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Book vs. Flick: Jurassic Park

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Jun 20, 2018

The brainchild of author Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park is one of the longest-running and most successful franchises of the last few decades. Universal bought rights for a film version before the book was even published, and it has spawned multiple sequels, which have all been blockbusters in their own rights, as well as several video games and amusement park rides. There was even almost an animated series, although that was ultimately scrapped. Beyond being a successful franchise, however, Jurassic Park has become a cultural landmark.

If you look a bit deeper, though, the story itself warns against many of the excesses practiced by the franchise. Even within the book itself, gratuitous branding is viewed with cynicism and disdain, ultimately serving as the backdrop of what is, at heart, a horror story.

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The 1993 movie version of Jurassic Park begins with an attack on one of the workers at the park, leading investors to feel hesitant about putting their money into a dangerous gamble. Dr. Hammond brings a handful of experts, including Dr. Ellie Sattler, Dr. Alan Grant, and Dr. Ian Malcolm, along with his own grandchildren (not cool, dude!) to the park to assure the investors that the park is completely safe. Spoiler alert: It's super not. After covering some fairly basic scientific concepts, the group strikes out to check out some dinos. Of course, things go terribly awry when the villainous Dennis Nedry shuts down the park's electrical lines in hopes of escaping with dinosaur embryos that he can sell for millions of dollars. That plan absolutely does not work, and he definitely gets eaten alive by a dinosaur. Although Nedry meets his bitter end, there's still the small matter of an entire island of dinosaurs now running rampant with no possibility of regaining control over them. The characters are split up, with Malcolm injured almost immediately, Grant fighting to save the children from multiple threats, and a team of technicians behind the scenes trying against all odds to return power to the island. 

The special effects of the film were groundbreaking. Using then-revolutionary CGI along with life-sized animatronic dinosaurs, the movie and the effects have both aged remarkably well. The sense of wonder the characters feel when they first catch glimpses of prehistoric lizards grazing in a field has now been shared by movie audiences all over the globe, and it never gets old, no matter how many times you view it.

In the film, Ellie Sattler's role is larger, allowing for the development of a love triangle among her, Ian Malcolm, and Dr. Grant. In the book, Sattler and Grant have an unquestionably professional mentor/student relationship. Most people presume her and Grant to be in a relationship in the film due to his seeming jealousy of Malcolm and her interest in Grant's aversion to children. I'm in the camp of people who consider the relationship between Grant and Sattler platonic, as they don't really behave as a couple through either book or film, and because I prefer it when not every single relationship between adult male and female characters has to be a love story. On the other hand, I passionately advocate for Laura Dern's performance, as well as the increased prominence of her role in the film adaptation, and her general absence from the sequels caused my interest in them to wane. Although women of STEM do make appearances in the follow-up films, there's been extensive commentary on Jurassic World's treatment of its female characters. Most importantly, Ellie is a hero, and her scenes dodging velociraptors remain some of the most exciting moments.

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Another big difference between the book and the film is the absence of the procompsognathus dinosaur. Several key plot points were changed by eliminating the presence of this ground-dwelling bipedal. Small in comparison to most known dinosaurs, the procompsognathus is supposed to have only grown to about a meter long. The book begins with the brutal murder of a small girl on vacation in Central America with her parents. The scene was later used to introduce Jurassic Park: The Lost World, but it was a major tonal change from the book and the first film. In the movie, we are given a good half hour to marvel at the dinosaurs before being shown the horror of them gone rogue; in the book, they're rogue from the beginning and have already begun to escape the island.

In the book, a pack of the procompsognathus kills Dr. Hammond. The literary version of Dr. Hammond is much, much less lovable than he is in the movie, and openly puts profits before people throughout. Most of his negative traits are pushed onto lawyer Donald Gennaro, who survives the book but not the film. The Dr. Hammond of the movie ultimately sees the error of his ways, even returning in the sequel to attempt to rectify his mistakes. In the book, he's startled by a recording of a T-rex's roar, falls down a hill, breaks his ankle, and is thus devoured alive by the procompsognathus.

There are a few personality changes for prominent characters between the two stories. The Dr. Grant of the book really likes kids, in contrast to the immediately suspicious of children, “babies smell funny” curmudgeon we know from the film. Lex and Tim's personalities are more or less reversed, as in the book Lex is younger and obsessed with dinosaurs, and Tim is the older one who uses computers to help save the day. Spielberg made a few choices that helped to feature female characters more prominently, including giving Ellie Sattler more of a role. On the other hand, other major characters of the novel are completely excluded from the screenplay, most noticeably Dr. Martin Guitierrez, who helps identify the lizards that attacked the young girl in the beginning as being irregular or possibly a new species.

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The scenes with Grant escaping dinosaur doom with Lex and Tim are much the same in both media, but there is one specific moment that stands out as being a missed opportunity for the movie. At one point, Grant, Tim, and Lex all have to sneak past a sleeping T-rex. Grant manages to inflate a life raft, but the T-rex awakens, chasing him and the children down a volatile river while they struggle to escape with their lives. The scene later became the basis for the Jurassic Park River Adventure ride at Universal's Island of Adventure. One of the most riveting chapters in the book, it makes sense why it would get cut due to its similarity to other scenes, especially taking into account the cost and difficulty of pulling off a dinosaur chase in a river with child actors, but it sure would have been a lot of fun to watch. Additionally, in the movie we never quite find out what happens to Isla Nublar after everyone evacuates. In the book, there's no question: They totally raze the earth by burning the whole thing to the ground. I said it once and I'll say it again: Jurassic Park was not an ecologically sound plan.

Both the book and the film versions of Jurassic Park are laid out like instant classics, although they take different steps to get there. The movie tells the story of renegade, murderous dinosaurs while somehow maintaining a mostly family-friendly rating, while the book is laden with deep, now mostly irrelevant technological descriptions, lots of segues full of doctors thinking deeply on things, and, seriously, a ton of murder. There is lots and lots of death in that book. It has a more cynical tone and comes off as much less forgiving toward the opportunistic billionaires who try to “play God” by recreating the Jurassic era in an attempt to turn a profit. The characters are a little flatter, and the focus is less on the human element of the story and more on the overriding moral. It's pretty much Frankenstein with dinosaurs. That's not a knock, though — Frankenstein with dinosaurs is awesome.

On the other hand, the movie allows us to suspend our cynicism for a short time and marvel at the existence of dinosaurs in the modern age, even if the awe is fleeting and gives way to much the same horror as the novel. Both stories hit different notes, but both succeed in saying pretty much the same thing: Dinosaurs are awesome and science is awesome, but they will both kill the heck out of you if you're not careful.