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A Tale of Two Jurassic Parks

on June 10, 2015, 2:00pm

Jurassic Week is on the prowl! In anticipation of Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World, Consequence of Sound is publishing a related feature each day leading up to the blockbuster sequel’s Friday release. Yesterday, we published staff writer Rebecca Bulnes’ story of how the Jurassic Park River Adventure became her unlikely vacation safety net. Today, Senior Editor Matt Melis’ regular Page to Screen column explores how Steven Spielberg turned Michael Crichton’s philosophical techno-thriller into the action-adventure film we’ve all come to love. 

jp week logoThere always exists an element of trepidation when our favorite books make the leap to the silver screen. Ask any militant Jane Austen devotee. Characters we’ve come to count on as intimate acquaintances, settings we’ve constructed down to the finest detail, and conflicts we’ve agonized over numerous times rarely feel right when churned out through someone else’s imagination and projected 20 feet high. But does this same fear sometimes operate in reverse, from screen to page?

I’ve never heard anyone sincerely say, “I sure hope the book doesn’t ruin the movie for me,” but that thought did occur to me as I recently opened late author Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park for the first time. After all, Steven Spielberg’s “you’re gonna need a bigger island” take on the novel connected the cinema to my generation. It acted as a coming-of-age film for us, even though nobody in the film necessarily came of age. We wandered into theaters with boyish dinosaur fantasies and received our first taste of the adrenaline-fueled action that would dominate our cinematic palettes throughout adolescence. In an illogical sense, Crichton’s novel, if a disappointment, could be deemed guilty of tampering with or, worse yet, desecrating a cherished childhood gateway.

COS_Page_to_ScreenTypically, reading the book only after seeing the film approximates stepping into a director’s cut. We become privy to a more fleshed-out world existing beyond the standard film’s peripheries. However, reading Crichton’s novel feels like stepping into the wrong film altogether; granted, one where bioengineered dinosaurs are also terrorizing humans in a theme park. Really, the discrepancies between novel and film come down to a simple difference in inquiry. Crichton’s novel forebodingly asks, “What horrors might man unleash if he wields his scientific power recklessly?” And Spielberg’s film offers a presumably more realistic response to a question already answered by Kentucky’s Creation Museum and The Flintstones: “What would happen if man and dinosaur met face to fang?”

Part of the fun of exploring Jurassic Park the novel, after the fact, then becomes determining just how Spielberg and screenwriters Crichton and David Koepp transformed the philosophical techno-thriller into the action-adventure fantasy that we fell in love with over dimmed lights, soda, and popcorn.

How’d they do this? “I’ll show you.”

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Characters, not Dino Fodder

It’s safe to say that we like Sam Neill’s Dr. Alan Grant from the word “turkey.” What’s not to like? He’s Indiana Jones with a fossilized raptor claw rather than a bullwhip, and who doesn’t grin when he terrifies that chubby, precocious brat who dares to compare a velociraptor to a six-foot version of our favorite Thanksgiving fowl? Neill’s Grant may be a curmudgeon and less than enthusiastic about children, but there’s also an unmistakable warmth that radiates through the cracks in his hardened exterior.

The book’s Grant reads quite differently. Like in many of Crichton’s novels, we find an expert rather than a character. The book’s Grant dons a beard, jeans, and a Hawaiian shirt, comes kid-friendly, and does whatever the novel requires to move the proceedings along. He’s likeable, but a mere sketch of a person. We know so little about him other than he’s our expert paleontologist, and, quite frankly, if it wasn’t for his multiple plot-dependent functions (guiding the children and warning the mainland of impending raptors), we wouldn’t miss him if he got up late one night for a glass of milk and accidentally wandered off into the T. rex paddock. Crichton can make due with this lightly shaded sketch of our protagonist only because he’s more concerned with larger philosophical questions than seeing particular characters survive the weekend.

On the other hand, Spielberg, who primarily focuses on the spectacle of man meeting dinosaur, needs us to care about those stranded on the island and pull for them. Hence, we find a far more humanized Grant in the film. He’s flawed but likeable, romantically involved with Laura Dern’s Dr. Ellie Sattler (not the case in the novel), and on a personal journey that will not only steer him through the clutches of prehistoric beasts but also soften his edges and make him a better man. Learning to like kids may be a rather arbitrary character arc in an action-adventure film (couldn’t he have just volunteered at Big Brothers Big Sisters?), but it’s enough to keep us invested in our favorite paleontologist.

The other character who undergoes a tremendous and necessary transformation between book and film is the eccentric John Hammond, creator of Jurassic Park. By novel’s end, Hammond cannot be viewed as anything other than a sheer villain. He’s recklessly abused powerful scientific technology for, as he repeatedly reminds his lawyer, Gennaro, “lots and lots of money”; endangered his grandchildren, Tim and Lex, while using them in a ploy to tug at park inspectors’ heartstrings; and, after disaster ensues, dodged accountability and resolved himself to starting the whole moneygrubbing venture again on other islands. It’s fitting then that Hammond topples down a hill in fright when Tim and Lex playfully sound a T. rex recording from the park control room and meets the fate of being poisoned and eaten alive by his own procompsognathuses. We shed no tears for this John Hammond. We need protection from men like him.

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Spielberg’s Hammond, however, redeems himself by film’s end. It’s possible that actor Richard Attenborough had a no-eaten-alive clause in his contract or that Spielberg deemed Hammond’s death too gruesome for family audiences. (Though, programmer scumbag Nedry squealing in agony and cowardly, bloodsucking lawyer Gennaro getting barged in on by a T. rex while on the toilet didn’t skirt nightmare-causing material.) Regardless, Spielberg doesn’t need a villain. Both the novel and film in part belong to the monster genre. In Crichton’s novel, man is the monster. In Spielberg’s film, the animals, through no fault of their own, are the monsters. It’s a man-versus-nature dynamic. So, rather than shift focus by making Attenborough’s Hammond an unrepentant villain in need of comeuppance, the film turns him into a childish, elderly man, full of wonder, whose only real mistake is not initially understanding the consequences of playing God. He learns his lesson by the time the helicopter leaves Isla Nublar and earns our forgiveness.

Enough Ethics, More Action

Jurassic Park the film plays as an action-adventure movie with bits of science, philosophy, and ethics folded in. The novel reads the exact opposite. In the book, inventive action sequences offer breaks from long stretches of scientific windbags droning on about their particular fields of expertise. By the second half of the novel, readers realize that nobody can do anything without making a speech first. It can become tiresome, but clearly the minutiae of the park technology and the chaos theory that explains its entropy were of chief interest to Crichton.

The film rather ingeniously plows through the essential science and ethics that audiences need to consider in a couple of key scenes: the “Mr. DNA” cloning video and the conversation over lunch. The latter scene draws from philosophical and ethical questions raised throughout the novel, mostly by Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm — a womanizing (but ultimately heroic) John Nash, Elvis, and Don Rickles hybrid —  who acts as both comic relief and the voice of scientific responsibility throughout the film. Over lunch (does anyone actually eat?), Malcolm delivers Crichton’s most resonating indictment: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Once we have this concern embedded in the back of our minds, Spielberg has us ready to follow our heroes on a perilous tour they may never come back from.

Crichton doesn’t play subtle with his novel’s message either. The book concludes with Grant and others being rescued by the Costa Rican National Guard, who then bomb the island back into extinction. “Please, señor, who is in charge?” an officer repeatedly asks Grant. “Nobody,” Grant finally tells him, hammering home the idea that man has tragically overstepped. It’s a far cry from the film’s parallel scene where Grant hops into Hammond’s jeep and remarks, “After careful consideration, I’ve decided not to endorse your park.” They then speed off, hitch a helicopter, and leave that cursed island behind. Heroes safe. Mission accomplished. Thank goodness.

It’s a far tidier conclusion, which works with Spielberg’s ends of getting our survivors off the island. In the novel, Grant’s sense of responsibility doesn’t make such a hasty exit possible. After computer systems restore control of the park, he leads an expedition into a raptor nest to account for every single birth that’s occurred since the animals started secretly breeding. Note that these are the same creatures that had been hunting them only a few pages earlier.

There’s also the novel’s troublesome ticking time bomb device. Right before the initial T. rex attack, Grant and the children notice that a couple of juvenile raptors have stowed away upon a supply boat headed for the Costa Rican mainland. Throughout the novel, Grant tries to find a working phone so that the ship can be warned. It actually turns comical as he and the children survive multiple dinosaur encounters, and Grant keeps reminding us of the time remaining until the boat docks. Even Tim, at one point, thinks to himself that saving their own skin seems a lot more imperative. Spielberg and the writers were wise enough to side with Tim and scrap the idea in the film. The real suspense comes from seeing whether or not the characters survive the park. We can appreciate Crichton’s noble idea of warning the rest of us so that raptors don’t end up in our kitchens as well, but sometimes you just have to look after number one.

“It’s … It’s a Dinosaur”

No matter how brilliant a concept Crichton had conceived, if the film’s prehistoric stars didn’t feel believable to audiences, the movie couldn’t have possibly worked. Spielberg believed that a Jurassic Park film, if done honorably, could get people to say, “Gee, this is the first time I’ve really seen a dinosaur,” and that’s exactly the response the movie evoked. Through animatronics and blossoming CGI technology, the director brought our favorite childhood animals back from extinction. Regardless of how old we get and the countless number of films we see, none of us will ever forget the first time we saw the camera gently pan up to that Brachiosaurus as John Williams’ score softly wafts in. All the awe and wonders of childhood came rushing back in a powerful current, and we were left as wobbly and speechless as Alan Grant.

A large part of the film’s genius stems from how man and dinosaur — creatures separated by many millions of years — interact with one another during the movie’s most exhilarating scenes. And while Spielberg and crew had to figure out how to bring these moments to life on screen, the genesis for these action-packed confrontations goes directly back to the novel. For all its flaws, Crichton’s book also revs the imagination with detailed accounts of what it might look like if a T. rex attacked a Toyota Land Cruiser and flung it into a tree or if raptors, feeling a bit peckish, followed a couple of children into a restaurant kitchen. It’s the type of creativity that withers in most of us the day we stop lying on the living room carpet with our toy dinosaurs and matchbox cars. But that imagination is alive and well in Crichton’s novel, so much so that Spielberg and future sequel directors would still be cherry-picking action sequences from the original book.

In Crichton’s novel, the T. rex never returns to the visitor’s center to attack the raptors and save the day. That was an idea Spielberg had mid-shoot after seeing how the initial T. rex sequence had turned out. “I think our star of this movie is the T. rex,” Spielberg recalls saying, “and I think the audience will hate me if the T. rex doesn’t come back and make one more heroic appearance.” Not only does the scene give us one last glimpse of the film’s real diva, but it also fittingly ties into so many ideas that were important to Crichton. The T. rex isn’t a monster, just an animal, doing what it innately does, regardless of whether or not it helps out humans in the process. And what it does will always be unpredictable to us — hunting us down one moment and fending off our enemies the next — a testament to the idea that man, powerful as he may be, will never be powerful or wise enough to control nature.

As Grant, Sattler, and the children scamper out of the visitor’s center, we hear that final triumphant roar from the T. rex as a banner reading “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth” flutters down from the ceiling. Thank goodness we’ll never run into her kind again.

<whispers…>

What was that?

<more whispers…>

What? Sequel? Oh, shit.

jurassic park 3d t rex A Tale of Two Jurassic Parks

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