I learnt young to mistrust the excitement of hearing that a beloved book is being turned into a movie (thanks for nothing, Disney). It’s a sentiment shared by many bookworms after the latest Hollywood attempt to boil a favourite down to 90 minutes of entertainment: the book was better. But is this always true? For SciFi Month, I revisited Jurassic Park to see how it held up.
Full disclosure: I’m pretty sure I saw the film first, and I think that makes a difference. When you don’t know what you’re missing, you judge a film on its own merits. And this was the first film I ever saw twice at the cinema, leaving me with a grin plastered on my face and agonising muscle spasms in my neck induced by trying to leap out of my skin during a T-Rex attack.
However, I bought and adored the book, and went on to read most of Crichton’s back catalogue. It was only when I tried to pick it up off the shelf for SciFi Month that I realised it had gone missing. Given the tattered state of The Andromeda Strain, I suspect it fell to bits somewhere down the track.
Rereading it, three things hit me: just how few of the scenes haven’t ultimately been adopted by Hollywood, if not for the original film then for one of the sequels; just how brave Crichton was in building his plots (like all good scientists, he liked to show his workings); and how much I appreciate Steven Spielberg.
Jurassic Park has a prologue that is dry, almost journalistic and – if I’m honest – adds nothing that isn’t delivered by the novel itself. The First Iteration feels like several more prologues, thankfully written in a more engaging style. All these details soon become relevant, but it’s a long time until we meet our actual protagonists. Still, give Crichton his due – it’s tense and engaging from the start, with its mysterious construction accidents and reptile bites.
None of this detail made it to the movie. Instead, Spielberg gives us an amber mine and a worker being attacked by… something. As you’d expect from the director who gave us Jaws, he knows not to show too much too soon. He also knows not to keep us waiting; Crichton was writing a scientific thriller, but Spielberg was directing a blockbuster for
kids people who wanted to see dinosaurs.
And once the book reaches Isla Nublar, there’s little to pick between it and the film in terms of the action sequences: Spielberg cheerfully adopts as much of Alan Grant’s thrill ride through the park as his budget (and the CGI available at the time) could comfortably stretch to. As dramatisations go, it’s remarkably faithful – although it will inevitably have cut out some readers’ favourite set piece.
The big difference is in the characters themselves. This is where I almost always end up having a bit of a whinge (for all the things I like about The Lord of the Rings, I will never forgive Peter Jackson for what he made of Aragorn. Or Thorin – but that’s a rant for another post). In an unusual twist, however, I’m going to whinge about Crichton.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Jurassic Park is a great book. It’s inventive, it’s thrilling, it’s got more action than you can shake a stick at and while there’s some soapboxing along the way it’s not too overbearing – although I did find myself arguing out loud with some of Malcolm’s more absurd angles. But it’s also incredibly sexist – in a way that Spielberg’s film isn’t.
The prologues are relentless in their dismissal of their female characters (Ed clearly doesn’t think Roberta will be suitably qualified to look after the injured construction worker; Ellen Bowman is unbearably vapid, entirely absorbed by her looks; and Alice is dismissed by her senior lab colleague as being given to flights of fancy, which includes him minimising her fear that a co-worker is stalking her. GAH). I’d love to think Crichton was trying to illustrate what shits men can be, but that’s not how any of it comes across.
When we get to Ellie, Spielberg faithfully embraces Crichton’s description – tall, blonde, shorts, shirt knotted at the midriff – but he cuts all the subsequent sexualisation. There’s not a male character in the book (even Tim, here the older grandchild) who meets her without letting their gaze linger on those long legs. Ian Malcolm doesn’t even bother silencing his inner voice. Ellie handles it with the long-suffering grace of a woman in the 80s.
The only other female character (after the prologues), Lex, is a whinging brat who constantly derides her dinosaur-mad brother and who has no saving graces. Where Tim is wide-eyed, level-headed and knowledgeable, she repeatedly puts the others in danger with her propensity to do exactly the wrong thing at any given moment. She even prevents Tim from getting the security systems back online.
Even the dinosaurs get undermined. They’re all female, Henry Wu assures the dubious scientists. But they refer to the dangerous ones as ‘he’, he adds. He’s not wrong – the book exclusively uses male pronouns for both T-Rexes (yes, there are 2 in the book) and the velociraptors. There’s no excuse for this. The narrative goes out of its way to tell us the animals are all female; it’s a key plot point. But we can’t possibly think of them that way.
It’s safe to say I gnashed my teeth a lot. For this point alone, I’d cheerfully stick my vote in the film bucket and walk away.
That said, not all of Spielberg’s changes are so successful: there was no real need to suggest Alan and Ellie are romantically linked, nor to over-egg Alan’s distaste for technology to the extent he can’t even buckle himself into the helicopter – especially given the changes to the film’s finale, which removes the tension of the temporary suggestion that Alan will have to successfully use a computer. As for why Spielberg felt it necessary to introduce the theme of Dr Grant’s paternal instincts, I’m not sure. But all this is window dressing at most.
The big loser in the dramatisation is the lawyer, Gennaro. The film captures his venal ethics, but by killing him very early on (in place of a Park PR drone) it forgoes the book’s efforts to rehabilitate him. In the book, it’s Gennaro who goes out into the Park with Muldoon to try and find Grant and the children; Gennaro who follows Arnold to the maintenance shed to bring the generators back up; Gennaro who stops the ship docking at the mainland with its cargo of baby velociraptors. In spite of his efforts, he’s still taken to task by Grant for dodging his responsibilities – this speech, along with most of the final act, never made it into the film.
Unexpectedly, it’s still easier to like Gennaro than it is to warm to Ian Malcolm, who abandons the children during the T-Rex attack and spends the rest of the book tub-thumping and prophesying (however accurately) from his sickbed. However, outside of John Grisham, lawyers rarely make good heroes – and Spielberg was clear that his film only had room for dinosaur anti-heroes. Who are clearly and repeatedly called out to be female.
Sorry, Gennaro. Malcolm benefits from this, although mostly from the casting – it’s hard not to warm to Jeff Goldblum, who has the charm that Crichton failed to bring to book Malcolm, and gets some bonus heroism (Spielberg was never going to show a headline star as a coward).
It’s not a faultless film. Where the book is written to thrill adults, the film widens the net to appeal to children – it’s a dinosaur movie, after all – which means simplifying some of the ethical questions and refraining from feeding Sir Richard Attenborough to the compys; I always loved that Hammond got his comeuppance in the book. For the most part, I think the changes are handled well, and while the film feels lighter-weight, the main ideas come across clearly.
Who am I kidding? I once told my beloved that The Lord of the Rings would live or die by Gollum; Jurassic Park was always going to live or die by its dinosaurs. It had me at hello.
Result: this is a really close call, but I’m going to give it to the movie by a nose for ditching the sexism and serving up the dinosaurs.