Passing the Test of Time: ‘Jurassic Park’ Books

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Here’s a thought you don’t get to share with your kids until they are a bit older: Thank goodness that dinosaurs are long gone.

Kids love them, but they do so in a dreamy way, as they love dragons and elves, funny aliens and other stems of our imagination. Actually, dinosaurs were not lovable at all: they were suspicious, bloodthirsty, and aggressive. We are lucky they’re dead. And there is not a better way to breach the subject than Jurassic Park.

With Jurassic World ready for the big screen, I’m wondering whether the film will hold up to the agonizing fun the first movies represent to all of us, and, also, whether they will honor the books.
For me, Michael Crichton is a guilty pleasure. His prose is not that elegant, but his scientific data is precise and the mix with fantasy is terrific. Actually, one of my “relaxing” habits around Christmas time includes rereading his Jurassic books, just for the fun of it. Let’s see how well they have passed the test of time.

Jurassic Park

It first appeared in 1990. That is, before widespread internet or personal computers. Paleontologist Alan Grant and his graduate student, Ellie Sattler, are invited by billionaire John Hammond for a weekend visit to a “biological preserve” established on a remote island off the coast of Costa Rica: Isla Nublar. This preserve is actually a theme park, and the main attractions are dinosaurs, cloned dinosaurs.

There have been a few accidents during the setup of the place, and the investors want to close the entire project. Ian Malcolm, mathematician and chaos theorist, and a lawyer, Donnald Genaro, are also on the island. Malcolm knows for a fact that the park will collapse, because of the complexities and unpredictability of life. After all, the dinosaurs are not robots, they are living creatures with brains and strategies of their own. (The fiercest of them, of course, are the velociraptors.)

John Hammond doesn’t want to close the park; of course, he even brings his own grandchildren to the place, the first of many human mistakes. The beauty of the book is the detail in which human expectations don’t match or fail to see the reality in front of them: wild animals simply won’t take into account human needs or relate to them; they will attack whatever crosses their territory and they will behave in ways no one can predict, especially since they are ancient dinosaurs, wild beings humans have never met before.

The movie adaptation by Steven Spielberg was an instant hit, and Crichton worked closely with the script. However, as in most films, they only used a percentage of the book. Lots of amusing details and twists got lost, like the dinosaur migration to the mainland, and the fact that Ian Malcolm created dragon curves to predict the unforeseen events that would eventually spring up on the island. This movie even helped create a whole new wave of paleontologists, inspired by the sheer size and life-like qualities of the dinosaur sculptures made for the film (something CGI simply fails to do).

The Lost World

lostworldThe Lost World appeared in 1997 after much pressure from the public. The events take place in whole different island: Isla Sorna, a “production facility” where InGen hatched and grew the dinosaurs for Isla Nublar. Ian Malcolm sets out to rescue a paleontologist: Richard Levine has gone into the island to study the dinosaurs before the Costa Rican government finds out about them. The team features Jack “Doc” Thorne, an engineer and retired university professor; Eddie Carr, Thorne’s assistant; and two stowaway children, R.B. “Arby” Benton and Kelly Curtis. Dr. Sarah Harding, animal behaviorist and former lover of Malcolm, also decides to join them on the rescue.

The film concentrated on the most impressive traits of the book: a young Tyrannosaurus with an injured leg, a team that wanted to capture as many specimens as it could carry, and so on. However, the main argument of the book is not treated in the movie: why the dinosaurs have a shorter lifespan and how (badly) they are raising their young. The descriptions of dinosaur behavior are really full of scientific details (something amazing about Crichton is how he used information; he could understand detailed scientific papers perfectly, and was able to extract conclusions that were surprisingly accurate) and the observational skills of the team eventually guarantee their survival.

My favorite part has nothing to do with science: of course velociraptors are there and hunting the men down. They accidentally eat a chocolate bar a man was carrying and enjoy the taste. When the two kids are hiding in an enclosed scaffolding above ground, they share a chocolate as well. One of them puts the wrapping in his pocket, but the other unconsciously drops it to the ground. The wrapping immediately gives them away, and the velociraptors attack them. Talk about garbage disposal!

If the upcoming movie wants to honor the books, they should take into account certain premises that make them the good cautionary tales they are:

  1. People put their interests first, and expect reality to adapt to their whims, with terrible consequences.
  2. Never underestimate the destructive power of human error.
  3. You can manipulate genes, but if you ignore basic wild animal behavioral traits, you are in for a big and nasty surprise.
  4. Dinosaurs are long gone and that is a good thing.

If the movie takes into account at least some of these, we are definitely in for a treat.

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