‘Jurassic Park’ flashback: Michael Crichton’s ‘Jurassic Park’ (1990) (Book review)

Welcome to a flashback series 65 million years … OK, 25 years … in the making. It’s been a quarter century since Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park” debuted. Its influence on popular thought about dinosaurs, chaos theory and genetic engineering is well documented, as is its influence – through the 1993 Steven Spielberg movie – on movie special effects.

But a closer look at the novel reveals a text that goes more in-depth than the unavoidably streamlined blockbuster movie, including a subplot with significant consequences for all mankind and passages that were adapted into the second, third and possibly even fourth film – the latter of which will come out in June.

Crichton’s book has aged well both as entertainment and an exploration of science and computers, but I can’t help but see it differently in 2015 than when I first read it as a teenager. Today, the idea of dinosaurs being cloned ranks low on my list of fears. I now understand that Crichton was using the age-old technique of taking something barely plausible and extrapolating it into a “what if” thriller. He pulls off the sleight of hand in passages such as this one on page 67 of the paperback:

“Formerly it was thought that fossilization eliminated all DNA. Now that was recognized as untrue. If enough DNA fragments were recovered, it might be possible to clone a living animal. … There was no theoretical barrier. It was merely difficult, expensive and unlikely to work. Yet it was certainly possible …”

And on page 99:

“And then the insects are preserved in amber …” Grant shook his head. “I’ll be damned – that just might work.”

But Crichton’s work holds up as a cautionary tale about genetic engineering of any kind, as many people today are scared of genetically engineered foods (to an unreasonable degree, in my opinion, although I have no problem with a requirement that GMO foods be labeled). The author also briefly touches on the idea of dinosaur diseases and the fear that they could jump species, a concept that ties in with the 2014 Ebola scare in the U.S. (and the continuing Ebola problem in Africa). The book also features cloned Jurassic dragonflies, a particularly sloppy move on the part of the engineers, as insects could fly to the mainland and theoretically spread disease.

Crichton brought recent dinosaur theories into the mainstream, notably dinosaurs’ similarity to birds and the belief that they were warm-blooded. The author’s biggest impact on pop culture was his version of velociraptors (technically, the book and the movie feature utahraptors or deinonychuses, but Crichton probably thought “velociraptor” sounded scarier). An early chapter includes an American who has to look up the word “raptor” (“bird of prey”) in the dictionary, but by 1993 there was an expansion NBA team called the Toronto Raptors.

I think Crichton slightly drops the ball with the character of Ian Malcolm, who coolly talks about how complex systems will have glitches, and how scientists who stood on the shoulders of giants have less moral restraint than those who earn their discoveries. In the film, he’s the cool (thanks to Jeff Goldblum) audience surrogate stating the obvious, but the book has enough back-and-forth between Malcolm and his philosophical opponents (Hammond, Arnold and Regis) that it begs for Malcolm to propose a solution other than “please stop cloning dinosaurs.”

I feel like the mathematician missed the answer that was right under his nose: The human race will learn to not clone dinosaurs due to the inevitable disaster at Jurassic Park, just as it learned to not drop atomic bombs after it did so a few times. While it would be better if humanity didn’t screw up in the first place, it’s odd that Malcolm doesn’t take solace in science’s natural course corrections. As such, the ultimate tragedy of Jurassic Park would be if word didn’t get out to the public – if InGen and the Costa Rican government successfully covered it up (“None of us is going anywhere, Dr. Grant,” Costa Rica-based doctor Guitierrez says in the book’s ominous final line).

The computer stuff — primarily Arnold searching through Nedry’s code and Tim (it was changed to Lex in the film) operating the security system — seems overwritten by today’s standards, a consequence of computers just entering the mainstream in 1990. Today, computers are so user-friendly that the primary problem is knowing the user name and password. But since “Jurassic Park” is set more or less in its year of its publication (despite the occasional vague wording that seems to look backward at “the late 20th century,” as if it takes place in the early 21st century), we can’t accuse Crichton of being naïve about future computer developments.

The novel and David Koepp’s screenplay for the 1993 film share the same general plot, but it’s interesting to note that some of the book’s passages and ideas didn’t hit the big screen until the sequels:

  • A girl is attacked by a compy on the beach, a scene that was recycled for the beginning of the “Lost World” movie. In the book, the beach is on mainland Costa Rica; in the film, it’s on Isla Sorna.
  • The T-rex sticks its head through a waterfall, searching for prey, as in the “Lost World” movie.
  • The compys’ attack of Hammond is similar to their mauling of Dieter in the “Lost World” movie.
  • Lex sees juvenile raptors on a supply boat heading back to the mainland; our heroes recall the boat to the island in the nick of time. Some fans theorize that raptors killed the crew on the boat shipping the T-rex to San Diego in the “Lost World” movie.
  • The aviary, featuring pterodactyls (technically, cearadactyls, Grant notes), is in “Jurassic Park III.”
  • Grant and Ellie are concerned with raptor behavior, particularly migration. “Jurassic Park III’s” primary theme is raptor behavior, with an emphasis on communication.
  • Our heroes are rescued on the beach, the same way “Jurassic Park III” ends.
  • The Jungle River Ride, one of Hammond’s many planned attractions, is featured in the trailer for “Jurassic World.”

While it’s not in any movie so far, a passage on page 304 of the paperback, where Muldoon shoots a raptor with a rocket launcher, hints at the “dinosaurs versus military” idea that some fans have clamored for:

“The raptors were snarling at Arnold when the animal on the left simply exploded, the upper part of the torso flying into the air, blood spattering like a burst tomato on the walls of the building.”

Something for a fifth movie, perhaps?

Since I – like most people — am more familiar with the film, I was surprised on this reading to realize how prominently Crichton explores the concept of dinosaurs on the mainland – something that could prove fateful for all mankind, not just the main characters. The concept is ignored throughout the first and third movie, and it doesn’t seem to be a plot point of the fourth. The second film brought a T-rex to San Diego but resolved that thread. (Some fans theorize that raptors reached the mainland after killing the boat crew in that movie; others believe the slaughter of the crew is a plot hole.)

Before the reader is formally introduced to Jurassic Park and its dinosaurs, Crichton has scenes of procomsognathids (compys) killing babies and biting children in Costa Rica. And on the very last page, he hints that velociraptors have reached the mainland when Marty Guitierrez tells Grant:

“Unknown animals ate the crops in a very peculiar manner. They moved each day, in a straight line – almost as straight as an arrow – from the coast, into the mountains, into the jungle. … Like a migration. … They would only eat agama beans and soy, and sometimes chickens. … They entered the jungles. …”

(The “dinosaurs on the mainland” thread would continue to be a subplot in Crichton’s 1995 sequel, “The Lost World.”)

Grant notes that agama beans and soy are rich in lysine, which Jurassic Park’s velociraptors can’t naturally produce due to how they were engineered. It’s a prime illustration of the book’s theory that “life finds a way.” Some might say the dinosaurs’ ability to change from female to male fits with the “life finds a way” theme, but I’d argue this fits more into the chaos theory espoused by Malcolm: Wu used West African frog DNA as filler on the dinos’ strands, and inadvertently gave them the ability to change gender.

As I noted, Crichton is concerned with plausibility, not likelihood. Perhaps the area he skims over most is the atmospheric content of the Earth today versus the age of the dinosaurs. One stegosaurus has trouble breathing, but none of the other dinosaurs do. In all likelihood, all the cloned dinosaurs would die immediately from being poisoned by modern atmosphere. (That isn’t to say that Jurassic Park’s labs have a high success rate – less than 1 percent of the embryos survive to adulthood.)

Spielberg’s film swaps out the sick stegosaurus for a sick triceratops (because triceratops is the director’s favorite dinosaur), trades the duckbill stampede for a gallamimus stampede, and has a brachiosaur rather than a duckbill eating leaves while our heroes are perched in a tree. But the most notable changes occur in the characterizations:

  • In the book, Hammond is a villain who blames other people, rather than a kindly grandfather who is naïve about the dangers of cloning dinosaurs.
  • In the book, Arnold, rather than merely a computer worker, is a philosophical counter to Malcolm, voicing his belief in the park’s high-tech controls in response to Malcolm’s dire warnings.
  • The movie’s Gennaro is a combination of Gennaro, the lawyer, and Regis, the scaredy-cat PR flack, from the book. The novel’s Gennaro is actually somewhat upstanding, as he intends to shut down the park if it seems unsafe, despite his company’s interest in its success.
  • Grant likes kids in the book, whereas he hates kids (at first) in the movie. And he is merely Ellie’s teacher and boss in the book, while Ellie has a fiancée back in Chicago. The film lightly hints at a romance between the two, although “Jurassic Park III” shows that Ellie married someone else.
  • The traits of the book’s Tim (dinosaur geek AND computer geek) are split evenly between the film’s Tim (dinos) and Lex (computers). And Lex is switched from younger sister to older sister for the movie.
  • Muldoon in the book has elements of the “Lost World” movie’s Roland, the big-game hunter who swigs hard liquor. In the movie, Muldoon is straight-laced.
  • In the movie, Wu shows the nursery to the guests, then disappears from the narrative. In the book, he sticks around throughout the plot (before being yanked out of a doorway by a raptor and eaten alive). Interestingly, Wu is the only character from the first movie who will return for “Jurassic World,” allowing him to join a select group of characters (Malcolm, Hammond, Tim, Lex, Grant and Ellie) who are in two “JP” films (none are in three movies, let alone all four).
  • The most notable character change is that Malcolm succumbs to his injuries from the T-rex attack in the book, but he’s fine in the movie. Malcolm’s death created a tricky problem for Crichton when he needed Malcolm to be the main character of his sequel. More on that when I get to my “Lost World” flashback.

While I appreciate the need to streamline things for the movie (and I often agree with Spielberg and Koepp’s choices), Crichton’s book is an undeniably richer text, brimming with ideas and possibilities for future stories. Indeed, “Jurassic Park” is the only novel of Crichton’s oeuvre for which he wrote a sequel, and it inspired not only the 1993 film, but also three sequel movies and several comics, which I’ll look at in upcoming flashback posts.

Also, check out my review of Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park,” which I wrote in conjunction with the 20th anniversary 3D release in 2013.

zach's GravatarI too am more familiar with the movie, have seen it several times, and am just now reading the book for the first time for a school project. There were several areas in the book where I thought Crighton was going to introduce the dinosaurs onto the mainland. In the section PUNTARENAS when Tina is being seen by the doctors, I had a feeling this was going to lead into the dinosaurs coming onto that land. Also when the supply boats were carrying cargo to and from the island, I thought this might be a way Crighton was going to get dinosaurs onto mainland. The boats were brought up several times and even when the raptors were on the one boat it seemed like that would lead to them leaving the island.
# Posted By zach | 1/4/16 10:39 PM
John Hansen's GravatarThanks for reading, Zach. It seems clear that Chrichton was laying the groundwork for future stories where humans would have to deal with dinosaurs on the mainland. And the fact that the dinos had to eat lysine, rather than gradually overcoming the deficiency, suggests a way for humans to defeat them. By the same token, there are no notes about a third novel known to exist, so it seems Chrichton did not have anything specific in mind. It’s similar to how he had to awkwardly resurrect Malcolm for the second book: He had set up some threads, but had not devised the story or decided on what characters he’d use. Good luck on your school paper.
# Posted By John Hansen | 1/5/16 11:06 AM