Jurassic Park

Author: Michael Crichton

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1990

I read it: April 2015 (re-read)


Somewhere near Costa Rica, a helicopter cuts through the mists of Isla Nublar. A group of scientists has been summoned by an eccentric billionaire who wants them to tour his unique destination. It’s part zoo, part amusement park, and all wonder. But when the main attractions turn out to be prehistoric beasts, the visitors get more than they bargained for…

You know the rest of the story. This is a book review, but it’s impossible to discuss Jurassic Park the book (1990) outside the lens of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park movie (1993). The movie is just too iconic, too damn good, to set to the side. It’s like The Wizard of Oz of its time: so dazzling that you forget there ever was a book as source material.

But what must it have been like to read the book upon publication, a few years before it hit the silver screen? (If anyone out there had this experience, please fill me in.) It’s possible that Michael Crichton singlehandedly put the awe of dinosaurs back into the public consciousness. He drew heavily from research happening up through the eighties, and made an obvious effort to reframe dinosaurs as more than the slow lumbering reptiles we knew from children’s book illustrations.

Today, we instantly know when Brontosaurus is reinstated as a proper genus, but decades ago I’d imagine that outside of academia only National Geographic subscribers might be clued in to current dinosaur models. I picture a general populace having stagnated on what dinosaurs could do—what they even were—and then BAM, Jurassic Park brings everyone up to speed in a dizzying rush.

So in the book, what can the dinos do? All the stuff you see on screen: run, jump, think, attack in coordination, not have to stand in swamps to support their weight. There are other oddities that may be scientifically questionable, such as the “he can’t see us if we don’t move” concept, which isn’t isolated to the T-rex but applies to all the dinosaurs due to their “amphibian visual cortex.” Some dinosaurs change colors like chameleons. Many have forked tongues like modern reptiles (indeed the creatures are often referred to as “reptiles” in the text, which could be a reflection of how the humans perceive the them). Crichton’s geneticist Henry Wu sums it up nicely:

The dinosaurs were as variable as mammals are today. Some dinos are tame and cute, and some are mean and nasty. Some of them see well, and some of them don’t. Some of them are stupid, and some of them are very, very intelligent.

What dinosaurs are, and especially what these particular recreated dinosaurs are, is something the book has room to explore a bit deeper than the movie. The first thing that jumps out is an answer to the huge question, why would anyone create carnivores in the first place? Why not just stick with the (relatively) safe herbivores? Because until the eggs were hatched in the lab, the scientists usually did not know which species they were getting. It was a guessing game, and Wu gets a lot of page space to explain how it’s all an ongoing experiment, with more refinements needed. These dinosaurs are patented versions, with upgrades being worked on in the next batch. That’s a tidy enough explanation for me.

There’s a broader point too, one that calls into question the entire plot of the upcoming Jurassic World movie. The trailers seem to play upon modern fears around genetically modified organisms, as if creating a “new” species is somehow much stupider than creating a Tyrannosaurus rex. (Well, it’s still stupid because it’s a carnivorous predator.) But as pointed out in the original novel, all the dinosaurs are lab creations, with the necessary tweaks and supplements that the process entails. John Hammond, who concocted the whole scheme, desperately wants to see them as the real thing, but Wu and others argue that this is clearly false. The frog DNA filling in the gaps in the sequence is just one example. Foreseeing some of the dangers, Wu actually wanted to create slower and more docile animals that would be considerably different from their ancient predecessors, yet Hammond would have none of it. Are the dinosaurs “real”? The question remains open.

Generally, the 1993 movie hews quite closely to the book’s events. Almost all the memorable scenes are in the book in some form, with the exception of the suspenseful moment on the electrified fence which was added. Then there are the nuggets that made their way into the movie sequels. The book has the little girl getting bit by a compy on the beach, as well as the T-rex peeking through a waterfall, which both ended up in The Lost World. A pterosaur attack and handling dinosaur eggs were reimagined for Jurassic Park III.

Michael Crichton had a hand in the original movie’s screenplay, and the scriptwriters made all the right story choices. They dismissed the book’s ongoing plotline about stray dinosaurs being stowaways on a ship headed for the mainland, which never seems important to the reader. And the book’s closing sequences are some of the least plausible, with Alan Grant and others choosing to put themselves back in harm’s way. It’s written as if Crichton wanted one last chance to drive home the bird migration concept by showcasing it with a pack of raptors, but the film’s graceful cut to soaring pelicans is more effective.

The characters in the book are recognizable from their movie counterparts, with small variations. Grant is pragmatic and computer-averse, but he does like kids. Ellie is fully capable, but is Grant’s student instead of romantic partner. Tim and Lex are in on the action, though their ages are reversed. Harding the vet, Arnold the control room boss, and Nedry the sloppy nerd are fleshed out little more than their job descriptions demand. Other cutouts include Muldoon the whiskey-chugging big game hunter and Gennaro the fussy, oblivious lawyer. Apart from the setup chapters, the movie only cuts out one character, Ed Regis, whose role just gets mashed into Gennaro’s.

Really, the book is the Hammond vs. Malcolm show. Both are starkly more obnoxious than their movie versions. John Hammond is an unbending idealist to the very end, refusing to see reason even after the bloodbath. He simultaneously pines for the look on children’s faces when they visit his future attraction while actively disliking his own grandchildren who are trying to avoid getting eaten by his creations. Ian Malcolm is the know-it-all, “rock star” mathematician (it’s science fiction, folks) who doubles as a quasi-environmentalist. The broad chapter divides are structured around Malcolm’s chaos theory, and it’s clear early on that he is right about the oncoming disaster. By the time he pontificates during his morphine high, perfectly willing to deliver speeches while the group is still in crisis, you’re ready to chuck the book aside even if you mostly agree with him. Yes, our hubris will be our undoing. No, we don’t always stop to think things through. Good to go.

But this book was never about the humans. Introducing Velociraptor to our culture has to be Michael Crichton’s crowning achievement. He built his plot around this fascinating species, which prove to be even more terrifying than the T-rex (the opening description of which has the creature waving its small arms in frustration, and who is eventually brought down by tranquilizers, poor guy). The raptors breed like crazy in the books—at least 37 are recorded by the park’s computers—and do all sorts of creative damage until getting outsmarted by Alan Grant. The movie launched the swift predators into household name status, and now it’s hard to imagine a pop culture world sans raptors. So much the better.

To get down to it: is the book worth a read? Yes, because it’s quick and has a bunch of awesome stuff about dinosaurs. It’s good, not great. Crichton writes swiftly and economically, with a penchant for using italics and exclamation points so you don’t accidentally miss the exciting parts. He has two primary interests: offering up intellectual candy about the possibilities and dangers of science, and showing off the dinos themselves. There’s a lot of action, so it was primed for the movie treatment. The film not only elevated the best dinosaur scenes, but had a rock solid cast who injected personality in all the right ways. It’s a modern classic.

Yet the book deserves high honors for being the thing that caused Jurassic Park the movie to exist. Seldom comes a time when science fact and fiction lean so closely together and then explode into the public consciousness by way of pop culture. Thanks to Crichton’s novel and the subsequent film, dinosaurs were made cool again, and that attitude has yet to deflate. I expect to find myself in a theater seat soon, eyes glued to the screen for the next dino adventure.

Music corner: The movie has inspired a few notable tunes, such as the primary track (not to mention cover art) to Weird Al’s Alapalooza, one of my first great cassette tape loves. But the moving score of the original film has been most notably covered in this stunning tribute, which happens to be my favorite YouTube clip of all time.

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