Hands up who loves dinosaurs …
… Everybody? Correct answer. Grab your brushes and trowels, and try to ignore the running and screaming, as we excavate the biggest dinosaur tale of them all. Welcome to Jurassic Park.
Story & Characters
Three scientists are invited to Isla Nublar, a mysterious island 100 miles off the coast of Costa Rica. It’s actually a huge theme park, due to open in a year. The project’s financial backers are jittery, so to calm their nerves several expert opinions are being sought about the island’s unique inhabitants: living, breathing dinosaurs…
Dr Alan Grant is 40, a palaeontologist famous for theories about dinosaurs displaying maternal, bird-like behaviour. His own paternal instincts come to the fore when he is trapped in the park with Tim (11) and Lex (around 8). It’s fortunate he likes kids, because their lives are in his hands.
Dr Ellie Sattler, Alan’s grad school student, is a 24-year-old palaeobotanist, and the first to realise the park isn’t safe when she spots deadly plants by the pools. She’s a quick thinker, whether that’s identifying what made a stegosaur ill (triceratops in the movie!), or outrunning raptors.
Ian Malcolm (late 30s), a mathematician specialising in chaos theory, has long predicted the park will fail. He’s the main thorn in the side of John Hammond (76), the park’s owner. Hammond, the grandfather of Tim and Lex, created InGen – the biotech firm that discovered how to clone extinct species – and he refuses to listen to dissenting voices.
First Iteration: The Book
Back in the mid-nineties, a popular game called Theme Park was launched, where players built their own parks. Former Harvard Medical School student Michael Crichton had been creating his own parks since 1973, however, when he wrote and directed Westworld. But his second deadly paradise became possibly the most famous park in the world. And it started with a 1983 script about cloning a pterodactyl.
Though the script didn’t work, Crichton knew the concept was something special. Theorising the technology to recreate a dinosaur would be prohibitively expensive, he decided the only reason for doing so would be as a highly profitable entertainment – thus setting the story in a theme park.
But when he sent the novel to his trusted beta readers, they said it was terrible. Redrafts didn’t fix the issue, until Crichton changed the protagonist. Originally, the book was written from a young boy’s point of view; Crichton reworked it from an adult’s viewpoint, and his readers loved it.
The book opens with an introduction that feels like a non-fiction work, right down to the Roman numeral page numbers. It details the biotechnology rush and its commercialisation, adding to the credibility by referencing real companies alongside the fictitious InGen. We’re then told what follows is an account of two days in August, 1989.
After a terrific prologue where a man is flown to the mainland, allegedly suffering from a ‘construction accident’ but looking like he’s been mauled by an animal and muttering “raptor”, we get the first of several scenes that will eventually crop up in film sequels. A family arrives at a deserted beach and their young daughter is attacked by a tiny dinosaur called a compy.
The resulting investigation suggests the book will be more like a corporate thriller, where a company tries to hide its mistakes. It’s an interesting diversion for anyone familiar with the film, but it leaves the reader knowing far more than the characters. The story’s USP is a dinosaur park, highlighted on the book long before the film existed, so until we arrive on the island (page 79) we’re waiting for our protagonists to catch up.
As the park tour begins (exactly a quarter of the way through), Crichton hits his stride. Whilst many novels and films struggle to maintain momentum through Act Two, this is the book’s best section. The build-up to the storm, and the tyrannosaur’s first appearance, are superb. Interestingly, these scenes are written from Tim’s POV. I don’t know if these came from Crichton’s original drafts, but they are very effective.
At this point, Crichton introduces a countdown element: Lex spies raptors on board the supply ship returning to the mainland. Because there’s no way to contact anyone and warn them to recall the ship, Alan and the kids have a small window of time in which to get back to the visitor lodge.
Their journey provides more scenes destined for future films: hiding behind a waterfall as a tyrannosaur pokes its head through; being attacked by cearadactyls in the pterodactyl aviary. By now we’re in classic disaster movie territory, where our survivors must make their way through stage after perilous stage to reach safety.
Meanwhile, an injured Ian Malcolm is confined to giving lectures on the dangers of science, from bed. Though convincingly argued, they slow the story down, and wouldn’t be missed if dropped. When Ian dies, the fact we don’t witness it, and furthermore feel nothing, says a lot. The only character who fares worse is poor Lex, constantly complaining of being hungry and getting in everyone’s way. On the flipside, the lawyer Ronald Gennaro is better in the book; not only does he survive but he joins in on the tyrannosaur hunt.
There are some baffling questions. When Ian is bedridden, raptors on the roof directly above try biting through the skylight’s steel bars. At one point they’re almost through, yet nobody moves Ian to another room until after the threat is nullified. Also, Tim gets to witness this via CCTV, but why would anyone install cameras in a bedroom? How do the raptors in the supply ship’s hold know to remain hidden? And most puzzling, why does the raptor that attacks Gennaro in the maintenance shed disappear?
But despite these, there is still plenty to enjoy, including little details such as how the island copes with all the dino-waste (the compys were bred to eat it!) Even if sometimes it feels like we’re reading a manual, Crichton’s research is always thorough.
Published in November 1990, the book was an instant bestseller. Many drew comparisons between it and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – a warning about immoral science. There was a studio bidding war even before the book was published. However, Crichton already knew who he wanted as director…
Second Iteration: The Film
Around 1969, when Crichton sold his novel The Andromeda Strain to Universal, he was given a studio tour by a young TV director, Steven Spielberg. They became friends, and years later, whilst collaborating on another project, Spielberg asked Crichton what else he was working on. Once the magic words ‘dinosaurs’ and ‘DNA’ were spoken, Spielberg committed to directing the adaptation. It wasn’t until May 1990, six months before Jurassic Park was published, that Universal were able to bid for the film rights on behalf of Spielberg. They won, and he set about turning that commitment into a film.
Crichton wrote the screenplay along with David Koepp. The corporate thriller aspects were jettisoned, to get us to the island quickly. We see Isla Nublar at the 16-minute mark, and three minutes later comes our first resident, the brachiosaurus (changed from the book’s brontosaurus, because the brachiosaurus grazed from tree canopies rather than low plants, allowing for that iconic shot when Alan and Ellie first see a dinosaur). Now there’s barely any wait for the cast to catch up with the audience.
And speaking of dinosaurs… 39 years on, the effects are as good as anything made today. This is not a dig at CGI; plenty of the dinosaur action in the original film was computer generated – they were finding how far they could push envelopes, then finding bigger envelopes – and, combined with full-scale animatronics (including a 20 ft tyrannosaur), created a perfect illusion.
Of course, there’s no fun watching dinosaurs if they aren’t chasing little screaming happy meals on legs. So, let’s meet the menu…
Cast & Characters
There wasn’t a large group in the book, so the only significant one dropped is the park’s head of PR, Ed Regis. Chief geneticist Dr Henry Wu barely appears, but does now survive (his death in the book is referenced here by Alan when he describes prey being alive when raptors start eating them) and will become the series’ villain.
Gennaro is less fortunate, though he does get to be the film franchise’s first major dino-dinner (following the gatekeeper at the beginning). He gets chomped by the tyrannosaur, in such a way – Gennaro is sat on the loo – that the audience are laughing too much to be frightened.
Luckily, Tim and Lex fare much better. Now Lex is the eldest, and it’s her computer hacking skills (not Tim’s) that restore the main systems; and Tim often provides some much-needed comic relief.
With Alan and Ellie there is one significant difference. Ellie is not a student, but they are a couple. The film has reduced their age difference significantly – in the script she is late-twenties and he is mid-thirties – although the gap between the actors’ ages is similar to the book’s characters.
However, Sam Neill and Laura Dern bring a warmth and chemistry to their roles, and provide the film’s primary character arc. This Alan does not like kids, but much to Ellie’s amusement he is thrown together with Lex and Tim, and by the end happily lets both children sleep in his arms.
It also leads to an amusing rivalry with the film’s best character, Ian Malcolm. Ian is attracted to Ellie, much to Alan’s disapproval, which leads to some cracking dialogue (“I’m always on the lookout for a future ex-Mrs Malcolm”). Our chaotician has jettisoned the long speeches, crunching his arguments against genetic manipulation to a few lines, whilst going full-on ‘rock-star mathematician’.
As for John Hammond, played by Sir Richard Attenborough with a mischievous glint and a Scottish lilt, this park owner loves his grandkids and wants his dinosaurs to be accessible to all, whereas the book’s version disliked Tim and Lex, and expected people to pay top dollar to visit. When Hammond dies in the book it’s deserved; when Hammond lives in the film, we’re relieved.
The cast is excellent. But special praise should go to Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello for making Lex and Tim so relatable, and the embodiment of chaos theory that is Jeff Goldblum who, as Ian Malcolm, chews more scenery than the dinosaurs.
The storyline has been pared down until it’s just about survival. The supply ship countdown is gone, and all that matters is Alan getting the kids back to base, and then everyone getting off the island. It’s a shame the river journey and aviary weren’t kept, but it would have made a much longer film (already 155 minutes without the end credits), rare in 1993. The tension is superb, such as the fence climb, intercut with Ellie turning on breakers that will inadvertently power up those wires. And the tyrannosaur’s first appearance is as perfect as cinema gets: never has a water ripple felt so ominous.
All the science we need – how have dinosaurs been recreated? – is handled in a two-minute segment by an animated character not in the book: Mr. DNA. This not only shows us the mosquito-in-amber theory, but also plants the setup for dinosaurs reproducing. The rest of it, such as chaos theory, or whether dinosaurs are more like birds than lizards, is sprinkled throughout in dialogue and never feels obtrusive.
However, there are issues. In the final showdown we see two raptors (out of three), yet surely there should be only one, because Ellie locked one in the maintenance shed, and the kids locked the other in the freezer… I’d say it’s Ellie’s raptor, and not just because we’re shown they can open doors right when she comments that’s the only way it could get out – it’s also the only way it could get into the shed in the first place – but it’s not made clear.
Finally, the ending feels rushed. There’s a whiff of deus ex machina when that tyrannosaur saves the day (but isn’t, HERE’S WHY). This was a last-minute addition and Spielberg was right when he said the audience will want to see her at the end. It’s not as rushed as the book, however, where they’re off the island and everything is resolved in five pages and lots of explosions. Also, Spielberg understood we won’t want the park’s residents napalmed. They may be dinosaurs but they’re not monsters.
The film opened on 11th June 1993, and earned $912 million on its initial release, becoming the highest-grossing film of all time until Titanic, the first billion-dollar movie (although Jurassic Park re-releases have since taken it over that mark, making it the oldest film to earn a billion). You’d be forgiven for thinking it would to be up for more than the three technical-department Oscars it won, yet John Williams’ sublime music wasn’t even nominated. However, the composer did collect a statuette – along with Spielberg’s two – for the other film they collaborated on that year, Schindler’s List.
In my introduction, I end with the words “Welcome to Jurassic Park.” Did you hear Attenborough’s voice as you read that? Spielberg’s adaptation is a great big dinosaur of a film, but it is the calmer moments that make it powerful. From the first shot of the brachiosaurus to the image of DNA code illuminating a raptor’s face – and yes, Hammond’s welcome – the film wasn’t just entertainment, it was (and still is) an experience.
The book was a phenomenon upon publication and still holds up. If you want more science with your fiction it’s essential, and plays to Crichton’s strength of taking cutting-edge science and making it understandable.
But how do they compare as stories?
The film repurposes itself as a survival adventure, whereas the book is a cautionary tale on the mistrust of technology – but the overwhelming research smothers the story. The film realises less is often more, and as a result succeeds better. Therefore, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Jurassic Park is the winner.
Which did YOU like best? Share in the comments!
BIO: Nick Jackson loves dinosaurs. Every time he looks in a mirror he sees one. He also loves writing about book-to-film adaptations, because it gives him an excuse to watch all those making-of documentaries, and pretend it’s work. He has written numerous short stories for anthologies, including the best-selling “Everyday Kindness” from Dark Skies Publishing. He lives in West Yorkshire, where the Jurassic era hasn’t yet ended.