When the movie "7 Years in Tibet" came out I made my girlfriend get in the car and drive 50 miles with me, to another city, just to see it. Since that time it has been one of my favorite films, despite the fact that I like to quote Brad Pitt's lines in a horrible Austrian accent ("shut up peter!"). However, the movie departs from Heinrich Harrer's account on several key points.
1) He never mentions a troubled marriage or a son he left behind (maybe this is referenced in his other writings), 2) He never becomes a Buddhist, as the movie implies, 3) The chronology is different, as in reality he and Aufschneiter only reached Lhasa when WW2 was over, 4) he and Aufshcneiter were friends from the beginning and were not antagonistic to one another, 5) Harrer does not come off as a loner/egomaniac who becomes human during his stay in Tibet. Still, there are several themes common to both, like his profound respect and love for Tibet, its people, culture, his personal relationship with the Dalai Lama, etc.
His account is closer to "the Long Walk", a tale of endurance, with the added element of learning to live, and thrive, as an exile in an exotic culture. Being a mid-20th century European he also makes some paternalistic, superior-minded comments about Tibetans, but that is to be expected. Also, for those whose knowledge of Tibet stems solely from the publications and cultural festivals that revolve around the "Free Tibet" campaign, Harrer's book will be something of an eye-opener. While reading this I was reminded that until recently, perhaps even now in certain respects, Tibet was a feudal culture, which has its own forms of violence, oppresion, rigid social structure, etc. I don't mean to suggest that Tibet should be under the Chinese yoke. But, even I, who knows something of the history of this region, tends to forget that Tibet was/is not an idyllic, New Age/Hippy paradise. It is a conservative, ancient society, containing all the ills that plague other civilizations.
I really enjoyed reading this. It's a chance to get a good look at an isolated society before it was colonized, once again, by "more civilized" neighbors. I still like the movie a lot, but the book is also a favorite now even though it is messy, unexpected and doesn't seamlessly conform to the dictates of a plotline.