Back when author Michael Crichton was doing the television medical drama E. R., director Steven Spielberg asked him what he had next in the works. Crichton told him about this little thing he was working up involving dinosaurs, and Spielberg bought the rights to it, sight unseen, ready to pounce. It turns out to be quite the hit for both author and director, and for audiences the world over. But as is often the case, the book can be a very different experience from the film, especially considering the levels of wonder that someone like Spielberg can bring to his work. What would Jurassic Park look like in its original form, without the Spielberg factor? That was the question I had going into this the first time, when I read it hot on the heels of my theater experience. Now, a generation later, after multiple viewings of the film and its sequels, it was finally time for me to return to the book that started it all.
Thanks to the film, the plot of the book is as well-known to audiences today as the likes of Star Wars, Jaws, or any of the great monster films of the 1930s. An eccentric and wealthy old man builds a theme park targeted at rich kids, where the featured attractions are real life dinosaurs. Using DNA from blood recovered from prehistoric mosquitoes, themselves preserved in amber for millions of years, modern scientists bring the dinosaurs back in the form of clones. No expense is spared, and every contingency to keep these animals under control is prepared. But as theoretical mathematician Ian Malcolm reminds us, chaos theory abounds… and life finds a way.
For those who haven’t read this novel, I’m going to keep the differences from the film, and the ending, spoiler free. This is one that has to be experienced, just as the movie was.
Where Steven Spielberg’s influence on the film had audiences describing Jurassic Park as “Jaws on land,” I feel like this story belongs to an influence far older than that: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. As in Shelley’s own time, the fear in our world when this book was written, as reflected in the story, is that science had gone too far, and humanity had lost the ability to control what we had unleashed. Like Dr. Frankenstein, Hammond’s team was effectively playing God, and the creatures that broke loose could not be contained or fully understood. The only solution: destroy them. That’s the repeated meme of many a monster tale, and it’s found right here in Jurassic Park in what I consider to be the most classic version of the modern age. The fear of humanity’s power has simply transferred from electricity to atomic power to genetics. On the front of genetics, we can probably throw in H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau as an influence.
It’s more than that, however. The book is even more cynical. Hammond is painted as a kind of dark mirror version of Walt Disney who justifies his creations in the name of entertainment for the kids because any other means of making money is a fool’s errand, and he has no intention of helping mankind. That, he says, is the path to poverty and government control. When he invites paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant, his graduate student / assistant Ellie Sattler, and rock star mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm to the park, his intent is to get them to sign off on it based on sheer awe and spectacle. It only pisses him off that they see past all that, seeing only the flaws that could — and do — lead to disaster.
The implications of the novel address the scientific fears of 1990, which persist to this day, most notably in the form of climate change and the scientific advances that caused that to happen in the name of making a profit. But Crichton pushes forward an argument I’ve been making for years now (and if I’m being honest, I probably got it from this book the first time through). To humans, a hundred years seems like a long time. A few millennia are a drop in the bucket to our planet after four and a half billion years. The epochs of dinosaurs and humans are just that: passing fads. No matter what we do to the world, we’re only killing ourselves. The Earth will be just fine. Whatever comes next will probably be as different from us as we are from the dinosaurs, but it will still be life.
My one and only criticism with the novel is the writing style. For the past generation or so, there have been a great many “how to write” books published that reinforce a minimalist approach in the framing text so as to not be intrusive upon the character voices. In other words, regardless of what’s said, how it’s said, who says it, or why, every bit of dialog is framed by “he said” or “she said.” Even if a question is asked. “Why would this be?” she said. See how awkward that is? Go ahead and use a more appropriate word. “Why would this be?” she asked. Better, yes? Still not intrusive either. Don’t get me wrong, I get it. It probably does work better for print, the theory being that most readers skip unconsciously skip past the framing text. Here’s the rub. In an audiobook format, everything is noticed, and everything is utilized. In the hands of a gifted narrator, such as Scott Brick, who narrates Jurassic Park, the character voices are heightened as they might be in your own head, and the framing text drops down to monotone, so it calls itself out. The repetition makes it worse. In 1990, audiobooks weren’t a big industry, so I’m not going to bust Crichton’s chops on this too badly. My problem is, however, that more than a generation later, this is still a thing. Once it’s noticed, a reader like myself becomes fixated to the point of annoyance. Admittedly, that’s a far bigger issue when the story isn’t good enough or the characters don’t leap off the page and make me feel them, which is a problem I have with many modern novels. Jurassic Park can’t claim to have that problem. It starts a little slow and sterile as many science procedural thrillers do, but as with the film, the characters and especially the dinosaurs have a way of commanding your attention. That’s a win in any storytelling medium.
I think if I were to have had the opportunity to ask Crichton anything at all, my question would be, “What do you have against theme parks? Or is it just Walt Disney that you have a problem with specifically?” This is, after all, the same author who gave us Westworld. Food for thought.
In any case, as derivative as it may be when we look at it more closely, Jurassic Park is a modern classic for all the right reasons. Decades later, it’s easier to pick it apart, compare it to the film, hold it up to the light, and scrutinize every little detail, but the fact is that there were few stories bigger than this in its time, and it has held up so very well even when the film franchise has torpedoed itself with lackluster sequels, proving that bigger isn’t better. Only better is better. I won’t say the book is better than the movie… but I won’t say the reverse is true either. The two compliment one another extremely well in a kind of yin-yang. The book was well-received in its own time, and it has gone on to become Crichton’s most beloved work. I’d say the reasons are self-explanatory. If you’ve not read it and enjoy the film as so many do, I’d suggest you’re overdue for a visit to the original.