Book vs. Film: Jurassic Park
Last month, Universal Studios re-released and converted into 3D the ultimate epic juggernaut movie experience of late Generation Xers such as myself: Jurassic Park. People, if you were twelve years old when this movie came out, then I’m sure like me you saw this thing three or four times in the theater. It was huge, and not even with preteens or early teens (tweens, they're called these days, much to my old fogey’s consternation). I remember the first time I saw Jurassic Park, the entire audience stood up and clapped. In 1993, the visual effects that brought these ancient creatures to life were like nothing we’d seen before. Yeah, T2 was pretty cool, with the melting liquid metal dude, but he didn’t hold a candle to the vision and sound of old T-Rex (<–this is an obscure reference to a Who song; hi, I’m old).
CGI runs rampant in films now, sometimes with great or at least decent results, often times bordering on laughable (I’m looking at you I Am Legend). The dinosaurs of the original Jurassic Park are even more impressive than those of its two sequels, particularly the third film. Watching the movie again, there is no loss of quality. It remains an overall wonderful viewing experience, and I’m glad these young pups will have a chance to see it in theaters, albeit in the now mandated re-release format of 3D (in my day, we didn’t have to wear glasses to go into a movie, we just got lost in it!)
Why am I making all these old jokes? Well, chiefly, I’m trying to convey that Jurassic Park means a lot to me. It holds a very special place in my heart, and reminds me of my youth, just before puberty hit and everything went south. But it isn’t just sentimentality. It is, hands down, one of my all-time favorite movies, right up there alongside Repo Man, The Exorcist, and The Big Lebowski. It’s quotable, entertaining, tense, exciting—everything a good narrative should be. I actually give a crap about the characters.
So when one of my book club members selected Jurassic Park: The Book by Michael Crichton for our monthly read, I was super excited. Many of my contemporaries back in elementary school picked up the novel to supplement their movie experience, but somehow I missed that boat. Here was a chance to go back to that world and relive it all over again, in a new and different way. Sure, I expected the book to differ from the film, and I was already privy to certain changes made from text to screen (spoilers, more or less, which I won’t get into right now). I knew it would be, in many ways, a different story, and I was excited about this too.
Well, I’ve read it, and...I’ll go ahead and give away the ending to this column now: I still like the movie better. This is not to say that I didn’t like the book, because overall, I did. I just feel that Spielberg and company did a better all around job of telling the same, basic story, differences and all. If you’re a vehement supporter of the novel, you have two options: you can hear me out, or you can stop reading now.
I put my sentimentality aside and read the book objectively, so I don’t think emotions clouded my opinion. The bottom line is this: there are two areas where I think the film greatly outweighs the novel, turning a good story into a great one—character and action. I’ll get into the exact meanings of those below, but for now I’ll simply reiterate: the book handled these elements alright, the film handled them expertly.
One more thing before we get started: there are SPOILERS GALORE from this point on. I won’t forewarn before every instance either, so just know if you haven’t read the book and/or seen the movie and you’re concerned about spoilers, don’t read on.
Okay. Here we go.
Real quick: the film's screenplay is credited to Crichton and David Koepp. Knowing how Hollywood works, I suspect that Crichton wrote the first draft, and Koepp polished it up. I say this not necessarily to suggest Koepp is a better writer, but again, because that’s just how Hollywood works. There could be any number of writers who did polish jobs on the script before they finally began shooting the thing, who didn’t get credit because of Writers Guild rules, not to mention the work Spielberg and the actors put into developing the characters.Them’s the breaks in that industry. For the sake of expedience, when referring to an 'author' of the film, I'll go with auteur theory and just say Spielberg. Cool?
Okay, so when I say character, I’m not talking about minute differences—you know, “In the book, Grant does this, looks like this, says this, but in the movie, he does x,y,z.” These distinctions are unimportant unless it signifies a drastic difference between the kind of man Crichton invented for the page, and the one Spielberg gave us on the screen. No, I’m talking about character as defined by E.M. Forster in his book Aspects of the Novel: flat characters and round characters. The definitions are summarized here courtesy of Wikipedia:
Flat characters are two-dimensional, in that they are relatively uncomplicated and do not change throughout the course of a work. By contrast, round characters are complex and undergo development, sometimes sufficiently to surprise the reader.
Though I won’t go as far as to say Crichton’s original characters are entirely flat, I will say they are a bit deflated. This is because Crichton’s primary concerns were scientific morals and philosophy, not character and story. He utilizes these narrative elements to make a point about science run amok, rather than telling a great story that also, subtly delivers that same message.
Let’s look at some of the main characters and how they differ between the book and the film.
I see Jurassic Park as more of an ensemble piece, where all the primary characters are protagonists, but if you had to choose just one, it would probably be Dr. Alan Grant. In the film, he displays the strongest emotional arc and greatest capacity to learn a lesson about life. The problem with Grant in the book: he’s kind of bland and uninteresting. Described as a "barrel-chested, bearded man of forty" and an outdoorsman who hates intellectuals, book Grant is pretty much an idealized rugged male—a bit like Indiana Jones without all that bookishness and those emotional arcs. He admires kids because they love dinosaurs just as much as he does.
Spielberg's Grant (portrayed by Sam Neill, though interestingly Harrison Ford was approached) is presented as more of a brainy scientist with deep connections to the land, rather than the other way around. Furthermore, he is opposed to having children and in general being around them, but by the end of the film he learns that kids can be a joy, and that looking out for another, more helpless life than his own isn’t so terrible. Grant lacks this progression in the novel, and thus he's not compelling, and not very human. Film Grant’s experiences in the park are harrowing, but we get the sense he comes out of the nightmare a better, more rounded man. I mean, he doesn’t like kids, yet he’s the only one to really step up to the plate and help them, and in doing so he learns something about himself. In the book, he likes kids just as much as the next guy. Sure, he still steps up to the plate, but without a general dislike of children to start out with, he doesn’t strike the reader as any more or less likely to help them out than anyone else.
Compare the two side by side, and I’m sure you’ll see it: film Grant is round and plump, full of human emotion, flaws, and all-around character; book Grant is skeletal slim, a mere shadow of the celluloid man he would become. He's a walking, talking G.I. Joe.
Dr. Ellie Sattler is basically the same in the book as in the film. She's blonde, she's smart, and she's a badass. There are two big differences between them, however: in the book, Sattler is not romantically involved with Grant. She's set to marry some unseen college boy instead. I feel it’s more interesting to present comfortably plutonic characters rather than a couple, so I give props to Crichton in this regard. However, the author describes Sattler as an object of sexual desire, the Barbie to Grant's G.I. Joe:
Grant was amused to see Morris gaping at her. Ellie was wearing cut off jeans and a workshirt tied at her midriff. She was twenty-four and darkly tanned. Her blond (sic) hair was pulled back... "Here you go," Grand said, thrusting a beer into his hand. He gave another to Ellie. She chugged hers, throwing her long neck back. Morris stared.
I'm not suggesting Laura Dern, who plays Sattler in the film, is an unattractive woman. It's just, she seems more like a real person in the film, rather than an action figure. She has more affect on the other characters as well, including a significant one-on-one with John Hammond, the park's creator, helping him realize his vision might not be such a good thing. Sattler does not play this scene out in the novel.
Again, the issue here is a lack of well-roundedness. Sattler in the book is a video game character, not exactly a person, not exactly a non-person either. I understand she's not as prominent a character in the grander scope of the narrative, and thus she logically can't be quite as defined as Grant, but again, the film does a much better job of giving Sattler something to do other than being a sexy badass.
Ian Malcolm lacks that Goldblum charm. Obviously. Characters in novels aren't generally played by actors. But book Malcolm's problems go deeper than this inherent inability. He’s pretty much nothing more than a droning, Ben Stein-like figure who only pops up to moralize about Jurassic Park's evils. Yes, in the movie he occupies more or less the same position, but he comes to life in the latter, whereas I got the feeling Malcolm in the book was a leftover android from Crichton’s Westworld. He's also a massive dick at times. Here's an example of the character's monolithic monologues, of which there are many:
"No. I’ll tell you the problem with engineers and scientists. Scientists have an elaborate line of bullshit about how they are seeking to know the truth about nature. Which is true, but that’s not what drives them. Nobody is driven by abstractions like ‘seeking truth.’
“Scientists are actually preoccupied with accomplishment. So they are focused on whether they can do something. They never stop to ask if they should do something. They conveniently define such considerations as pointless. If they don’t do it, someone else will. Discovery, they believe, is inevitable. So they just try to do it first. That’s the game in science. Even pure scientific discovery is an aggressive, penetrative act. It takes big equipment, and it literally changes the world afterward. Particle accelerators scar the land, and leave radioactive byproducts. Astronauts leave trash on the moon. There is always some proof that scientists were there, making their discoveries. Discovery is always a rape of the natural world. Always.”
See what I mean? Didactic, and dick-tastic! He's not wrong, he's just being an a-hole about it. Who could prefer this to The Goldblum, who delivers terse versions of the same diatribes with a sharp wit and a biting smile? That old adage about “less is more.” I think you see my point.
Plus, come on, it’s Jeff Goldblum, the ultimate cool science guy. There’s no contest.
John Hammond is also a massive a-hole in the book. He cares about one thing and one thing only: Jurassic Park. Even when his own grandchildren are lost—and for all he knows, dead—somewhere in the park, he shows what can only be described as perfunctory concern:
Donald Gennaro stared at Hammond, sitting in the deserted cafeteria. The man was spooning ice cream, calmly eating it. "So Muldoon believes the children are somewhere in the park?"
"He thinks so, yes."
"Then I'm sure we'll find them."
"I hope so," Gennaro said. He watched the old man deliberately eating, and felt a chill.
"Oh, I am sure we'll find them. After all, I keep telling everyone, this park is made for kids."
Gennaro said, "Just so you understand that they're missing, sir."
"Missing?" he snapped. "Of course I know they're missing. I'm not senile."
Contrast that with the film: you can see the terror, the fear, and the crumbling belief in his own creation over the course of two days. We all know the last two lines of the film:
GRANT: Mr. Hammond, after careful consideration, I’ve decided not to endorse your park.
HAMMOND: So have I.
Yeah, doesn’t happen in the novel. In fact, Hammond is so megalomaniacal, he’s actually planning to start over with a new Jurassic Park, convinced it will be different and better. He learns nothing from Malcolm’s endless moralizing about chaos theory and the impossibility of a flawless system. His megalomania ends up being his downfall: just after cursing his grandchildren for being playing a part in the park's failure, a gang of his own dinosaurs eat him up, preventing future horrors (though they couldn't prevent Jurassic Park III).
I don’t have a problem with a thoroughly evil heavy woven into a narrative to counterbalance the good guys. These kinds of character juxtapositions make for perfectly serviceable stories. Great stories, however, occur when we see the humanity in the most misguided individuals, and Spielberg's Jurassic Park shows us that with Hammond. Again, Crichton’s original text isn’t bad, per se, it’s just that the story and character arcs presented in the film go above and beyond.
There’s a host of other characters who work better in the film too: Lex, Hammond’s granddaughter, who goes from a whiny nuisance in Crichton’s novel to a mini-heroine in the film (“It’s a UNIX system. I know this.”); Muldoon the game warden, whose unforgettable line, “Clever girl,” is absent from Crichton’s text; Arnold the security man, played by Samuel L. Jackson and a precariously dangling cigarette; and Gennaro the lawyer, who dies on the toilet. Crichton provides us with extended backstories for all these characters, but I feel we get to know them better in the film.
Take Arnold, for instance. Crichton describes him as a chain-smoker, but he never gets close to the clarity of detail Spielberg gives that character and his ever-present cigarette. There's an extreme close-up of Jackson’s lips, muttering to himself, THAT CIGARETTE! bobbing up and down as though it were attached—perhaps a kind of Dorian Gray growth manifested from Arnold’s exorbitant puffing. It’s a character tic, and it’s way more memorable that merely telling us, “Arnold chain smoked,” or, “he butted out his cigarette and immediately lit another one.”
But again, Crichton isn’t overtly concerned with character or story. His primary focus is philosophy, which is evidenced in our next category of discussion:
By this, I don’t mean plot, necessarily. There are several plot elements that are one thing in the book, and a totally different thing in the film. These differences are insignificant, in my view. I’m speaking more about actual action, those taught, gripping-your-seat moments when you’re right there with the characters, experiencing the dread and horror they experience.
If you’ve seen the film, you know those moments. When the T-Rex chases down the jeep, Malcolm calmly and yet with full-on terror says, “Faster. Must go faster.” His words echo exactly what we’re thinking. Sure, it’s funny. But it’s funny because it’s true.
The book, sadly, doesn’t take us on this same journey. Crichton’s prose is, like his characters, bland. He merely tells us what’s happening without concern as to whether we’re lost inside this narrative or not.
Take the first T-Rex attack. The film presents, in my opinion, one of the finest action sequences ever shot. It starts so slow, so quiet...And then...Boom...Boom...BOOM. The water in the cup ripples, the waves growing more turbulent, more frequent. Then...BAM! Severed goat leg on the sunroof and a reptilian eye glaring through the driver’s side window. Your breath stunts. Your heart stops. You grip your seat in anticipation. Goose pimples rise up on the back of your neck.
There’s no score in this scene, only sound effects: the T-Rex stomping and snuffling in the pouring rain. The children’s own stunted breath. Grant rasping, “Turn the light off, Turn the light off,” not knowing if he’s about to watch the kids get ripped apart by this impossible creature. Spielberg knew that music, a score to guide your emotional responses, was not needed here.
This level of investment in a scene is absent when reading the book. Here's Crichton’s description of the events:
Then the huge head came down, entirely blocking the shattered windshield. The tyrannosaur banged again on the front hood of the Land Cruiser. Tim grabbed the seat as the car rocked on its wheels. The tyrannosaur banged down twice more, denting the metal.
Then it moved around the side of the car. The big raised tail blocked his view out of all the side windows. At the back, the animal snorted, a deep rumbling growl that blended with the thunder. It sank its jaws into the spare tire mounted on the back of the Land Cruiser and, in a single head shake, tore it away. The rear of the car lifted into the air for a moment; then it thumped down with a muddy splash.
There’s nothing overtly wrong with this prose. It’s simple, it's clean, and it gives you enough description to produce a clear image of the action. But it’s just so clinical. Crichton merely describes the action in a kind of journalistic approach—the repeated ‘thens’ heading each paragraph like bullet points. Lacking here are the sensory elements, the flashes of horrific, extinct body parts, the smell of the animal, the chilling sounds it makes. Crichton mentions these things, but he doesn't describe them in detail, doesn't make the reader feel them. The scene is one-dimensional. Spielberg's take was 3-D even before the re-release.
Upon reading the novel, I thought, okay, I’ve seen the movie already, and that scene was done impeccably well there. Perhaps I’m only projecting my memory of the film onto my reading experience. But I found myself having the same “meh” response to countless other moments in the novel. Take for example a scene not found in the movie, in which Grant and the kids float down a river in a raft, with a heard but unseen danger ahead of them:
He heard snarling, interspersed by a repeated hooting cry. The cries were coming from beyond a curve, farther downriver. He listened, and heard the hooting again.
“What is it?” Lex said.
“I don’t know,” Grant said. “But there’s more than one of them.” He paddled the boat to the opposite bank, grabbed a branch to stop the raft. The snarling was repeated. Then more hooting.
There was no film correlative to hinder my emotional response to this scene, and yet it was the same as the T-Rex attack described above: “meh.” Again, repetition is Crichton’s downfall here. He tells us the sound is a collection of 'snarling' and 'hooting,' and repeats these two words multiple times, without ever expanding our notion of what exactly this sound is. Beyond telling us that it frightens Grant and the kids, how does it effect them—is it a sickening sound, the kind that makes your stomach churn to hear it; is it the fear making their stomachs gurgle in protest?
Reading this passage, I wasn’t excited. I wasn’t gripping my seat. It wasn’t as though I was totally uninterested—I wanted to see how they got out of that situation—but I just wasn’t all that invested. Sorry, Michael.
There are numerous examples of this lack of intensity throughout the book, both with scenes that did appear in the film and scenes that did not. This is because, once again, Crichton is primarily concerned with philosophical ideas rather than action. He practically beats you over the head with the point of the book, which is that genetically resurrecting extinct animals is bad.
Spielberg comes to the same conclusion, but he does so in a more subtle, plot-based way. In the film, the characters are thrilled by this park—stunned, even—but soon begin to have doubts. When the shit hits the fan and people start dying, only then are their collective minds made up: we thought this park was cool, now we know it’s very, very bad. (Or, to quote The Goldblum in The Lost World: "Ooh, ahhh, that's how it always starts. Then later there's running and screaming.")
Why is Spielberg's approach better? Because it puts the audience right there with the protagonists. We get swept up with the swelling theme as the brontosaurs drink by the lake. We get mesmerized by the utter wonder and thrill of this park. Then, just like the characters, we get terrorized. We live vicariously through Grant, Sattler, Malcolm, and the rest as they run for their lives; and in the end, when we’re on the helicopter with our characters, the music is soft, and the children are sleeping, we feel not only catharsis, but we’ve also come to the same moral conclusion: this park is bad.
Spielberg shows us this; Crichton merely tells us, using Malcolm as a mouthpiece. That old adage about “show, don’t tell,” it’s true, and I think Jurassic Park the novel, compared to its film counterpart, proves it perfectly.
I do want to make one thing clear: I don’t hate Crichton's novel. Overall, I did enjoy it, despite being a bit bored in places. Some of the explanations about genetics and the technical side of the park helped me better understand the science of the narrative, an element that you simply cannot spend too much time on with a film.
It’s just, I’m a story man. I think the narrative—not just the movement from A to Z, but how it moves—is the most important thing about any novel, and any lessons we learn should arise from an empathetic journey, rather than didactic discourse. Crichton, sadly, chooses the latter route.
When we read Jurassic Park for my book club, several members preferred the more scientific, idea-based narrative. Perhaps you do too. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t feel the movie should supersede or usurp the book. I just feel that the film told this story far better than the book ever did.
Remember, at the end of the day, this is just my opinion. What’s yours? Jurassic Park: book or film?
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