25 years ago, a guy named Spielberg decided to toss some animatronic dinosaurs on the big screen, animated by then-groundbreaking CGI technology. The resulting film launched audiences into a kind of Cretaceous chaos (alright, yeah - the movie is called jurassic, but historically, a lot of the animals featured thrived during the Cretaceous Period, so spare me); two sequels quickly followed, and after a fourteen year hiatus the series was revived with a reboot in 2015. Universal Studios has capitalized on the craze with dino-driven log flumes in their theme parks and stuffed Tyrannosaurs in their gift shops. The story has reached far and wide, and while Steven Spielberg can certainly be credited with turning Jurassic Park into a household name, it was author Michael Crichton who first brought prehistory to the twentieth century.
As with most (read: ALL.) page-to-screen adaptations, this jump from book to box office sparks a controversial question: Which version is better? And to answer that, we've got to do a little analyzing. Let's dive in.
Three years before robotic dinosaurs stomped into theaters, an American girl spotted a Procompsognathus on a Costa Rican beach. She suffered a bite that left doctors and biologists stumped, and so began Michael Crichton's 1990 novel, Jurassic Park.
And here's one of the main differences between page and screen: the book's conflict is more complicated and extensive. Larger issues than prehistoric beasts roaming a self-contained island arise off the bat in Crichton's original work. Within the first ten pages, we already meet dinosaurs on the mainland, a problem that's not addressed in the film universe until 1997.
The novel has four primary conflicts:
- Dinosaurs are loose on the mainland, biting kids and babies.
- Dinosaurs are loose in the park, making snacks out of...well, everyone.
- The dinosaurs, which have all been been genetically engineered as females, are breeding.
- Competition between InGen, the company behind the park, and BioSyn, who wants to steal their dinosaur embryos and create some creatures of their own.
Other conflicts piggyback onto these, including everyone's favorite mathematician (chaotician, Ian Malcolm would correct) spending half the book in dire mortal peril, and constant debates over the implications of creating an island of dinosaurs. Through expert narration and the use of Ian Malcolm as a morphine-doped mouthpiece, this thriller becomes cautionary tale on the dangers of biological and genetic power as well as a commentary on the limitations of science and the lack of control human beings actually have over our own scientific advancements and perceived achievements. Plus, there's a lot of badass action sequences involving vicious predators from the past - you know, just in case the academic commentary doesn't strike your fancy.
The book is expertly paced and balances its many conflicts without a single hiccup. The characters all feel intimately real, from the most deplorable (Dodgson and Nedry), to the amoral (John Hammond), to the desperate to survive (...everyone. literally everyone). Their motives, flaws, fears, and desires come alive through their actions and their interactions with one another. The dangers feel real and the action is near heart-stopping. This really is a gem of a book, and it's no question why anyone would want to bring it to the big screen.
In the jump from book to big screen, the story of Jurassic Park got condensed. Fringe conflicts were dropped, including the issue of dinosaurs escaping the island, and the main source of tension becomes the problem of the dinosaurs running rampant through the park. The issues of InGen vs. BioSyn and the unauthorized breeding of the dinosaurs are kept, but are given less prominent roles overall.
The cast is condensed as well. Some characters are erased entirely, others have their personalities altered, and some are slightly tweaked in age and ability to better fit an on-screen narrative. In one case, the book characters of Ed Regis and Donald Gennaro are fused to create one man, who keeps the name Gennaro.
While changes like this can sometimes be risky, in this case they do absolutely nothing to hinder the story. Jurassic Park is an action-adventure with a huge heart. It introduces the same scientific questions as the book and gives us iconic characters so vividly real they could hop off the screen and sit down beside us and we would barely bat an eye. It pulls tension at all the right places, evokes a feeling of uncertainty that makes audiences question their safety at every turn, and delivers a compelling narrative without sacrificing a single second of heart-pounding action. Add to that the groundbreaking fusion of animatronics and CGI used to bring the dinosaurs to life and you've got yourself a Grade-A Blockbuster Hit.
We've already discussed the condensation of the plot and characters, but here are some other things that changed between book and box office (warning for anyone who has not yet read the book or seen the movie - HERE THERE BE SPOILERS):
- The book has more dinosaurs:
- Namely, it features two T-rexes (one adult and one juvenile) and an entire colony of Velociraptors, while the movie keeps one rex and cuts the raptor flock down to three. The book also has procompsognathus (deemed "compies"), stegosauruses, and pterodactyls - all species that are absent from the film.
- John Hammond's personality:
- In the book, he borders on vile, motivated by greed and innovation for innovation's sake. When he discovers his grandchildren are lost in the park, he treats the issue as an annoyance, and he never once yields on his insistence that Jurassic Park is a good idea. In the movie, he's a warm and charming grandfatherly figure filled with hope and a childish eagerness to bring his vision life. He actually cares about other people, and is so affected by the incident on the island that he eventually comes to agree with Malcolm, who had told him the park was a bad idea from the start.
- Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler's relationship:
- In the movie, it is heavily implied that Grant and Sattler are romantically involved. In the book, however, Sattler is twenty years younger than Grant and is a graduate student studying under him. She is also engaged to an unnamed physicist.
- Ian Malcolm's injuries:
- In the book, Ian is bitten and thrown by a juvenile Tyrannasaur, resulting in severe injuries to his back and lower extremities that leave him bedridden and near-death, slipping in and out of consciousness. At the end of the book, he is presumed dead. In the movie, he is not bitten, but does get shoved into a building and badly breaks his leg, leaving him unable to walk but conscious and alert for the majority of the film.
- Lex and Tim's ages, and Lex's role in the story:
- In the book, Tim is the older sibling, and he is both a dinosaur and computer expert, while Lex's main contributions are playing with a baseball glove, declaring that she is hungry, and generally being an accurate portrayal of an eight-year-old child. The movie swaps their ages, making Lex the older sibling, and splits their interests down the middle- Tim keeps his obsession with dinosaurs, while Lex is a computer wiz.
- Character deaths:
- In the book, John Hammond and Henry Wu are both killed, while Donald Gennaro and Robert Muldoon survive to the end. In the movie, Hammond and Wu both survive, Gennaro is given the death of Ed Regis (a book character cut by the film), and Muldoon is eaten by a Velociraptor.
There are other mild changes, such as Alan Grant having a beard and a penchant for Hawaiian shirts in the novel, but the aforementioned are the most glaring differences between the two stories. And with of these laid out, one major question springs forth: Do the changes matter?
In short, the answer is no.
One important point to consider is that author Michael Crichton had a hand in drumming up the script for the film, alongside screenwriter David Koepp (Mission: Impossible , Carlito's Way ). And while early drafts credited to Crichton bear a greater resemblance to the novel, the final version produced by Koepp is careful to keep the core aspects of the story intact. You have a remote island off of Costa Rica, you have a whole bunch dinosaurs on that island, you have corporate espionage and scientific debate, and - of course - you've got prehistoric beasts hunting down our unsuspecting (or, in Ian Malcolm's case, very much suspecting) cast.
This story, much like the genetically engineered dinosaurs it touts, is adaptable. It moves easily from page to screen without much lost. Both novel and film are each able to stand strongly on their own.
Ultimately, which version of the story is "better" is entirely subject to your personal preference.
Do you want a more in-depth look at science and society and the dangers of genetic manipulation? You'll want the book, chock full of Ian Malcolm's morphine-riddled rants on science, chaos, and the dangers inherent in bringing extinct species back to life. Want your dinosaurs with a little less cynicism? You'll be at home with the movie.
THE VERDICT: IT'S A TIE
Life finds a way.
In the case of Jurassic Park, both book and big screen adaptations are exceptional triumphs of their respective mediums. While there are some things that one might handle a bit better (the portrayal of female characters in the film, or the social and scientific commentary of the book), these two versions tell their own stories, and tell those stories incredibly well.
When all is said and done, this debate between page and screen ends in a draw.