Born in Leigh, Lancashire, England, Hilton was the son of John Hilton, the headmaster of Chapel End School in Walthamstow. He was educated at The Leys School, Cambridge and then at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he wrote his first novel, and was also awarded an honours degree in English literature. He started work as a journalist, first for the Manchester Guardian, then reviewing fiction for the Daily Telegraph.
He wrote his two most remembered books, Lost Horizon and Goodbye, Mr. Chips while living in a house on Oak Hill Gardens, in Woodford Green in north London. The house still stands, with a blue plaque marking Hilton's residence. By 1938 he had moved to California, and his work became more connected with the Hollywood film industry.
He married Alice Brown, a secretary at the BBC, just before they left for the United States in 1935, but they divorced in 1937. He then married Galina Kopernak but divorced eight years later. He became an American citizen in 1948.
A heavy smoker, Hilton had various health problems when he made a farewell visit to England in 1954, and in December he died at his home in Long Beach, California, USA, from liver cancer with his reconciled former wife Alice at his side. His obituary in The Times describes him as "a modest and retiring man for all his success, he was a keen mountaineer and enjoyed music and travel."
Hilton's first novel, Catherine Herself, was published in 1920, when he was still an undergraduate. The next eleven years were difficult for him, and it was not until 1931 that he had success with the novel And Now Goodbye. Following this, several of his books were international bestsellers and inspired successful film adaptations, notably Lost Horizon (1933), which won a Hawthornden Prize; Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1934); and Random Harvest (1941). After this, he continued to write, but the works were not regarded as of the same quality as his best-known novels.
Hilton's books are sometimes characterised as sentimental and idealistic celebrations of English virtues. This is true of Mr. Chips, but some of his novels had a darker side. Flaws in the English society of his time – particularly narrow-mindedness and class-consciousness – were frequently his targets. His novel We Are Not Alone, despite its inspirational-sounding title, is a grim story of legally approved lynching brought on by wartime hysteria in Britain.
Freud - an early admirer (though he considered The Meadows of the Moon below par) - came to conclude that Hilton had wasted his talent by being too prolific.
First published in 1933, this novel won Hilton the Hawthornden Prize in 1934. Later, Pocket Books, which pioneered the publication of small, soft-cover, inexpensive books, picked Lost Horizon as its first title in 1939. For that reason, the novel is frequently called the book that began the "paperback revolution."
Hilton is said to have been inspired to write Lost Horizon, and to invent "Shangri-La" by reading the National Geographic Magazine articles of Joseph Rock, an Austrian-American botanist and ethnologist exploring the southwestern Chinese provinces and Tibetan borderlands. Still living in Britain at the time, Hilton was perhaps influenced by the Tibetan travel articles of early travellers in Tibet whose writings were found in the British Library. Christian Zeeman, the Danish father of the mathematician Christopher Zeeman, has also been claimed to be the model for the hero of the story. He disappeared while living in Japan (where his son was born in 1925), and was reputed to be living incognito in a Zen Buddhist monastery.
Some say that the isolated valley town of Weaverville, California, in far northern Trinity County, was a source, but this is the result of a misinterpretation of a comment by Hilton in a 1941 interview, in which he said that Weaverville reminded him of Shangri-La. Coincidentally, Junction City (about 8 miles from Weaverville) now has a Tibetan Buddhist centre with the occasional Tibetan monks in saffron robes.
The name "Shangri-La" has become a byword for a mythical utopia, a permanently happy land, isolated from the world. After the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, when the fact that the bombers had flown from an aircraft carrier remained highly classified, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt told the press facetiously that they had taken off from Shangri-La. The Navy subsequently gave that name to an aircraft carrier, and Roosevelt named his Maryland presidential retreat "Shangri-La". (Later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower renamed the retreat Camp David after his grandson, and that name has been used for it ever since.) Zhongdian, a mountain region of Southwest China, has now been renamed Shangri-La (Xianggelila), based on its claim to have inspired Hilton's book.
Hilton's father, headmaster of Chapel End School in Walthamstow, was one of the inspirations for the character of Mr. Chipping in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, a best seller. Hilton first sent the material to The Atlantic and the magazine printed it as an article in April, 1934. It was then proposed to be printed as a book. On 8 June it was published as a book. Four months later it appeared as a book in Britain.
Hilton, who lived and worked in Hollywood beginning in the mid-1930s, won an Academy Award in 1942 for his work on the screenplay of Mrs. Miniver, based on the novel by Jan Struther. He hosted The Hallmark Playhouse (1948–1953) for CBS Radio. One of his later novels, Morning Journey, was about the film business.
Some of Hilton's novels were filmed:Lost Horizon (1937, 1973)
Knight Without Armour (1937)
We Are Not Alone (1939) with a screenplay by Hilton
Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939, 1969, 1984, 2002)
Rage in Heaven (1941)
Random Harvest (1942), reprised on radio in 1943
The Story of Dr. Wassell (1944), starring Gary Cooper
So Well Remembered (1947) starring John Mills and narrated by Hilton
Hilton co-wrote the book and lyrics for Shangri-La, a disastrous 1956 Broadway musical adaptation of Lost Horizon.
There is one sequel to Lost Horizon titled Shangri-La and written by Eleanor Cooney and Daniel Altieri. It was licensed by the publisher William Morrow (an imprint of Harper Collins) and approved by the heirs to the Hilton Estate, Elizabeth Hill and Mary Porterfield. Shangri-La continues James Hilton's tale, moving it forward in time to the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and from there travelling back to the 1930s. In addition to its U.S. publication, the novel was further published in Germany, France, Spain and Portugal and was a New York Times Notable Book.
A furore was caused in the late 1990s, when Wigan Council (the Metropolitan Borough responsible for Leigh) announced that a blue plaque in honour of Hilton would be placed not on his house in Wilkinson Street, but on the town hall. This caused great debate amongst the populace of Leigh, which considered it more appropriate to have it on the house itself, which is only a few hundred yards from the town hall.
James Hilton should not be confused with the Leigh businessman of the same name who became chairman of Leigh Rugby League Football Club after the war and after whom the club's former ground, Hilton Park (1947–2009), was named.