Revisiting Jurassic Park

A couple of weeks ago, I had a dream that I was riding my bike through my hometown and I saw a velociraptor poke its head out of the bushes.  I remember thinking to myself “Jesus H! They made a dinosaur and it got loose.”  It wasn’t until after it had sprung out of the bushes and was screaming at me that I thought to pedal away.  All I remember is that I was pedaling furiously while I could feel the breath of the dinosaur on my neck, wondering why it hadn’t just taken a bite already.  That’s when I woke up – relieved it had only been a dream and filled with an overwhelming desire to reread Jurassic Park.

I first read Jurassic Park in 1993, right before the movie came out.  Why I had not read it before is a bit of a mystery to me, but it is what it is.  I devoured it – probably reading it over the course of 3 or 4 days.  As pretty much everyone knows, Jurassic Park is all about living and breathing dinosaurs that have been cloned by InGen Industries from prehistoric DNA carefully extracted from the bellies of mosquitoes fossilized in amber.  Situated on an island off the coast of Costa Rica, paleontologists Alan Grant and Ellie Satler as well as mathemetician Ian Malcolm and lawyer Donald Gennaro all visit the island at the request of John Hammond, CEO of InGen, to prove to nervous investors that the park is safe and on schedule.  Also invited for the tour are Hammond’s grandchildren Tim and Lex.  As you might imagine, dinosaurs get loose, eat people and wreak general havoc.

But it’s so much more than that.  I’ll admit that time had not been kind to my recollection of the novel.  Upon rereading it nearly 20 years after my first pass through it, I found what is a frequent refrain when you compare books to their movie adaptations: “the book was so much better.”  Indeed, Michael Crichton’s book is far superior to it’s film counterpart.  But more about that later.

What struck me most about the book was just how smart it really is.  It doesn’t condescend to the reader at all – you smarten up for the book because it’s not going to dumb itself down for you.  If you want to read about dinosaurs gone amok, you’re going to have to be savvy enough to understand some pretty serious science talk.  It’s not a molecular biology textbook by an stretch of the imagination – it is a sci-fi novel, after all – but I really admired how it maintained it’s level of smart when it could have so easily gone for the lowest common denominator in an attempt to sell even more books.

Another thing that surprised me was how well the scenes of dino carnage read.  I’m of the opinion that intensely scary scenes like those are a really tough nut as far as writing goes.  Much like zombie fiction, it’s hard to write that kind of stuff and have it not feel like a play-by-play of what happened.  It’s easier to show that kind of thing than it is to tell it.  Crichton did a really good job of making it not only believable but exciting.  The further I got into the book, the more I thought to myself “why did I only rate this at 3 stars on Goodreads?  This is so much better than 3 stars.”  Unfortunately, I think the blame for that three star review lies squarely at the foot of the film adaptation.

The 1993 film version of Jurassic Park is widely credited as the first time that CG special effects really worked.  One of my coworkers at the time was moaning about the movie, stating that he “didn’t want to go to a movie and watch a bunch of rubbery, fake looking dinosaurs.”  The dinosaurs in Steven Spielberg’s movie are anything but fake looking.  They really are there.  My sister maintains that the CG in Jurassic Park doesn’t hold up, but my counter-argument is in the vein of “give them a break – this was their first real shot at prime time.”  I saw Jurassic Park four times in the theater that summer, so clearly I was hooked by the chance to see the closest thing we’ll ever get to living and breathing dinosaurs.  The dinosaurs were breathtaking and some of the action sequences (the T. rex escaping its paddock, the velociraptors in the kitchen) truly had us on the edge of our seats.

If only Spielberg had taken as much care with the story and script as he had with the dinosaurs.

Where Crichton’s novel refused to dumb itself down for the audience, the movie never missed a chance to do so.  They also never passed up an opportunity to put in a cheesy one-liner or stupid joke.  I get that it was a summer blockbuster, but I really don’t think they need to be stupid or pander to the audience.  Additionally, in the transition from book to film, characters had complete personality transplants, most notably John Hammond who went from megalomaniacal and narcissistic to a “whoops, live dinosaurs didn’t quite work out” simpleton.  The movie also suffers from the casting of Jeff Goldblum as Ian Malcolm, but that’s mostly a personal bias.  I can’t stand pretty much anything the guy does.  Even his recent turn as one of Rachel’s dads on Glee made me twitch a little bit.  Thank goodness they cast John Cusack in the Jeff Goldblum role in 2012.  I wouldn’t have been able to take it otherwise.  One thing I will say for the movies is that they made the right choice regarding the end.  The end of the novel goes on a little too long and would have killed the momentum of the movie.

For my money, the best film in the Jurassic Park series is still Jurassic Park 3 if for no other reason than it had the least to lose.  Unburdened from having to adapt a successful book to the screen, it felt a lot truer to spirit of the novels than either Jurassic Park or The Lost World did.  That and it finally had flying dinosaurs, which was one of the high points of the first novel for me.  I was so disappointed when they didn’t make the first movie.

Despite the film’s flaws, Michael Crichton’s novel is worth a revisit if you haven’t read it in a while.  And if your only familiarity with Jurassic Park is from the movies, I’d encourage you to give it a try.  It’s accessible without being condescending or stupid.

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11 Responses to Revisiting Jurassic Park

  1. Like a lot of people I’m assuming, I have seen the film but have not read the book. Sometimes if I love a book, I do not even want to see the film, as in so many cases the film just does not compare. The only exception being Atonment which I thought was brilliant in both! I love a good adventure- I’ll check the book out next time I’m going to the library!

    • Dan says:

      That’s what I did – I had the paperback up until just a year or two ago when I finally got rid of it saying “I’m never going to read THIS again.” So off to the library I went. I’m kind of glad because it was a really good reread but not worth going out and buying again.

  2. Elliot says:

    I think a lot of people would be familiar with the film due to all the hype at the time. Watching it now, it is funny how moronic a lot of the choices they make are, and how little the scientists question the science. Never read the book, but I kind of imagined it would be better.

    Does it contain less schmaltz ?

    • Dan says:

      Re: schmaltz. Oh God yes! Much less schmaltz. That’s the thing about Spielberg – he can’t resist the schmaltz. He really kind of ruined the story in his film adaptation. If the effects weren’t so good and the action scenes so intense, I wouldn’t bother with it again.

  3. Fuck yes. Fuck yes to all of this.

    I think one of my biggest (though only) disappointments with the movie is that Hammond is a good guy the entire way through. I love that the book shows he’s not just a grandfatherly type with a lot of money and childish whimsicality but a shrewd businessman who isn’t wiling to risk his investment for a few human lives.

    Also, it’s a shame they left out the underground nest of velociraptors. Any movie can be improved with the addition of MORE velociraptors (take, for example, the long grass scene in the second).

    • Dan says:

      I agree re: Hammond. Richard Attenborough was either completely miscast or the interpretation of the character was way off in the film. He was so much more self-centered in the novel and it really fit well as only someone like that could make something like Jurassic Park work.

      It’s true, I love the velociraptors as well, even though from what I’ve read they really don’t represent true velociraptors (which were more the size of chickens but that doesn’t make for a very good movie villain.) Regardless, they were very scary and that long grass scene you mention from The Lost World is top notch. I still think that the underground velociraptor nest would have killed the momentum of the movie, but it was fun to read.

  4. Carrie Rubin says:

    First of all, if I ever encounter a dinosaur, I hope I’m driving a speedy Porsche and not riding a bicycle. Yikes! But second of all, I can’t believe I never read this book. Loved the movie, and years later, my kids loved it, too, which is hard to pull off in today’s great special-effect world. But I kind of liked Jeff Goldblum in it. Thought his character had some great one-liners.

    • Dan says:

      Ha, yeah. I hope that I’m not on a bike trying to outrun a dino in real life either!

      I have not really showed it to my daughter yet who is freakishly scared of a lot of stuff. But she has shown some interest in it.

  5. ellisnelson says:

    I miss Michael Crichton! Sure, we have the books and the movies but he’s gone.

  6. digitalsextant says:

    1. I agree with much of what you say here, but I still love the movie. The cheesy lines and simplification work to make the movie a streamlined summer popcorn action film. I like Jeff Goldblum, so that’s a positive in my column instead of a negative.

    2. It made me sad to read this story the other day, with an archeologist (or biologist, I don’t know) suggesting that recent finds may undermine the entire “big lizard” hypothesis, as more and more evidence of feathers are found. Sigh.
    http://boingboing.net/2012/07/05/stunning-feathered-dinosaur-fo.html

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