Seeing Jurassic Park in theaters is one of my oldest and most precious memories; I can still vividly recall seeing it as the second half of a double feature which also featured Sleepless in Seattle, of all things. As a kid, I even loved Jurassic Park – The Ride despite my crippling fear of heights. In spite of all this, however, I had never read the Michael Crichton book upon which my favorite movie of all time is based.
Seeking to fix a glaring blindspot in my Jurassic Park fandom, I decided it was finally time to read the Crichton original. Unsurprisingly, I absolutely loved it; diving deeper into one of my favorite stories of all time brought me back to my childhood and reminded me just how much I love the story. Given the age of both works and considering how near and dear the subject material is to my heart, I decided that, in lieu of a formal review, I would rewatch Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park and compare the two head-to-head in a few key categories. So, prepare yourself for the definitive (well, at least my definitive) head-to-head showdown between the Crichton classic Jurassic Park and Spielberg’s subsequent adaptation. Be advised that SPOILERS will follow!
Without a doubt, characters are one part in particular where Crichton’s Jurassic Park shines. Whereas Spielberg’s Jurassic Park is forced to leave the viewer in the dark about certain characters’ motivations due to time constraints, the novel makes no such concessions. For example, while Spielberg presents the lead programmer, Dennis Nedry, simply as a money-grabbing malcontent, Crichton’s novel fleshes out his backstory and explains specifically why Nedry felt so underpaid and underappreciated.
Of particular fascination to me was the extent to which some characters had changed from the novel to the film adaptation. Dr. Grant, for example, hates kids in the film while he loves them in the book. John Hammond’s character is certainly the one which receives the greatest change, though. In the film, Hammond comes off as a kind-hearted, albeit ignorant, visionary who only wants to share his creation with the world. When Donald Gennaro, Jurassic Park’s legal counsel, declares that they can charge “two thousand a day [or] ten thousand a day and people will pay it,” Hammond reminds him that the park is not only for the ultra-rich.
On the other hand, in Crichton’s novel, on multiple occasions, it is Hammond who remarks that the chief goal for the park is to make a lot of money. Spielberg’s portrayal of Hammond as a benevolent old man is fundamentally at odds with Crichton’s representation of Hammond as a reckless and arrogant tyrant. It is no surprise, therefore, that Hammond’s fate is completely different in both works. As someone who watched the film first, the difference in Hammond’s character was shocking. A few other characters such as Gennaro, Malcolm, and Lex receive some relatively minor changes and one minor character, Ed Regis, is completely absent from the film as well.
Although I think I still prefer Spielberg’s Hammond to Crichton’s, the forum of a novel unsurprisingly allows Crichton to realize all the characters in a way that makes Spielberg’s characters seem downright wooden and two-dimensional by comparison.
Best Unique Death
Even though some characters’ deaths are treated the same way in the novel and film, there are a surprising number of unique deaths between the two works. Crichton presents his reader with, among others, the grisly images of compys feasting on an infant, a young tyrannosaur toying with and devouring a good-for-nothing public relations representative, and a man being eaten alive by a velociraptor. For my money, though, none of these holds a candle to the death of the “blood-sucking lawyer” Gennaro in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.
The visceral feeling of watching a T-Rex rip Gennaro off a toilet and tear him apart is absolutely undeniable and is unmatched even by Crichton. The scene holds up very well even to this day and is one of the many I will never forget.
I know this is an unfair category, but, damn it, I still had to include it. The God’s honest truth is that Jurassic Park just wouldn’t be Jurassic Park without the epic score by John Williams. To this day, I am still moved by the Jurassic Park theme and sometimes whistle it to myself walking home.
With my apologies to the late Michael Crichton, John William’s score takes the whimsy and grandiosity of the story to another level. I cannot think of another film or story for which the music is so integral to the experience.
Advantage: Spielberg (with an assist from John Williams)
Just as a book’s format inherently allows for greater character depth, it too allows for greater exposition and backstory. In Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, Ian Malcolm, to steal Hammond’s characterization, comes off as a rock star. He is constantly flirting with Dr. Sattler and spouts just enough about chaos theory to sound trendy and cool, but not quite enough to be believable as a foremost chaotician. In Crichton’s novel, however, Ian Malcolm is nothing like the caricature that appears in the film adaptation. Malcolm continually applies the chaos theory to the system at hand, Jurassic Park, and reiterates to Hammond and the others why the system was designed to fail from the beginning. He passionately expounds his philosophy and theories and comes off as a more-grounded, less-flighty version of his film counterpart.
Compared to the film, the novel also answers a lot of questions I never knew I had such as, “how do they really make sure that none of the animals have died or escaped?” and “were these really all the checks in place to stop the dinosaurs from moving paddocks or attacking the tourists?”. While Spielberg certainly deserves some credit for crafting the film such that these unanswered questions are not readily apparent, the novel does fill in a lot of gaps in logic. It also dives into the personalities of the individual species of dinosaurs in even greater detail, describing the look in a Stegosaurus’ eyes as “dumb,” equating its intelligence with that of a cow, and making the velociraptors seem even more manacing.
There are also some very memorable sequences from the novel which did not make it into the first film, but were shoe-horned into the second and (ugh) third films. For example, the Jurassic Park III scenes featuring the pterodactyl aviary and Spinosaurus swimming are both clearly inspired by Crichton’s Jurassic Park. The same can also be said of the death scenes of Dieter and Peter from Spielberg’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park.
Even though the climaxes of the book and film are very different, they are both fantastic. Naturally, the novel’s format allows it to have an extended climax compared to that of the book. In a breathtaking scene that was regrettably omitted from the film, the velociraptors siege the Visitor Center, coordinating in a way befitting their vast intellect. Dr. Wu specifically falls prey to their attack in a particularly gruesome manner:
Muldoon got to the door and looked out and saw that Wu was lying on his back, his body already torn open by the big claw, and the raptor was jerking its head, tugging at Wu’s intestines even though Wu was still alive, still feebly reaching up with his hands to push the big head away, he was being eaten while he was alive…
A little later on, in an incredibly memorable scene also omitted from the film, Dr. Grant fights off three raptors in the hatchery by injecting poison into eggs and baiting the raptors into eating them:
…suddenly the animal made a gasping, gurgling sound and the big body pitched forward onto the ground. The heavy tail thumped the floor in spasms. The raptor continued to make choking sounds, punctuated by intermittent loud shrieks. Foam bubbled from its mouth. The head flopped back and forth. The tail slammed and thumped.
On the other hand, the film features an unforgettable scene in which the T-Rex saves Grant, Sattler, Lex, and Tim from a horrifying raptor attack at the absolute last moment. Spielberg caps the climax with a fantastic scene featuring the T-Rex roaring as a banner reading “When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth” falls to the ground in front of it.
What the film’s climax lacks in duration and complexity, it makes up for in surprise and sheer awesomeness. Without a doubt, the film is helped by the imagery of seeing the two main antagonists of the film, the raptor pack and the tyrannosaur, square off in an awe-inducing “what if” scenario. This scene scared the hell out of me as a kid and has stuck with me ever since.
If I absolutely had to pick a winner, I would have to take Spielberg’s adaptation over Crichton’s novel. While there are certainly memorable scenes and backstory in Crichton’s novel which I would love to have seen receive the Spielberg treatment, I cannot overstate how much I already love the film even without those additions. Maybe I’m looking at the film with nostalgia-tinted glasses, but when I think of Jurassic Park, I can’t help but think of John William’s pitch-perfect score and the sense of wonder I felt as I saw my first dinosaur.
While both the book and film are deserving of my highest recommendation, in my mind the film stands slightly above the novel as the definitive portrayal of the Jurassic Park story.