If the speed at which the 1990 Michael Crichton novel Jurassic Park became the 1993 dinosaur sci-fi classic film of the same name seems suspicious, it should. When Crichton sold the novel to book publisher Knopf in 1989, four different movie studios started battling to get the movie rights before a single copy hit an airport bookstand. Thanks to the success of The Andromeda Strain and Westworld, Crichton had essentially become Hollywood’s novelist in residence. This wasn’t lost on Crichton and Jurassic Park the book was always two things: a story with broad audience appeal and a pitch for a movie with broad audience appeal. The commercial nature of the work made serious readers rightfully suspicious. Were they being entertained or were they merely participating in the creation of intellectual property? The answer, it became clear, was yes. The book, which inspired not only a film but a franchise that is now back in theaters with Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, holds up pretty well.
Just because Crichton, who died in 2008, was a commercial writer but that doesn’t mean he was a bad one. On a line by line basis, Crichton’s work is efficient if a bit workaday — you don’t see people quoting his work ad nauseum for a reason — but the man knew how to put together a premise. Jurassic Park is based on a science fiction concept so creative and so viscerally appealing that the book defies genre — unless that genre is punk rock. Why punk rock? Because, unlike the Spielberg film built from its DNA, the book is not a shiny and complete piece of art. Jurassic Park is all over the place. There are bizarre tonal shifts and strange word choices. It feels very much like the work of an intensely individualistic, crazy, and passionate dude who no one wanted to edit. That’s pretty much what it is.
One thing everyone forgets about the original Jurassic Park book is that it takes its sweet ass time developing the real world in which all of this takes place. There are multiple settings and multiple points of view, but perhaps the most arresting fact is that the book essentially opens with a doctor named Roberta Carter who is working at a clinic in Costa Rica. Sure, this prologue chapter is titled “The Bite of the Raptor,” but Crichton goes out of his way to obscure exactly what is going on. Dr. Carter has to treat a wound that doesn’t make sense to her and is initially presented as something that happened to a worker on construction site. Obviously, we know this poor guy wasn’t dragged by a malfunctioning backhoe, but the restraint Crichton shows in these early pages is refreshing. He wants to convince the reader this is all happening in the real world. He wants readers to beg for a ticket to the fantastical dinosaur farm.
Part of this slow-burn approach seems philosophical. Crichton is interested not just in what a reanimated species would do to people on the tooth and claw level, but also the morality of the thing. Largely, he uses the character of Ian Malcolm as a mouthpiece for ruminations about what happens with the technology created by human beings starts to destroy the natural world. “Living systems are never in equilibrium,” Malcolm says in the book. “They are inherently unstable. They may seem stable, but they’re not. Everything is moving and changing. In a sense, everything is on the edge of collapse.” Because it jumps around so often, Jurassic Park the book often feels the same way. Again, this isn’t a criticism.
In the film, the version we get of this philosophical stuff is mostly played for reductive laughs, particularly when Jeff Goldblum’s version of Ian Malcolm talks about “the rape of the natural world.” Crichton isn’t quite so on-the-nose with these assessments in the book. The idea that dinosaurs are brought back to life as clones is treated as urgently frightening because cloning technology could reverse something that happened in nature. But Crichton is also interested in talking about simulacrums that seem more real than real, which makes the book a bit less moralistic than the pseudo-environmentalist film.
Crichton’s weird fixation on hyperreality and acts of creation — just think about how similar this book is to Westworld — makes the book bizarre in ways the movie isn’t and likely couldn’t have been and still worked. In the book, one way John Hammond demonstrates the power of his cloning tech is to bring a miniature, rat-sized living elephant to meetings in which he’s trying to win people over. This is cool because, again, it shows Crichton’s patience as an author: Don’t show readers the cloned dinosaurs first; show them a tiny cloned elephant. This helps to layer on the realism, but it also sets up a great discussion for what amounts to a “real dinosaur.”
Also, in the book, Dr. Wu tries to convince Hammond that the cloned dinosaurs need to be toned down, otherwise, they will freak out the visitors to Jurassic Park. Hammond is pissed about this. Here’s how that conversation plays out.
“Domesticated dinosaurs?” Hammond snorted. “Nobody wants domesticated dinosaurs, Henry. They want the real thing.”
“But that’s my point,” Wu said, “I don’t think they do. They want to see their expectation, which is quite different.”
It’s hard to imagine this kind of thoughtful conversation happening in one of the films, though Jurassic World came close in 2015 when Chris Pratt criticized the creation of a gross dinosaur monster hybrid called the Indominus Rex. But, the essential difference is easy to spot. In both Jurassic World and its new sequel, the “fake” dinosaurs aren’t domesticated, they’re amped-up into Hollywood killing machines, in the same way that Ian Malcolm was forced to become a grinning caricature.
In microcosm, this is where Jurassic Park the book will never really be eclipsed by the movies that cloned it. It somehow takes the idea of cloning dinosaurs and putting them into an amusement park into a thoughtful, reflective novel. And when you re-read it, you’ll wonder if Michael Crichton ever really wanted to turn it into a movie in the first place. He was clearly of two minds about the thing. He likely wanted the money and definitely liked seeing his work on the big screen, but he also seems to have put some stuff in there just for himself.
Crichton’s artistic selfishness is what makes the book great and worth revisiting. The movies are great because they are zippy vehicles for mass entertainment. The book is more thoughtful, like a drunken conversation with a slightly altered friend. Crichton saw a way to turn Hollywood onto dinosaurs, but what interested him most was the nature of nature, not the nature of spectacle.