapters again (certainly if it’s been days, maybe weeks even, since I’d read the previous chapters), because I’ve forgotten details of the story.

I do still sometimes long for the days when a good SF novel was a mere 250-300 pages, and I could finish it in one sitting. If that were still the case, I’d probably have gotten back into reading SF novels, and I’d be reading a lot more of them today. But I find myself looking at these eight hundred page bricks and thinking “Nah, can’t be bothered”. It’s simply too much time and effort to put into reading a single story, when I can read twenty short stories in a similar-sized anthology much more easily. With a short story collection or anthology, I can read one story at a time, one over lunch, another when I visit the bathroom, another before I go to bed. I can leave the book down for days, weeks even, and start on a completely new story when I lift it up again, without missing out on anything, or having to go back and recap.

While I may be much more a fan of short fiction these days, the real truth is that reading short fiction has become habitual for me over the past thirty years, whereas I seem to have lost the knack (and the patience) for reading novels. I’ve become much more accustomed to reading short fiction in recent decades, and while I can still tackle the much shorter, older classic SF novels easily enough, reading one of those overly-padded modern monsters is a real effort, and one that I’m rarely willing to make, unless it’s one of my favourite modern authors (someone like Alastair Reynolds or one of the others mentioned above).

Maybe I can re-train myself to read these big novels. And maybe this blog can help me focus, get back into the groove, and give me a reason to start into reading novels on a regular basis. Fingers crossed.