I’ve had a pretty long love affair with Michael Crichton’s novels. There was a period as a teenager when I picked up everything I could find by him at the used bookstore. Many of my copies are still dog-eared, spine-cracked, disintegrating.
So reading Jurassic Park is like visiting an old friend. Sometimes you uncover some small tidbit about them that you hadn’t known before, but mostly you just bask in an appreciation of the richness of their character, the depth of their experiences. There are probably people out there who dislike Crichton’s writing, dismissing it as too “commercial.” As a speculative fiction writer myself, I obviously don’t suffer from that snobbery. There are novels that are better than others, though, in Crichton’s body of work. I particularly didn’t enjoy Next, and Airframe was thrilling but not very memorable. I remember Prey as being delightfully scary. Jurassic Park, however, carries this beautiful balance between thrill, suspense, and intellectual intrigue.
Crichton has a way of framing the science behind his concepts so that you think it’s entirely plausible. Speaking with a fellow alumni of my graduate program recently, we reached the conclusion that sometimes straight realistic fiction has an edge up by being based solely on what is possible. It requires a lot of research, but there’s a joy to be had from digging deep into an intellectual topic that is different from the joy of creating a fantastical world from the atoms up. Crichton makes you feel like you’re getting all the best parts of his research into a field of science that already exists. I suppose it comes from basing so much of it on methods or practices that do already exist, and that the wider public has heard of. But to stretch gene sequencing and cloning to the point where it is ready to be commercialized and capitalized on… In short, his imagination stretches that final yard and provides the high concept foundations that fascinate us all so much.
Anyone who’s seen the movie Jurassic Park can appreciate that high concept. Dinosaurs, walking the earth alongside humans. How cool! And with such a fantastic movie, it’s hard to imagine that the book could be just as good, or better (which happens so rarely). Part of the beauty of the movie is the richness of the characters. We have a very human connection to these people placed in such an extraordinary circumstance. Crichton’s novel is the birthplace of that. Some authors do concepts really well, some do plot, but Crichton manages to be good at concept AND suspenseful pacing AND rich and relatable characters in this one.
With such a fabulous cinematic translation available, many people might think it unnecessary to also read the novel if they haven’t already. I feel like that would be a mistake along the same lines as thinking you don’t have to read The Princess Bride because you’ve seen the movie. The novel adds a depth that a movie can’t possibly contain. As charismatic and wonderful as Jeff Goldblum and Sam Neill are in their roles, Crichton’s characters rival that on the page. There’s nothing quite like reading one of Malcolm’s diatribes as he’s tripping on morphine. There’s something more in Ellie’s capable nature, an internalized scorn for misogyny that the screenwriters didn’t fully capture when they wrote her part for the movie.
When I hear that one of my writer friends hasn’t read Jurassic Park, I become one of those obnoxious people insisting that they are missing out, that their life can’t possibly be complete until they’ve done so. Missing out on Jurassic Park is different from missing out on something like Harry Potter, or The Hunger Games. Sure, if you enjoy stories, you might be satisfied with just the movie. If you have an appreciation for the intricate balance necessary to write a page-turning human interest thriller with a really cool foothold in scientific possibility, though, you need to read the novel.