Jurassic Park: A Film That Claims Dominion Over Its Book
Beware of spoilers:
When it comes to page to screen adaptations, people typically prefer the books to their cinematic counterparts. It’s the case with Harry Potter, A Wrinkle in Time and most certainly with Percy Jackson and the Olympians. This preference isn’t surprising either. The books have more time to develop characters and plot lines as they're not confined to a two hour runtime. Also, the books act as the source material for their subsequent films. Because of this, people expect a film to reflect its written counterpart “to a T”, and when it doesn’t, it's automatically bad.
However, this is quite the opposite with Jurassic Park. Written by Michael Crichton, this sci-fi thriller hatched a franchise that now encompasses a total of six movies, one animated show, and tons of dinosaur toys. The Jurassic Park franchise has become so iconic that it’s even been referenced many times in shows, movies, and advertisements (most recently in a tv spot for Illumination’s newest film Minions: The Rise of Gru). However, despite the popularity of the film and the monstrous success of the franchise, the book has remained somewhat unknown and is not very memorable. In fact, many people would probably be surprised to learn that it even existed. So, what makes the novel inferior to the film? Well in the words of John Hammond: “I’ll show you.”
Definitely the weakest part of Chrichton’s book are the characters. They’re bland and uninteresting to the point where you don’t really care if they make it off the island. However, no two characters suffered greater under Crichton’s penmanship than the two female characters, Lex and Ellie. They simply just stand around throughout the book. Unlike in the film, Lex is younger than Timmy and thus is much more immature and unaware of the dangers of the park. She also isn’t a master hacker and doesn’t really display any skills at all, except for the ability to constantly whine. Ellie Sattler is not very interesting either. She’s quite reserved, doesn’t contribute any ideas, and is not an expert botanist, but rather, a one of Dr. Grant’s grad students. Her biggest, meaningful contribution to the story is that she nurses Malcolm after he was attacked by the T-rex. Luckily, both characters were improved in the film as Lex became the older sibling and the hacker who brings the phones back online. Ellie has a mind of her own and even takes charge to get the park rebooted, and outran a raptor in an awesome sequence. Like with Lex and Ellie, a major problem with the characters in the book is that they don’t grow.
The most notable difference in characters between the book and the movie, though, is its treatment of the eccentric billionaire and creator of the park, John Hammond. In fact, it may be surprising to learn that Hammond was actually villainous in the novel, even being described as a dark version of Walt Disney. Crichton wrote Hammond as a selfish and greedy capitalist who was more focused on making a profit than anything else, even his own grandchildren. This version of Hammond underpaid and mistreated his employees, dramatically cut costs and corners to get the park operational, and even threatened to blackmail Denis Nedry, which then caused Denis to betray him. Even as the park fell apart around him, Hammond blamed everyone else for his mistakes. In the end, he received a well deserved death, as he was eaten alive by his own creations (very poetic, Crichton). The problem with this Hammond is that there’s nothing redeeming about him. He is simply just a one-dimensional jerk.
But in the film, Hammond (Portrayed by Richard Attenborough) was a much kinder man with a love for his grandchildren and a desire to share the park with the world. This Colonel Sanders look-alike “spared no expense” when creating Jurassic Park, and even though he held fast to the hope of salvaging his dream, he eventually gave it up to save those around him. The complexity this clash between his ethics and dreams gave him was much more interesting to watch than it was to read about him acting awful towards everyone around him. Not only did this character change make him more complex, but it also made him more human. Real people make mistakes and are flawed. They think that they’re doing the right thing but are sometimes blind to the errors in their actions. This is exactly how Hammond is in the movie. He made the park to give people a once in a lifetime experience, but didn’t account for all the chaos that could ensue from messing with nature and science. We feel sympathetic towards him because we can relate to him, and that makes him a much more powerful and human character than his written counterpart. He’s not just some villainous character, he’s a flawed and more understandable one.
As a whole, the film adaptation is a more accessible story than the book. The novel spends a hefty amount of time delving into the science and technology of the park. While Chricton’s explanational tangents can be interesting, they really drag the story and can cause readers to lose interest. The film explains the science simply and creatively with the use of Mr. DNA, a goofy animated character who is part of an explanational video on the tour. In a single scene, the audience gets the gist of the park’s scientific methods. The inclusion of the Mr. DNA video even makes the park feel more like a dinosaur Disneyworld and less like a biology class.
The book is also much more graphic and vulgar than the movie. For example, after being blinded by the Dilophosaurus, it’s described that the character Denis Nedry gets his stomach ripped open and realizes that he’s “holding his own intestines.” Imagine seeing that on screen, eww! However, the film shies away from the blood and guts. The same scene with Nedry appears in the film, except we don’t actually see him get ripped to shreds. Instead Spielberg shows us the Barbasol can containing stolen dinosaur DNA that is covered up with mud while we hear his dying screams. This approach doesn’t rely on the shock factor of bloody deaths, but rather comes across as more intellectual. We didn’t need to see him get eaten alive to know that his mission failed. We could simply infer it. Speilberg’s approach is a smarter use of the camera and is more focused on the beauty of the dinosaurs rather than their monstrosity.
Another major flaw with the book is its lack of wonder for the park. The idea of seeing a living and breathing dinosaur just screams the words wonder and amazement doesn’t it? However, it seems that Michael Crichton would use the words fear and terror to describe this concept. He treats the dinosaurs more as mindless and vicious beasts and the park more like a facility, which creates a scary and dreary atmosphere. Now, this definitely works in the scenes where the characters are just moments away from becoming dinner, but it shouldn’t be the case all the time.
The film, on the other hand (or claw if you're a dino), does something completely different. It makes the audience fall in love with the dinosaurs and their world. From the moment Grant, Ellie, and Malcom see the graceful brachiosaurus and the herd of peaceful dinosaurs, a sense of magic enters their minds and, more importantly, ours. The film portrays a triceratops much like a bison and a raptor like a cheetah. They have the capacity to be dangerous but they can offer a sense of serenity and awe at times too. Despite the downfall of the park, there’s still beauty in its prehistoric environment, which is something Crichton never really grasped with the book.
With all these other changes between the book and the film, it should be no surprise that they feature different endings. The novel has the survivors rescued by a helicopter and then flown to safety as the Costa Rican Airforce napalms the island. Contrary to this violent ending, the film has the survivors make it to the helicopter, where they contemplate what occurred over the past forty-eight hours while the island is left standing. The book gives us a dark and depressing image of the dinosaurs on the verge of extinction, while the film paints the picture of an island ecosystem full of dinosaurs.
The door is left open for the audience to imagine what happens next on the island. The sense of wonder that was built up throughout the film lives on even after the credits roll. There’s no definite end to the story, which creates a more interactive and magical experience between the film and the audience. On top of that, the film lets us see how some of the characters have changed. John Hammond stares at the mosquito inside the amber tip of his staff, wondering if his dream, which started with that very piece of amber, was worth all the damage it caused. He’s no longer naive to the power of creation. Meanwhile, Dr. Grant realizes that he doesn’t hate kids, as Lex and Tim rest on either side of him. It’s established early on in the film that Dr. Grant has no desire to have children, but after taking care of Hammond’s kids it's clear that he’s had a change of heart. As he smiles at Ellie, he considers what it would be like to have a family and have people to care for other than himself.
Although the book may offer some interesting scientific explanations and gory scares, there is a reason why people associate Jurassic Park with the film and not the novel. The creative liberties Spielberg took when creating the film allowed for a more accessible story, with better developed characters, and a grander sense of wonder and magic. While it is uncommon for a film to be universally considered better than its written counterpart, Jurassic Park proves that it's not impossible. I guess you could even say - life found a way!
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Crichton, Michael. Jurassic Park. Alfred A. Knopf. 1990.
Hedash, Kara, and Kara Hedash (1783 Articles Published). “The One Thing Jurassic Park Changed about Dennis Nedry's Brutal Death.” ScreenRant, 28 Feb. 2021, https://screenrant.com/jurassic-park-dennis-nedry-death-book-change-guts/.
Jurassic Park. Directed by Steven Spielberg, Universal Pictures, 1993.
“Richard Attenborough.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/biography/Richard-Attenborough.