Revisiting the JP Books

It has been a while since I last read the Jurassic Park novels. Believe it or not, I don’t always just rehash my same old interests over and over every time a new release comes out! I didn’t read the books when Jurassic World came out. I’ve read both Jurassic Park and The Lost World a few times, but probably college was when I last revisited them. Fallen Kingdom felt like such a fresh approach to the franchise, though, and at the same time, Evolution drew so heavily from the books. So read them again I did.

My biggest disappointment is that every time I reread these books, I like them a little bit less. Crichton always had such cool ideas with every book, but then execution typically followed the same action-horror formulas. Many of the characters just feel like repeats from other books, and it’s hard not to jump from, say, Jurassic Park to Timeline to Prey without getting hit repeatedly with déjà vu (I’m sure that Crichton’s Westworld would fit right in, but I have never seen the film). And the biggest flaw of Crichton’s books is that he tends to be self-righteously preachy and philosophical. While his messages vary, they often come down to a fundamental mistrust of scientific industry. And there’s typically at least one character to take on the authorial voice.

In Jurassic Park and The Lost World, the authorial voice character has been Ian Malcolm. Unlike Jeff Goldblum’s goofy mathematician/”rock star,” book Malcolm is a never-ending speechifying machine. He goes on and on about chaos theory, and frankly, it’s hard to want Malcolm to be right when he’s so pretentious, self-absorbed, and long-winded. We’re talking pages of monologue from Malcolm, especially later in the book.

But Jurassic Park makes many odd character decisions. Grant, for instance, is a gruff, outdoorsy, manly man who disdains more academic scientists. He’s positioned as the protagonist, and he does shepherd the kids through the park like in the film and helps uncover the truths about the breeding dinosaurs and their nesting sites. But he’s not very likeable. He’s an asshole to many of the characters and makes snap decisions about people, often choosing to dislike them. Plus, he’s incredibly belligerent toward Gennaro.

Now, that might seem like a weird complaint if you haven’t read the books. But Gennaro is actually Crichton’s everyman viewpoint character here. He’s smart, even though he’s not an expert in the scientific fields and so needs to get up to speed on some points. Even while his law firm is invested in Jurassic Park, he is quite willing to close it down if it’s unsafe, and he doesn’t fall for Hammond’s bullshit. He never gets caught up in greed, and he’s not a coward (the one to flee the T-rex attack is Ed Regis, PR guy for Jurassic Park). And he accepts responsibility for his role in enabling the place, often tagging along with Muldoon to handle some of the most dangerous tasks in attempting to restore order to the park. But Muldoon and Grant remain hostile to him basically the entire time.

Then we have characters reduced to the blankest of archetypes, ready for morally acceptable dino-snacking: Hammond is a sinister industrialist who cares little about the loss of life happening in his park, Regis is a slick corporate executive who proves to be cowardly and stupid, Wu is blinded by his scientific ambition, Arnold never really understands the complex systems he’s tasked with running, and Nedry is a greedy fat slob with very little motivation for being so easily corrupted. Basically all the characters are improved in the film.

Meanwhile, Sattler is Sattler. The other characters often look at her lustfully, or are surprised that she’s a woman. But she herself is incredibly competent, a Sigourney Weaver-type action protagonist. I think even Sattler is improved on-screen, though, because she’s allowed more emotional vulnerability and human reaction than she gets in the book. Interestingly, in The Making of Jurassic Park by Don Shay and Jody Duncan, Steven Spielberg is quoted as saying that the selection of an actor for Sattler “was a tough choice.” He added:

I never thought of Laura [Dern] in the context of Jurassic Park because I saw her as kind of frail and always being pursued by circumstances and men. I never envisioned her as a tough gal, like Linda Hamilton or Sigourney Weaver. But, actually, she didn’t need to be. She wasn’t required to play that kind of character in the film. Ellie is more of a brain–a paleobotanist who loves animals and plants and is pretty much a creature of the earth. And when I got to meet Laura and spend some time with her, I found that was pretty much what she was. So it worked out nicely.

The only character I genuinely prefer in book-form is Robert Muldoon, who is depicted at first as a hyper-competent park warden with years of experience but ultimately reveals himself to be a belligerent drunk under pressure. And yet he still manages to pull off some ridiculous feats–tranquilizing the tyrannosaur and blowing up a raptor, for instance.

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The Lost World ends up repeating many of the same plot points and characters. Seriously, most of the characters seem interchangeable with their Jurassic Park counterparts. The engineering professor Thorne is a gruff, physical, materialist character like Grant. Eddie Carr is a young, out-of-his-depth city kid like Ed Regis (he even has the same first name, while his last name bluntly echoes his role as mechanic); Carr, unlike Regis, is actually heroic, but he also meets a grisly fate. Dodgson returns to take on the direct role of greedy and corrupt villain that Nedry previously inhabited. Malcolm rises from the dead to be Malcolm again (his return from a very clear death in the first book echoes the return of Sherlock Holmes from death, which seems fitting given the heavy debt Crichton obviously owed to Arthur Conan Doyle’s own Lost World). Harding is the new Sattler. Kelly and Arby are the new Tim and Lex. Levine is…I don’t know who the hell Levine corresponds with, but he’s obnoxious as hell. In fact, Levine’s survival to the end and Carr’s death are supporting evidence for my theory that The Lost World was largely Crichton’s attempt to correct perceived errors in the original book–we move away from moralistic death scenes to having characters killed or surviving by random chance (even Howard King on the villain’s team really is a sympathetic guy after all and doesn’t “deserve” his horrifying death at the hands of the raptors).

I have to wonder why Crichton decided to focus on the characters he settled on. Grant’s absence is especially jarring. Book Grant escapes the Jurassic Park crisis more or less unscathed. He was quick-thinking and quick-acting. Sometimes his plans worked great, sometimes they backfired, and sometimes he survived by luck alone. But he kept persevering. He was always the scientist, even seeking out the raptor nest voluntarily when he could have stayed safely back at the control center. He was intrigued by the raptor behavior up until he was evacuated. Knowing there was another island would easily perk up the Grant of the novel and motivate him to launch another expedition.

Instead, we have Malcolm–a character Crichton had to bring back from the dead–in the main role. Film Malcolm was heavily traumatized by his experiences; book Malcolm suffered even worse and carried physical traumas for years afterward, so his willingness to look for and go to yet another island feels arbitrary. Plus, he’s now focusing on evolution and extinction events, trying to apply chaos theory to the subjects (yawn) and acting like an expert in a field he didn’t know anything about until after Jurassic Park. And then we have Levine, a sniveling, foppish nuisance, as a new paleontologist brought into the fold (who is far less likeable than Grant). Finally, Thorne takes on Grant’s physical traits and personality. So we now have three characters in Malcolm, Levine, and Thorne to represent Grant’s role as protagonist, paleontologist, and outdoorsman.

While I genuinely like Sarah Harding, I wouldn’t have minded seeing Grant and Sattler launching an expedition to discover a continued source of dinosaurs following the events of the Jurassic Park crisis. And since Harding is basically a stand-in for Sattler (young, competent, intelligent, attractive, and an expert in her field), Harding would become less necessary (although really, having more than one woman as protagonist wouldn’t be the end of the world, jeeze). And there were already dangling threads for a sequel in Jurassic Park that were never explored: we know that some animals made it into the mountains of Costa Rica and were surviving with targeted diets (and they were probably velociraptors and procompsognathids), and we know that InGen still had ample genetic materials at its main base in California.

I understand the impulse to have Dodgson return–he’d want to make good on his promises of dinosaur embryos in the first book, and he’s already an established villainous character. But his cartoonish brand of villainy, yet another evil corporate type, makes him an uninteresting character to spend time with. I liked the larger-scale InGen expedition to recover resources launched in The Lost World film–the villain wasn’t so much Peter Ludlow as it was simple corporate greed, embodied by Ludlow, yes, but existing regardless of what he did. Ludlow was just a guy trying to salvage his company; he was arrogant and greedy and too-slick, but he was just embodying the failings of an institution. He was his own person, not defined simply by greed, and he had ambition (now that I’m thinking about it, Ludlow is rather like the book version of Hammond, greedy and exploitative to a fault and lacking in empathy but not really evil).

In short, it’s like I said up top: I’m disappointed. Crichton had a lot of cool ideas, and he obviously had good bones to his stories for the film adaptations to have turned out so well, but both books fall short of greatness. They end up feeling more like pulpy sci-fi horror. And yet, ideas and scenes and dialogue keep getting mined from the books for each new installment in the franchise.

Now, what’s the point to all the above? Honestly, hell if I know. But let me know if you have anything to add, or if you disagree.

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