Meet Professor George Edward Challenger, a clever and gruff man with an adventurous spirit but impossible behavior.
He lives up to his name by being a challenge to everyone he meets while also issuing challenges to colleagues and foes. He’s a meaty character who is a “full-charged battery of force and vitality,” as described by his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the 1912 novel The Lost World. No wonder he has attracted such actors as Wallace Beery, Claude Rains and John Rhys-Davies to play him in three of the multiple screen adaptations.
Though Conan Doyle is better known as the literary father of Sherlock Holmes, The Lost World is famous in its own right. The slim novel opens with an extended scene of a young newspaper reporter whose girlfriend won’t accept his proposal until he does something memorable. Lucky for him, Professor Challenger has returned from South America where he claims he found the existence of dinosaurs. Instead of being heralded for the discovery, Challenger is a joke in the British science community where his ill-temper doesn’t help his case. Only a new expedition with witnesses will prove he’s not a fraud.
Though Doyle’s Lost World has dinosaurs, it is not the basis for the 2007 film of the same name, but rather a distant relative. Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton paid homage to Doyle’s novel by using the title The Lost World for his sequel to both the novel and film.
The first film adaptation of Conan Doyle’s novel was made in 1925, and though it was silent, the imagery was enough to startle and amaze moviegoers at the time.
The directing is tedious, but the dinosaur scenes often exceeded my expectations and I suspect they will at least surprise you. Of course, they can’t compare with today’s CGI-dinosaurs and other technological marvels, but, like Jurassic Park, the original Lost World film showed audiences something they previously could only imagine.
That’s thanks to the legendary Willis O’Brien, a pioneer in the art of stop-motion animation who created one of the greatest beasts in cinematic history with King Kong.
O’Brien had tinkered with dinosaurs starting with his first film, The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy (1917). It was one of several prehistoric shorts he would make for the Thomas Edison Company including The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1918). But these were only about 5 minutes in length, and O’Brien, though always creative, was using primitive puppetry. Watch those shorts and you will be impressed by how much his talents progressed in only eight years for The Lost World, in which he used 18-inch dinosaurs, and then again when he shook the film world with King Kong.
The original movie
Professor Challenger (played with bombast and wild hair by Wallace Beery) is suing the London Record Journal for doubting his tales of dinosaurs while on expedition on a South American plateau. The only “proof” Challenger has about the dinosaurs is a diary kept by another explorer, Maple White, that includes descriptions and hand-drawn pictures. White was lost on the original expedition and a diary is not enough to convince anyone that dinosaurs are alive.
The combative Challenger, now the joke of the science community, won’t talk to reporters to help his case. Still, clumsy young reporter Ed Malone (Lloyd Hughes), who needs to do something “dangerous” to win over his fiancée, volunteers to cover Challenger.
During a speech, Challenger challenges a room of doubters to join him on an expedition to prove the existence of the dinosaurs. Though he gets heckled, an expedition is set. Joining Challenger are the reporter Malone, big-game hunter Sir John Roxton (played by the esteemed Lewis Stone), doubting Professor Summerville (Arthur Hoyt) and Paula White (Bessie Love), daughter of Maple White.
We’re quickly on an expedition with dangers lurking before we spot our first prehistoric creature: there’s a native with a spear hiding in the bushes, an angry leopard, a mean-looking gorilla who will be lurking about throughout the film. (He’s clearly a guy in a suit, but ape-men are part of the original novel and later adaptations.)
Luckily, it doesn’t take long to spot our first dinosaur and it’s a spectacular Pterodactyl flying over the pinnacle where Maple White was lost (this pivotal scene is replayed in subsequent versions). Then there’s a Brontosaurus – perfectly harmless “unless it happens to step on us,” Challenger tells his group – but also the vicious meat-eating Allosaurus.
They reach the chasm where Maple White was last seen, cutting down a tree to help them cross to the other side. But trees have leaves, a perfect snack for a dino who accidentally dislodges the tree while munching and traps the explorers with seemingly no way back to camp.
If that’s not enough, a volcano decides to erupt. Our trusty adventurers now need to find a way down the pinnacle, escape the dinosaurs (and that pesky ape-man) and get away before the volcano erupts. Did I mention the love triangle, too? There’s plenty of drama.
Though the dinosaurs are often in long shot, the scenes still do their job. O’Brien has his creatures on the move through thick foliage, battles and running from lava. That movement lends them a realism they wouldn’t have if they were static.
Without really spoiling the story, they do make it back to civilization (was there any doubt?) with a specimen that, like all creatures that find themselves in a big city (King Kong, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms) will get loose and wreak havoc.
So break down The Lost World with me to its basics. A man claims to have seen dinosaurs/monsters. No one believes him. There is a diary with a map. Unimaginable danger lurks about. People get trapped with no way home. Mountain caves provide shelter. And there’s a volcano. Perhaps if they escape, they have a trophy to bring to the big city where it will surely get loose.
Sound familiar? Absolutely. The Lost World was the inspiration for a century of films to follow with similar elements such as King Kong, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and yes, the Jurassic Park/Jurassic World/Lost World films. At the same time, Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World followed a tradition of other grand adventures in new worlds such as those written by Jules Verne in the 1880s, Mysterious Island and Journey to the Center of the Earth (which also have multiple adaptations worth watching).
Other adaptations of The Lost World
The timeless story of The Lost World has been irresistible to filmmakers with multiple versions made for film and television. They generally follow the same storyline with the same characters – Professor Challenger, Professor Summerlee, a reporter, a respected big-game hunter and a young woman with a relationship to someone in the story. The location may change, characters are added and some versions follow closer than others. But the actors playing Challenger are all up to the challenge and give viewers a jolly good time. Here are just two of the other adaptations, each called The Lost World.
1960 film. Directed by Irwin Allen.
Grab the popcorn. This is a fun and very colorful adventure yarn that throws in much more than dinosaurs with cannibals, a giant spider (as bad as it looks, it’s still a giant spider), carnivorous plants, dangerous caverns, a sea creature and lots of lava. We can clearly see Allen’s penchant for disaster films in an early stage.
A red-haired and fiery Claude Rains and his umbrella lead the way as Professor Challenger, the regal Michael Rennie is Lord John Roxton and Al (David) Hedison is our reporter Al Malone. There is the addition of Fernando Lamas as a helicopter pilot named Gomez, who travels with his guitar and is apt to break into a lovely ballad. Jill St. John plays Jennifer Holmes, the publisher’s daughter, whose impractical outfits are reason enough to watch at times. A native girl (Vitina Marcus) helps them out.
1992 TV movie. Directed by Timothy Bond.
This clearly has that look of a made-for-TV movie, but I didn’t mind. Casting John Rhys-Davies and his bellowing voice as Professor Challenger is a no-brainer and ups the entertainment value substantially. The late David Warner play Summerlee; a young Eric McCormick is our newspaper reporter. There’s no Sir Roxton in this version, though he’s not missed because Summerlee has much more to do – and did I mention he’s played by David Warner?
The young female along this time is a photographer named Jenny Nielson (played by Tamara Gorski) whose rich family contributed to the trip. Also along for the ride: A young newsboy stowaway and pretty native Malu (Nathania Stanford) who will guide them and create a love triangle that thankfully doesn’t get in the way of the plot.
The action moves to Africa giving us more to fear, including two warring tribes, one of which likes to feed people to the dinosaurs. Still, this film has much more humor than the other versions and isn’t quite so scary since some of the dinosaurs look so warm and cuddly. At the end, our adventurers promise to return to their new friends which they do in the sequel Return to the Lost World, filmed simultaneously with the same cast and director.
And still more
Yes, there are more adaptations, although they aren’t as readily available for viewing. Here’s a super quick take on three. You can also find some animated versions, too.
1998: Handsome Patrick Bergin took on the role of Challenger in this American-Canadian made-for-TV film. Set in Mongolia, it goes for the terror instead of the laughs.
1999: This Australian-Canadian TV series aired for three seasons (22 episodes each) with New Zealand actor Peter McCauley as Challenger.
2001: Bob Hoskins is another solid choice as Challenger in this BBC production, considered the most faithful adaptation of the novel by the Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia. James Fox, Matthew Rhys and Peter Falk co-star.
– Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub
Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever and is a member of the Classic Movie Blog Association. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.