The Double Take: Re-reading "Jurassic Park"
In the first edition of a new series, I re-read Michael Crichton's 1991 novel, "Jurassic Park", and discover the difference between loving and admiring a book.
Welcome to a brand new, semi-regular series, The Double Take. I’ll be re-reading and re-watching books and films that I first encountered long ago. Sometimes it will be something I loved and want to know if it stands up today, sometimes it will be something I loathed and feel deserves a second chance.
In this first edition, I’m looking at a novel that held an important place in my childhood and wondering what my adult-self makes of it.
In the mid-nineties, everyone was mad for the Mesozoic. A wave of dino-mania had begun a decade earlier, Michael Crichton had written two novels about genetically engineered dinosaurs, and one of the most famous directors of all time had turned them into films. However, I knew nothing about any of this yet, nor did I know I was about to discover the book that would dominate my adolescent reading.
Back then, I was ten years old, and I’d been forced to pack up a few toys and clothes to make the journey with my family halfway across the planet. We moved from the mountainous, fully seasonal west coast of Canada to England, a country with two seasons: raining, and raining less. I left my whole life behind, saying goodbye to beloved family members and all my friends. Almost as soon as we arrived in this foreign land, my parents divorced. I felt stranded, powerless, alone. Like many kids in such a way, the local library became a safe haven. Its rows of alphabetised books made sense amidst the apparent senselessness of life, and the books themselves offered meaningful plots and tidy endings. In a book, I could escape the chaos of the real world.
The book I escaped into more times than any other, by a factor of an easy hundred, was Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. I can’t remember the first time I read it, probably because once I’d found it on that library shelf, I read and re-read it so often that it felt like it had always been part of my life. No doubt the global phenomenon of Spielberg’s film adaptation made me reach for the book that first time, but it was the story that had me coming back to it over and over again.
The novel’s plot is well known to anyone over the age of ten – the genetically engineered creatures in a dinosaur theme park escape their cages and terrorise the island – but its genesis is less well known. As the nineties began, author Michael Crichton was expecting his first child and, as he told one interviewer, “I found that I couldn’t walk past a toy store without buying a stuffed toy.” All well and paternal, but he noticed that he was buying an absurd number of dinosaur teddies. His wife couldn’t understand the sudden mania, reminding him that they were having a daughter. Crichton insisted that girls liked dinosaurs too, but eventually he had to concede that he was obsessed with the prehistoric animals.
His interest went back to the start of the eighties, when he’d written a screenplay about a genetically modified dinosaur. He couldn’t make the script work, so he set it aside. Every year, his mind went back to the screenplay, and every year, he resisted picking it up because he didn’t want to be “seen as part of a trend”:
“But the next year there was still a dinosaur mania and the year after that it was still going strong, so I finally realised that it was always going to be here.”
So, husband and wife went through their own gestational periods, hers literal and his literary, and the first draft of Jurassic Park (this time a novel) was finished after his daughter was born. The conceit of genetically engineered dinosaurs remained from the screenplay, but the novel introduced a central theme: humanity’s efforts to dominate nature. Jurassic Park explores how control is often an illusion intended to soothe us of the pain caused by life’s chaos. While the park’s owner is convinced he can sublimate nature to his whims, Ian Malcolm – rock star mathematician and advocate of chaos theory – argues that “the island will quickly proceed to behave in unpredictable fashion”.
Protected from some of the buffeting of life’s stormy seas by a lifeboat made of books such as Jurassic Park, I was soon drawn to the idea of writing my own stories. No doubt I thought I could write a sense of meaning and order onto the complexities of life. I wanted to control something, anything, as I suffered the tribulations of puberty and the trial of my parents’ divorce while simultaneously adjusting to being a stranger in a strange land.
Jurassic Park showed me the kind of book I might want to write. In the year after first reading it, I wrote countless copy-cat versions of Crichton’s novel. I littered my own renditions with sentences lifted from the original text, phrases that appealed to my incipient sensibilities as a writer. I was an amateur mimicking an expert to work out how it’s done. Crichton’s novel also made me want to be a palaeontologist. Like Bruce Wayne and Batman, I thought I would dig up bones by day and write novels by night.
Except – like a palaeontologist of the mind, I’ve suddenly unearthed an earlier memory. I am climbing over a chain link fence, and as I attempt to hop down the other side, my shoelace gets tangled in the wire. I flip over and dangle upside down for a brief eternity, before the lace snaps and I land on my back. An ambulance is called, and as it races me to the hospital, a kindly paramedic asks what I want to be when I grow up. Probably concussed and always eager to impress adults, I announce, “I’m going to be a landscape architect.” I have no idea where it comes from; I don’t even know what it means; I’m probably parroting something I’d heard before and thought sounded grand.
Looking back on that scene now, I have no doubt that the words “landscape architect” came out of my mouth because I thought they sounded impressive. I’m just as sure that my pride at being able to recite obscure facts about palaeontology was about feeling bigger and more capable than I was. I felt the same about my ability to sculpt a story out of language. In year seven, my English teacher would point to me when a student asked for the spelling of a word and say, “Ask the human dictionary.” I loved that. It made me feel just as precocious, just as special, to have read at that young age a book that was officially taxonomized as “for adults”.
There might be more to it than just feeling clever for one’s age. In Jurassic Park, fossil hunter Alan Grant has a theory about why young children learn the phonetically-contorted names of dinosaurs – it is “a way of exerting power over the giants” that symbolise their parents. Grant believes that dinosaurs “personified the uncontrollable force of looming authority”, and if kids can name them, they can tame them. Of course, the grown-up experts in the novel know far more about dinosaurs, but that knowledge can’t save them from the predations of carnivores who don’t care how smart these humans are. There are limits to what we can control.
Jurassic Park was the first adult book I ever read, a fact that will forever give it a special place in my reading life. Actually, why the qualifier? What’s important in my reading life is important to my life, full stop. That’s why I eventually felt I had to re-read it as an adult, even while knowing it probably wouldn’t live up to my adult standards for great literature. I’m so glad I came back to it.
Returning to Jurassic Park after an absence of almost two decades, I feel as though I’ve resumed a friendship after a lengthy pause, and I feel like no time has passed at all, and I am overcome with a sort of giddy joy to have rediscovered a thing I’d almost forgotten I once had. Re-reading Jurassic Park in my thirties turned out to be a reunion with a joyous, absurd kind of fun that I’d mostly outgrown but was pleased to discover I still had a taste for.
Let me start with all the caveats. Jurassic Park is not a well-written book and Michael Crichton was not a literary writer, if by that we mean interested in language or thematic nuance. If I were in a complimentary mood, I might describe Crichton’s prose as workmanlike. These are technically sentences, but everything is filtered through his no-frills, emotionally unambiguous writing, which would not be out of place in a book for young readers. I was a little deflated to discover that reading Jurassic Park at a young age maybe had less to do with my being precocious and more to do with the book being relatively unsophisticated.
There’s an old Hollywood maxim that only bad books make great films, and Jurassic Park is evidence of this. One of the smartest improvements Steven Spielberg’s film made on the source material was giving the lead character, Alan Grant, an actual character arc. In the film, we see him go from gruffly resisting the idea of having kids, while tormenting an unfortunate child at his dig site, to forming a makeshift family with the two children he guides to safety through the disaster-stricken park. In the book, Grant begins the story liking children and ends it still liking children.
Characters in Jurassic Park are not complex people but mere vehicles for ideas and the mechanisms by which those ideas can be debated on the page. This is made most obvious during the multiple occasions when the story comes to such a sudden stop it could send its characters hurtling through a windscreen, then idles for several pages while Ian Malcolm, or John Hammond, or Malcolm again, or Henry Wu, or Malcolm one more time delivers a speech about the hubris of science or the drive to invent.
That said, some of those big ideas in the novel are fascinating and hold up today. The most central idea in Jurassic Park is the value of science and how it intersects with commerce. This relationship between entertainment and progress is how we end up with the dinosaur theme park in which the novel is set. Having come up with the idea of cloning a dinosaur, a question naturally arose: “Who’s going to pay for it?” Crichton said:
“The cost would most certainly be phenomenal – and what is it really worth to Stanford University to have a dinosaur? [...] I think if dinosaurs ever are cloned, it will be done by somebody for entertainment. [...] The fact that these dinosaurs are made for a park, it seemed to me, emphasized rather nicely the idea that all this amazing technology is being used for essentially commercial and frivolous purposes.”
While re-reading Jurassic Park, I kept thinking about the technology that influences most of our daily lives. Futurists at the dawn of the internet may have dreamed of democratised access to knowledge, an online populace of autodidacts becoming well informed real-world citizens. What we got instead was fail videos and cat memes, trolls and comic book forums, blogs about Marvel movies and recycled content passing as journalism. As Malcolm puts it in Jurassic Park, “In the information society, no one thinks. We expected to banish paper, but we actually banished thought.” Now, that really was prescient.
Jurassic Park is a book that I have a deep attachment to, one that supplies me with a reliable fount of fun every time I read it, even in spite of the fact that I can’t defend the aesthetic or literary merits of the book. Crichton’s prose is uninspired, the book is populated by single attributes in human form, and their character arcs have all the curve of a straight line. And yet...
I still take refuge in the simplicity of Jurassic Park and the familiarity of Crichton’s voice. I revel in how the novel taps into a universal fascination with dinosaurs, catalysed in my younger self by this very book and renewed by it in later years. I love the digressions into paleontological disputes of the nineties that have since been resolved and anxieties about technologies (such as CD-ROM) that have since become obsolete. It’s reassuring to be reminded that life – as Malcolm argues in the book – is unpredictable.
It’s also good to be reminded that just as concerns about the printing press, monster movies, or fax machines once mattered then faded away, some of our present concerns will also vanish in time. If I could speak to my childhood self, I’d tell him that much of what he’s worried about (our parents’ divorce, living in a new country, struggling to make friends) will vanish in time. Life will be chaotic because, as Jurassic Park shows, life is chaos. I would remind him that the message of his favourite book is that the attempt to control everything is doomed to failure. Resist the urge to be in control, and avoid the hubris of Dr Wu, head scientist at Jurassic Park, who says of the dinosaurs:
“These animals are genetically engineered to be unable to survive in the real world. They can only live here in Jurassic Park. They are not free at all. They are essentially our prisoners.”
Be more like Malcolm, who gives a wry smile and says (to be quoted by readers and fans of the film until the end of time): “Life will find a way.”
• Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton (1991)
• The Making of Jurassic Park, Don Shay & Jody Duncan (1993)
• What Happened to the Future? Founders Fund manifesto, which you can read here.