The podcast for in-depth discussion on films and the original material they're based on.
by Sarah J.
I fell in love with Jurassic Park the way most people of my generation did: sheer, abject horror intermingled with an intense curiosity and juvenile fascination with dinosaurs.
I first saw the film as a naïve five year old. My parents rented it on videotape from Blockbuster, the way we did things back then. I was not allowed to watch it at first, but after glimpsing the cover of the tape box and realizing that “holy bejebus, there’s dinosaurs in this movie!” I begged my mom to let me sit in. She thought it was going to be too scary; I thought it was going to be like a live-action version of The Land Before Time where people just got to ride around on dinosaurs. It didn’t take too long to figure out I was very wrong.
I don’t remember much from that first viewing. I remember crying uncontrollably in the first ten minutes or so, when a black guy got eaten by a velociraptor and the smarmy safari dude was unable to save him (turns out the guy wasn’t black, he was Costa Rican, but as a small child of mixed race heritage I just assumed every brown person was black, and also why do they always die first?). We had to pause the movie so my parents could calm me down, and after many reassurances that I was mature enough to handle it they let me keep watching. From that point on it’s all a fabulous blur. I know it was violent and probably not something a kid my age should have watched, but I was captivated.
As I got older and eventually acquired and burned out my own tape of Jurassic Park, I realized that yes, the allure of dinosaurs was what had initially drawn me in, but what really kept me in was the science. I was ensconced by the reasoning behind it all. The high-tech facility, the people in lab coats rushing around creating these new animals, the DINO DNA! Even the (then very modern) look of the exotic resort was all a draw.
This is what captured my attention and fascination with the movie, but really made me stick around for the book. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I even got my hands on a copy, but once I picked it up it was nearly impossible for me to put down. For all intents and purposes the movie pretty much follows the novel: eccentric and ridiculously rich old man has way too much hubris, creates theme park, makes dinosaurs, invites team of specialists to inspect said park (and for some reason invites his useless grandkids to tag along), one specialist predicts doom, stuff starts to go wrong, roughly half of the people wind up dead, and we learn a valuable lesson along the way about playing God and also that birds are basically tiny dinosaurs in disguise. The end.
Where it greatly digressed from the plot of the original material was that one little detail I had wanted more of: science. The book spends a great deal of time setting you up to believe that the science used is a real possibility and it’s already happening; you don’t even get to that magnum opus T. rex stomping on cars scene until almost 200 pages in. Complex theories of math and science are cited numerous times, most notably by Dr. Ian Malcolm (portrayed by Jeff Goldblum in the film), who is described as being a genius with the personality of a rock star.
Pretty much every scene he’s involved in is just a way for him to explain some reason for why the entire park is going to blow up in everyone’s faces. He starts off by explaining the theory as basically as possible, then when people (usually the old rich dude, Hammond) fail to understand what he’s saying, he breaks it down with real world examples to slap some truth in their uncomprehending faces. To most people such a character could be described as pompous and conceded, but Malcolm’s redeeming quality is that he’s just always right, and he knows it, and that makes him bearable and, dare I say it, somewhat likeable.
(Also, in the film, he spends half the movie lounging around, wounded and sweaty, with an open shirt quoting scientific facts like its freaking Shakespeare. Be still, my heart.)
My other favorite character to follow due to his sexy, sexy science brain is Dr. Alan Grant (portrayed in the film by Sam Neill). He’s a nerd in all the best ways, shown in the film as almost passing out in sheer joy at the sight of living dinosaurs. In the book he’s a bit more quiet and hands-on about his excitement, pretty much ignoring everyone when there’s a live specimen around to poke and prod at. My favorite scene of his is at the hatchery during the initial tour (another long section of the book filled with tons o’ science, and probably one of my favorite parts) where he sees a baby raptor in the nursery. Most of the others just pet it like a domesticated animal or ignore it completely, but Grant just picks that baby up and starts examining it like the greatest dang thing he’s ever found. He even flips it upside down to get a look at its nether regions, an act that scares the crap out of poor baby raptor and basically sends Dr. Wu (lead geneticist, portrayed by the smoldering B.D. Wong) into a barely controlled rage. Great work, Grant.
Side note: Dr. Grant is said to be a middle-aged dude with a beard wearing sandals, khaki shorts, and a Hawaiian print shirt. He’s pretty much your nerdy uncle that happens to be a paleontologist, if your nerdy uncle looked like Supernatural-era Jeffrey Dean Morgan going off on dino digs. Sorry, off topic, but these are the mental pictures I create while reading and it really does make everything that much more fantastic.
My last great player in this trio of fantastically scientific gents is Robert Muldoon (played by Bob Peck), the game warden of the park and aforementioned safari man that failed to save that poor worker from the raptor in the first ten minutes. Not only does he get the best lines in the film (“SHOOT HER!” “Clever girl.”) but his characterization is tweaked ever so slightly to make him more likeable on screen. In the movie he’s portrayed as a master of big game hunting ad an expert in animal behavior, and offers a lot of valuable insight into the hows and whys the dinos at J. Park are doing what they’re doing.
I wanted to like him as much in the book as I did in the movie, but I just couldn’t. Why? He’s a huge stinkin’ drunk and spends the last half of the novel sloshenly shooting a grenade launcher at a T. rex and playing chicken with raptors. Admittedly, that sounds pretty cool. But I’m definitely sure if he’d been about 100% more sober a few deaths could have been avoided. But you know, we all deal with the stresses of life in our own ways.
Extra side note: Bob Peck as Muldoon was spot on and I didn’t need to change a thing in my mind. Neither would I want to; him running around in those tiny safari shorts is a memory I will treasure forever.
The surprise player in the book was Donald Gennaro (unfortunately portrayed by Martin Ferrero). You may remember him as the slimy grease ball lawyer that died on the shitter during the T. rex attack scene. As soon as he was introduced I decided to develop a deep and determined disdain for him, but as the story unfolds Gennaro actually becomes one of the good guys. He’s basically the everyday man in this scenario. He knows nothing about science, animal husbandry and behavior, or theme park operations and is forced into this weekend trip where he’s asked to evaluate the safety and sensibility of all three of these major components. Even though he’s almost constantly be chased and almost eaten, Gennaro puts on a brave face and made it way further into this novel than most of the other Jurassic Park crew. It’s for this reason that I am claiming him the people’s hero of Jurassic Park, and the real casualty of the adaptation because let’s face it: we could replace Gennaro’s character with you or I, friend, and we probably wouldn’t have made it half as long.
Overall, I give Jurassic Park the novel 10/10 stars. It doesn’t matter what draws you in. For me, it was the science aspect. For you, it could have been the action, or the adventure, or the early 1990s computer jargon I didn’t understand. Shoot, maybe you just really love dinosaurs. No matter who you are this book has something in it for you that’ll be worth taking away. If the success and enduring legacy of the film is any indication of the fascination we have with this story, then the book is sure to go down as a beloved classic.
Five year old me would be pleased with it. Traumatized and very confused, but pleased.