Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Adventure classics -- Dinosaurs for the kid in all of us

Jurassic Park

by Michael Crichton


I never intended to start this July of science fiction adventures with Michael Crichton’s homage to Arthur Conan Doyle. No, not that Doyle. The Doyle who created super-rational detective Sherlock Holmes. I mean the Doyle of the 1912 adventure, The Lost World (and whose boyishly irascible hero, Professor Challenger, bears more than a passing resemblance to dino entrepreneur John Hammond in the Jurassic Park movies).

Should I have saved a discussion of Jurassic Park the novel until the latest edition of the Jurassic Park movie franchise hits the screens next summer? While I thought about this, giving myself the pleasure of a re-read of Crichton’s cautionary 1990 blockbuster, I was also reading next week’s book, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Actually, I was re-reading Huxley. One of the pleasures of this blog is the excuse it offers to revisit old friends. And Crichton’s laboratory re-creation of extinct dinosaurs reminded me so forcibly of Huxley’s creation of made to order human beings, I determined to run them back to back.

Dinosaurs first: Jurassic Park is ostensibly a cautionary tale about the dangers of genetic engineering, a danger more ominous now than when Crichton first began exploring the idea with a 1983 screenplay.

“The story wasn’t convincing,” Crichton wrote in notes on his official website, “Finally I decided on a theme park setting, and wrote the novel from the point of view of a young boy who was present when the dinosaurs escaped,“ only to get years of angry reactions from his trusted readers. “Finally, one of the readers said that they were irritated with the story because they wanted it to be from an adult point of view, not a kid point of view. They said, ‘I want this to be a story for me.’”

Luckily for all of us, the adult point of view belongs to Dr. Alan Grant (loosely based on real life paleontologist John Horner), whose wonder at the resurrected dinosaurs is as great as any kid’s.

Lured by the promise of funding for his research, Grant agrees to a weekend visit at the theme park wealthy eccentric John Hammond is constructing on his private island off the shores of Costa Rica. Hammond has also invited Grant’s colleague, Dr. Ellie Sattler; skeptical mathematics genius Ian Malcolm; and an investment lawyer. Most bizarrely, although Hammond knows the park is having problems, he invites his two grandchildren as well, making front runner for clueless grandpa of the year. 

Too bad computer genius Dennis Nedry has chosen this particular weekend to shut down all the park’s power and computer systems so he can pass frozen dinosaur embryos to a corporate espionage agent. Mix in a brewing tropical storm and a pride of vicious velociraptors, and things start to go very, very wrong.

“You’re going to engineer a bunch of prehistoric animals and set them on an island?” asks mathematician Malcolm. “Fine. A lovely dream. Charming. But it won’t go as planned. It is inherently unpredictable, just as the weather is.”

Crichton had never before written novels in series, but Jurassic Park, novel and movie, were so successful he wrote a sequel, The Lost World, paying more explicit homage to Doyle’s version.

Crichton has now gone where all good writers go, but the dinosaurs live on. My complaint? After viewing numerous trailers of movie number four (Jurassic World) on YouTube, I was disappointed not to see baby T. rexes tricked out in the feathers they are now believed to have worn as juveniles. I can only hope the complete movie will correct the omission.

(Next Wednesday -- John Hammond of Jurassic Park thought he had complete control of his engineered dinosaurs. But as we all know, the creatures didn’t read the script. And they’ve spent two of Crichton’s novels and going on four movies exercising their saurian version of free will to escape beyond the reach of human hubris. Can Huxley’s engineered human beings escape as well? Stay tuned for the next adventure classic, Brave New World.)

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