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'The Lost World' by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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The Lost World
The 1925 Film | The Television Series | The 2001 BBC Adaptation

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best known as being the author who created Sherlock Holmes. Perhaps his best-loved work excluding the famous detective is The Lost World.

By the time he wrote The Lost World in December 1911, Conan Doyle was feeling frustrated by the success of Sherlock Holmes, and wanted to write a different sort of story featuring another type of hero. Conan Doyle had long been fascinated by dinosaurs, ever since he found the fossilised footprints of an Iguanodon in Crowborough, a Sussex quarry near where he lived. He even kept plaster casts of these feet by his desk. Soon he had the inspiration to write a story about an expedition to a land where dinosaurs still lived.

My ambition is to do for the boys' book what Sherlock Holmes did for the detective tale.

The Lost World was first published in 1912. It was initially serialised in The Strand magazine from April to November 1912 and then published as a novel in October that year. It was the first of five stories Conan Doyle wrote about Professor Challenger, and is regarded as the finest. In it, an expedition led by Professor Challenger discovers living dinosaurs.


After reporter Edward 'Ed' Malone's proposal is rejected by Gladys, a girl who tells him she will only marry a brave man who performs daring deeds, his editor sends him to interview the notorious Professor Challenger. Challenger has a profound hatred of journalists, having been called a liar in numerous newspapers ever since his return from South America. After a violent start, Challenger befriends Malone. He tells Malone that he learnt from dying explorer Maple White of the existence of a plateau in the Amazon on which prehistoric life still lives.

Challenger invites him to a meeting at the Zoological Institute. There he announces that he has discovered pterodactyls in South America and challenges the society to form an expedition to disprove him. His main detractor, Professor Summerlee, agrees to go, as do Malone and Lord John Roxton, a famous adventurer and hunter.

After initially leading Summerlee to believe that he would not be part of the expedition, Challenger turns up when the others reach the Amazon and hire help for their onward journey. They soon discover the plateau, which they name Maple White Land, but are marooned on top of it by a treacherous helper with a private vendetta against Roxton.

On top of the plateau they soon find themselves hunted by monstrous lizards before getting embroiled in a war for dominance between humans and a race described as 'ape-men'. Will all members of the expedition survive the encounter with cannibalistic ape-men, and how many will commit genocide in retaliation? Will any survive to return to London to tell of the existence of the Lost World?


The Lost World is a story with four main characters:

Edward Malone

Malone is believed to have been inspired by the journalist Edmund Dene Morel, who campaigned against human rights abuses in the Congo Free State and shared Ed Malone's initials. Another inspiration was Conan Doyle's newspaper editor friend Bertram Fletcher Robinson.

Lord Roxton

Lord Roxton was based on Roger Casement, who investigated human rights abuses in the Congo Free State in 1903. This led to the creation of the Belgian Congo as opposed to the country being the personal fiefdom of King Leopold II of Belgium. In 1906 Roger Casement had been sent to investigate human rights abuses and slavery in Peru. He later became a militant advocate of Irish independence.

Roxton is the character who has perhaps dated the most. Hunters today are no longer considered to be honourable sportsmen, but instead viewed as despicable poachers. Consequently in many adaptations the role of Roxton has either been changed or even eliminated altogether.

Professor Challenger

Conan Doyle based his character of Professor Challenger on Professor William Rutherford, who had taught him at Edinburgh University, as well as the zoologist Charles Wyville Thomson, who led an expedition to explore 69,000 nautical miles on board a ship named HMS Challenger.

Professor Summerlee

Sir Robert Christison, Professor of Medicine and Therapeutics at Edinburgh University, was an inspiration for Summerlee. A highly respected Edinburgh medical scientist, he had served as president of the British Medical Association. Christison was also an inspiration for Sherlock Holmes.


The Lost World's plateau was inspired by Percy Harrison Fawcett's expedition to Mount Roraima on the border between Venezuela, Brazil and British Guyana. Mount Roraima is the highest and largest of the Pakaraima chain of tepui1 plateaus in South America. Other inspiration came from Lieutenant-Colonel Percy Fawcett, who gave lectures on South America that had been attended by Conan Doyle, as well as Sir Edwin Ray Lankester's Prehistoric Animals.


Evolution and Imperialism

Sadly, one bitterly distasteful and dated theme present in the novel is an underlying assumption of white superiority. One of the novel's key themes is that of evolution. As the author believes that some species are more evolved than others, it is uncomfortably implied that different races of humans have a similar hierarchy. Conan Doyle writes in Chapter VII how the full expedition to the plateau consists not only of Malone, Challenger, Roxton and Summerlee, but also 'Gomez and Manuel, two half-breeds from up the river' and 'three Mojo Indians from Bolivia... the chief of these we called Mojo, after his tribe, and the others are known as José and Fernando... and two additional Indians... Ataca and Ipetu by name'. The characters are categorised by race and breeding, with the Mojo Indian characters not even given the honour of their real names but instead have the indignity of being given new identities. They also make practically no impact on the plot, merely paddling the canoes and presumably carrying bags. The worst example is the description of 'Zambo, who is a black Hercules, as willing as any horse, and about as intelligent'(!)

The novel presents a clear case of survival of the fittest, with the white men portrayed as obviously the fittest to survive through their use of superior weaponry. Malone even states he would try being a Nietzschean superman if it would impress Gladys.

Mrs Challenger is described as more French than English in her type, Challenger describes Malone as 'round-headed, Brachycephalic, grey-eyed, black-haired, with suggestion of the negroid' while many of Malone's actions are ascribed to his being Irish, even though Doyle himself had Irish close relatives. Gomez and Manuel, the two 'half-breed' characters, receive the harshest treatment, possibly on the grounds that they are not racially pure.

Was Conan Doyle's intention to promote racism or a common humanity? Challenger describes his trip to South America by saying the natives were Cucama Indians, an amiable but degraded race, with mental powers hardly superior to the average Londoner. This could imply that everyone in the novel is at least equally despised, and that Europeans aren't automatically considered superior. Roxton had fought against Peruvian slavers and rescued Indians suffering abuse three years before the story is set, as everyone of us must make a stand for human right and justice, or you never feel clean again. Conan Doyle himself had recently been heavily involved in the campaign to reform the Congo Free State, having written The Crime in the Congo in 1909. His human rights campaign led him to contact newspapers and meet world leaders, including Theodore Roosevelt and Kaiser Wilhelm II.


The most objectionable part of the novel is the heroes' reaction to the ape-men. These are intelligent, tool-using people who live communally in huts and have order, discipline and, in short, their own society. True, they are capable of hunting and capturing humans, sending out search parties to do so and killing their prisoners when they are found, not exactly traits that mankind is immune from. Yet Malone describes his reaction to them by saying:

I am tender-hearted by nature... I found myself... cheering and yelling with pure ferocity and joy of slaughter.

He is not the only one whose instinctual reaction to seeing a unique intelligent life-form is to grab a rifle and start a massacre. Having encountered this unique species, Roxton concludes: I have a score to settle with these monkey-folk, and if it ends by wiping them off the face of the Earth I don't see that the Earth need fret about it. Soon after we learn that the males were exterminated, Ape-Town was destroyed, the females and young were driven away to live in bondage... from now onwards [the ape-men would] be a servile race under the eyes of their masters.

As soon as they discover that a balance of power has existed on the plateau for countless generations, the expedition's characters feel that they have the right to interfere and permanently change the balance.

Role of Women

The Lost World contains two female characters, both of whom stay at home and do not travel to the plateau with the men. The first woman is Gladys, whom Malone wishes to impress. Malone views her as full of every womanly quality. Some judged her to be cold and hard, but such a thought was treason although she describes herself by saying I dare say I am merely a foolish woman with a young girl's fancies, which is exactly the truth. Although she inspires Malone to find the quest which should be worthy of my Gladys! by the end of the novel the reader learns that she is not worthy of him. Malone asks: did I not, even at the time when I was proud to obey her behest, feel it was surely a poor love which could drive a lover to his death or the danger of it? Gladys remains a shallow character, though perhaps a more realistic one and a reaction against characters such as Odysseus' noble Penelope who did little except wait for her heroic husband's return. The waiting woman stereotype was popular in Boys' Own fiction of the time.

Professor Challenger's wife, more often referred to as Mrs George Edward Challenger though named Jessie, is described as a small woman... a bright, vivacious, dark-eyed lady. When she, not unreasonably, tries to discourage her husband from fighting in public, he reacts by putting her on a naughty step, thus:

'Stool of penance!' said he. To my amazement he stooped, picked her up, and placed her sitting upon a high pedestal of black marble... it was at least seven feet high, and so thin that she could hardly balance upon it. A more absurd object than she presented cocked up there with her face convulsed with anger, her feet dangling, and her body rigid for fear of an upset, I could not imagine.

Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Life

The dinosaurs are not described with wonder or grandeur. Instead they are portrayed as ugly, diseased and stupid; relics from an uncivilised time that have no place in the modern world. Dinosaurs as a whole are dismissed with the words the monsters were practically brainless, that there was no room for reason in their tiny cranial cavities, and that if they have disappeared from the rest of the world it was assuredly on account of their own stupidity. The prehistoric lifeforms seen in the novel are:

  • Ape-Man
    Described as a missing link between monkey and man. Like everything else in the story that is not human, it is described with distaste, the eyes, which were under thick and heavy brows, were bestial and ferocious, and as it opened its mouth to snarl what sounded like a curse at me I observed that it had curved, sharp, canine teeth. For an instant I read hatred and menace in the evil eyes... a hairy body like that of a reddish pig.
  • Allosaurus/Megalosaurus
    At least one species of carnivorous dinosaur exists on the plateau, although Challenger and Summerlee do not agree what type it is, possibly either allosaurus or megalosaurus. When it hunted Malone, he said: The beast moved like a kangaroo... it was of enormous size and power, like an erect elephant... this beast had a broad, squat, toad-like face... his ferocious cry and the horrible energy of his pursuit both assured me that this was one of the great flesh-eating dinosaurs, the most terrible beasts which have ever walked this Earth. The allosaurus was discovered in 1877, a fossil of the megalosaurus femur was the first dinosaur bone to be scientifically described, appearing in Natural History of Oxfordshire in 16762.
  • 'Large armadillos' (Doedicurus?)
    Malone sees what he describes as two creatures like large armadillos. This could be a doedicurus, a large armadillo-ancestor that lived in South America up to 11,000 years ago and had been discovered in 1847.
  • Ichthyosaurus
    A marine reptile described as a strange creature, half-seal, half-fish to look at, with bone-covered eyes on each side of his snout, and a third eye fixed upon the top of his head. The first complete ichthyosaur was discovered by Mary Anning and her brother Joseph in 1811. Though photoreceptive to a limited extent, the 'third eye' is believed to be part of the parietal system, helping to regulate the reptile's night/day cycle rather than being used for vision.
  • Iguanadons
    The first dinosaurs seen, a medium-sized herbivore. The iguanodon was the second type of dinosaur discovered, first found in 1825 by Gideon Mantell. These are described with the words: they looked like monstrous kangaroos, twenty feet in length, and with skins like black crocodiles. They are also portrayed as particularly unintelligent creatures, as one pulls a tree down on top of itself.
  • 'Irish Elk' (Megaloceros)
    A prehistoric mammal rather than a dinosaur. Described as a huge deer, with branching horns, a magnificent creature that carried itself like a king. The first specimen recorded was found in an Irish peat bog in 1799. Two very fine specimens are on display in Dublin's Natural History Museum.
  • Phorusrhacos
    A great running bird, far taller than an ostrich, with a vulture-like neck and cruel head which made it a walking death...the great creature, twelve feet from head to foot.
  • Pterodactyls
    A type of pterosaur or flying reptile rather than a dinosaur. These are described as filthy creatures with 20-foot wing spans, obscene reptilian life... more like dead and dried specimens than actual living creatures... Their huge, membranous wings were closed by folding their forearms so that they sat like gigantic old women, wrapped in hideous web-coloured shawls, and with their ferocious heads... Who knows what venom these beasts may have in their hideous jaws?
  • Stegosaurus
    First drawn by Maple White and later spotted by Malone at night. Described as the most extraordinary creature... the wild dream of an opium smoker, a vision of delirium. The head was like that of a fowl, the body that of a bloated lizard, the trailing tail was furnished with upward-turned spikes, and the curved back was edged with a high serrated fringe, which looked like a dozen cocks' wattles placed behind each other.
  • Toxodon
    Described as giant ten-foot guinea pig with projecting chisel teeth, which we killed as it drank, this was a mammal first discovered by Charles Darwin in 1832.


Conan Doyle wrote four sequels to The Lost World, featuring the character of Professor Challenger. These were:

  • The Poison Belt (1913)
  • The Land of Mist (1925)
  • When The World Screamed (1928)
  • The Disintegration Machine (1929)

None of these featured dinosaurs.

Film and Television Adaptations

This tale has been adapted for radio, film and television many times, most notably in 1925. There have been several remakes and other versions of The Lost World, almost all of these have been called 'The Lost World'. 'The Lost World' has even been made into a 4D theme-park attraction, viewable in places like Wookey Hole.

MadeChallengerSummerleeRoxtonMaloneLove Interest
1925Wallace BeeryArthur HoytLewis StoneLloyd HugesPaula White:
Bessie Love
1960Claude RainsRichard HaydnMichael RennieDavid HedisonJennifer Holmes:
Jill St. John
1992John Rhys-DaviesDavid Warner
Eric McCormackMalu:
Nathania Stanford
1998Patrick Bergin} Michael SinelnikoffDavid NermanJulian CaseyAmanda White:
Jayne Heitmeyer
1999 - 2002Peter McCauleyWilliam SnowWilliam DeVry
David Orth
Marguerite Krux:
Rachel Blakely
2001Bob HoskinsJames FoxTom WardMatthew RhysAgnes Cluny:
Elaine Cassidy
2005Bruce BoxleitnerSarah LievingRhett GilesJeff DentonDana:
Christina Rosenberg

The Lost World (1925)

The first film version of The Lost World, animated by Willis O'Brien, met with the whole-hearted approval of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself. He used a test reel in June 1922 to convince the Society of American Magicians that the dinosaurs were real. Conan Doyle later wrote: It struck me that it would be very amusing if I could mystify the mystifiers. The film went on to become a great success when released in 1925, and was even the first film to be shown on a commercial aeroplane flight.

The stop-motion dinosaurs were closely modelled on the work of Charles Knight3. For each minute of dinosaur action, 960 frames of film were required to be animated, as the film standard at the time was for 16 frames per second, rather than 24 fps as today. Pre-production and model work for the film took two years. The film not only pioneered feature length stop-motion animation, it included breath-taking sequences such as the volcanic eruption in which herds of dinosaurs flee.

The Lost World (1960)

An Irwin Allen film. Although Irwin Allen had worked with leading stop-motion animation artists Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen previously when animating dinosaurs for Animal World, 20th Century Fox convinced him that for this adaptation stop-motion animation would be too expensive. Instead, Allen filmed lizards and crocodiles from low angles to make them look big so that an iguana unconvincingly portrayed an iguanodon. By sticking different cut-out shapes on them, he hoped the audience would be convinced that the 'dinosaurs' were real, especially as the lizards were forced to fight each other. Unconvincing and cruel.

The Lost World (1992)

This Canadian adaptation, starring John Rhys-Davies and David Warner as Challenger and Summerlee, was made back-to-back with sequel Return to the Lost World (1992). In addition to Challenger, Summerlee and the now-Canadian Malone (Eric McCormack), the expedition includes a wealthy heiress and National Geographic photographer Jenny Nielson (Tamara Gorski) and guide, Malu (Nathania Stanford). John Roxton has been replaced with a child character called Jim (Darren Peter Mercer). Another change is that the Lost World is now in Africa, perhaps because it was filmed in Zimbabwe. The film takes place in 1912, with the sequel set in pre-war 1914. The dinosaurs were puppets and these are infrequently seen, and when they are the same effects shot is often used.

Return to the Lost World definitely has a weaker story, in which the expedition battles an evil doctor who has been given permission from the Belgian government to drill for oil. Despite having only a small, flimsy monoplane aircraft as his means of transportation, he has somehow brought a large team and a lot of heavy equipment to the plateau. How having an oil rig in the middle of an isolated area could possibly be profitable is never learnt. Soon a tyrannosaurus rex has trod on a pipe, turning the oil rig into a volcano that threatens to destroy the entire plateau with lava stock footage! Fortunately Challenger and crew are summoned by a schoolteacher, save the day and give an ecological lecture.

The Lost World (1998)

This was made as a mockbuster, an attempt to cash in on the success of blockbuster film Jurassic Park: The Lost World. Even the poster and cover art reflects this, with Michael Sinelnikoff, an actor resembling Richard Attenborough, given a prominent position despite having a limited role in the film.

This version is a poor, cheap film where the action takes place in Mongolia rather than South America. Although it keeps most of the names (but Malone is renamed 'Arthur' rather than 'Edward'), the characters and plot are altered almost beyond recognition. The story borrows heavily from other sources, including The Land that Time Forgot, King Kong (1933) and the Indiana Jones films.

The film is set in 1934 and features additional character Jayne Heitmeyer as Amanda White, daughter of Maple White, with Gregoriane Minot Payeur and Russell Yuen as siblings Djena and Myar. Some films are so bad they are actually quite good in an amusing sort of way. This adaptation is just so bad it is unbelievably bad. For example, the 'brontosaurus' tail looks remarkably like that of a stegosaurus. The less said about the 'dinosaurs', and indeed the film as a whole, the better.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1999-2002)

An entertaining television series starring Peter McCauley as Challenger. Michael Sinelnikoff returns from the version made the year before, once again playing Summerlee. Roxton is played by William Snow. Malone was originally played by William deVry in the pilot, but was replaced by David Orth for the series as a whole. Other characters include Marguerite Krux (Rachel Blakely), a wealthy widow who finances the expedition, and Veronica Layton (Jennifer O'Dell), who has adapted to life in the lost world and lives in a tree house there. Like the 1998 version, the ascent to the plateau is made by hot air balloon and the series is set between the wars.

The Lost World (2001)

Set in 1911, the 2001 BBC version is a stunning historical drama starring Bob Hoskins and James Fox. The breathtaking special effects pioneered for Walking with Dinosaurs created the definitive adaptation of this classic tale. A flagship programme, this was broadcast in Britain in two parts, on Christmas Day and Boxing Day 2001.

King of the Lost World (2005)

A mockbuster made to capitalise on the success of King Kong (2005), but also heavily influenced by popular television series Lost (2004-10) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Inexplicably, despite the presence of Challenger, Roxton, Malone and a female Summerlee, the film does not contain any dinosaurs. It features dragons, giant insects and a 100ft gorilla instead.

Radio Adaptations

The first radio adaptation of the story was written by Mervyn Mills and broadcast by the BBC on Wednesdays in six 45-minute episodes from 2 November, 1938. In 1944 BBC Secretary Peggy Wells wrote a six 25-minute episode version, broadcast live in April and May that year, with the sequel The Poison Belt broadcast in four episodes from August that year. These scripts were adapted by Ayton Whitaker in another live broadcast version in early 1949, and in 1952 an adaptation by John Keir Cross was broadcast in five 20-minute episodes.

It would be over 22 years before another radio adaptation was broadcast. Barry Campbell was commissioned at short notice to revise Peggy Wells' scripts and convert them into three 55-minute episodes. This suffered from the added complication of the BBC's archive not having Wells' second episode, resulting in a script covering this gap needing to be written from scratch at the last minute. Another radio adaptation was released in 1975 as part of the For Schools programme.

In New Zealand an adaptation of this script was recorded in 1980, and in 1997 The Alien Voices released their version. The Alien Voices was a radio drama company founded by Star Trek actors John de Lancie, who played Q, and Leonard Nimoy (Spock) as a way to re-establish science fiction audio drama, which they had both enjoyed listening to when younger. For their adaptation Armin Shimmerman (Deep Space 9's Quark) played Challenger.

Films Influenced By The Lost World

Many films have been influenced by The Lost World. The following are perhaps those that it has had the greatest influence on:

King Kong (1933)

Following the worldwide success of The Lost World (1925), there were initially plans to make a sound-version remake. Sadly film studio First National Pictures collapsed. With the rights tied up with First National, Willis O'Brien attempted to make a similar film with RKO4 Pictures. To be named Creation, the plot was loosely inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs' novel The Land that Time Forgot. However, RKO suffered financial difficulties and this expensive film was abandoned shortly after filming began for plot reasons and the cost. Many of the models and some of the planned sequences were used in one of RKO's most famous films, King Kong (1933). This featured a mysterious land where dinosaurs still lived in conjunction with a giant ape.

Two Lost Worlds (1950)

Presumably someone thought that two lost worlds were better than one, however the second world is so lost it doesn't even appear in this film. In a plot that also resembles The Land that Time Forgot, the cast end up on a volcanic island populated by dinosaurs. The dinosaur effects seen in this film were stock footage from One Million BC (1940).

Lost Continent (1951)

The plot involves a missing rocket ship, allowing the reuse of footage from Rocketship X-M (1950), and a plane that crashes on a lost island (rather than a continent) full of dinosaurs. Once again there is a volcano.

The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

After Willis O'Brien's death in 1962, Ray Harryhausen brought one of O'Brien's unmade projects to life, The Valley Of Gwangi. This too was heavily influenced by The Lost World and features a lost valley of dinosaurs, including an allosaurus, in Central America rather than a lost plateau of dinosaurs, including an allosaurus, in South America.

The Jurassic Park Trilogy (1993-2001)

The Jurassic Park movies are not direct adaptations of Conan Doyle's novel, as the dinosaurs are created by scientists from preserved DNA rather than still living in the wild. Nevertheless, they owe much to the novel, and the second film in the series, Jurassic Park: The Lost World, ends with a T.rex brought back to civilisation, where it escapes and goes on the rampage.

Up (2009)

A charming Pixar animated film that has many similarities with The Lost World. The film is set on Paradise Falls, a tepui plateau described as 'a lost world in South America'. Up's Charles Muntz seems an evil cross between Professor Challenger and Lord Roxton. Like Lord Roxton he is a hunter, fond of dogs and displaying the skeletons of animals he has killed. Lord Roxton is described in the novel as a lover of dogs and has animal heads on display as trophies. Like Professor Challenger who was mocked on his first return from South America, Charles Muntz too was mocked and vowed to return with living proof he had seen a giant bird. A giant bird also appears in The Lost World.

1A tepui is a 'table top' or flat-topped mountain. There are over a hundred such plateaus in South America. 2After a period of being called Scrotum Humanum after the shape the femur resembled, this creature was given the name megalosaurus in 1824.3Charles Robert Knight was an American artist who between 1890 and 1950 specialised in paintings of dinosaurs, both for books and for natural history museums throughout America.4Radio-Keith-Orpheum.

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