Review: Michael Crichton’s ‘Jurassic Park’

I feel a little ridiculous summarizing Jurassic Park, because who doesn’t know about this book? Even if you’re like me and didn’t see the movie(s) until recently, you probably knew the basic plot: Man creates dinosaurs, dinosaurs eat man, woman inherits the earth.

Just kidding. That’s not what happens. (But that is the best line in the whole film, one which sadly never appears in the book).

Jurassic Park the movie is pretty much the same as Jurassic Park the book: Ambitious billionaire John Hammond buys an island and (re)creates dinosaurs. That is, his scientists recreate dinosaurs while Hammond builds the multi-million dollar Jurassic Park to house them. The trouble comes when Hammond tries to open the park. Legally, he can’t expose the public until the park is safe, and the park isn’t safe until the experts say it’s so. These experts are mathematician and chaos theory fanboy Ian Malcolm, paleontologist Alan Grant, and paleobotanist Ellie Sattler. Hammond brings them to the island expecting to show off a few dinosaurs, have them sign a few forms, and ship them back to the mainland in time to open his park. As you would expect (or as you know from the movie), things don’t go according to plan. Instead, Murphy’s Law reigns supreme: everything that can go wrong does go wrong. A storm kicks up, the power goes out, someone sabotages the control room, and the dinosaurs get loose.

I have to applaud Crichton, because for the most part he does a marvelous job of crafting the narrative, ratcheting up the suspense at every turn and making readers jump on more than one occasion, which is impressive, considering he doesn’t have the advantage of special effects. Like the movie, the addition of two children to the mix of people trapped on the island only increases the tension. What’s more, Crichton is not afraid to kill people. Roughly half of the characters get eaten by dinosaurs, and you can’t rely on the movie to predict which ones survive. No one is safe.

However, despite Crichton’s prowess as an author, this is one of the rare instances when I think the movie is better than the book. Why? Well, for one, an ink-and-paper T-rex just can’t compare to the terror of a flesh-and-blood T-rex staring at you with eyes the size of dinner plates. It just can’t. (Really, I want to know who sold their souls for those dinosaurs, because Jurassic Park‘s special effects are incredible.)

Second, Jurassic Park the film has a much tighter and cleaner narrative than Jurassic Park the book. This is largely due to the nature of cinema; when adapting a book for the screen, you can’t possibly include everything, so some things get left out. In this case, the cuts were beneficial. While the novel has several scenes I would have loved to see (for example, the T-rex vs. the raft on the river), on the whole, it’s more technical and less focused than the movie, and I think the narrative suffers because of it.

Third — and here’s something I never thought I’d say — the movie has better character development. Thrillers aren’t exactly high literature, so I can’t criticize Crichton too much, but for a novel, Jurassic Park has remarkably static characters. There’s no real sense of growth or change like there is in the movie, and as a result, I don’t get attached. When I’m not attached, I don’t care about who lives or dies, and when the success of your novel depends upon who avoids getting eaten by dinosaurs, emotional attachment is essential.

Also, the movie does right by its female characters. Ellie has some great girl-power lines — in addition to holding her own on the scientific front — and Lex (one of the children) is older, develops as a character, and contributes significantly to the plot. In the book, Ellie is often forgotten in favor of the guys, and Lex is a wild, whiny eight-year-old who does more harm than good.

Despite these weaknesses, Jurassic Park is a decent book. Good for vacation, excitement, or a break from challenging classics, I’d recommend it to just about anyone looking for some fun. 3/5 stars.

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