Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton (1990) 399 p.


This was possibly the first “grown-up” book that I ever read, back when I was about ten or eleven. I must have read it quite a few times following that but I certainly haven’t glanced at it since my early teenage years, so I thought it was worth a re-read to see how it held up.

We all know the story, obviously. The interesting thing is how the book diverges from the film, which has a strong Spielbergian touch, with lots of wonder and joy and a happy ending. The book is much darker.

The opening is very well done, told from the point of view of an American nurse working for a year in a remote village on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. A helicopter from the island off-shore where an American company is building “a new resort” arrives in the middle of a thunderstorm, carrying a badly injured worker. The other workers claim he was run over by a backhoe, but the nuse suspects the injuries are actually from an animal mauling. The man breathes the word “raptor” before he dies, and after the company men leave with his body, she asks another nurse if the word means anything in Spanish. The nurse is attending to a childbirth, and is upset to hear the word, since it’s a Central American superstition – a raptor is an abductor, a demon who kidnaps babies. The American nurse, as an afterthought, checks the word in her English dictionary and is surprised to find it there:

raptor \ n [deriv. of L. raptor plunderer, fr. raptus]: bird of prey

Which, I mean, even before the movie became so famous, the book is called Jurassic Park and has a picture of a dinosaur on the cover. But I still thought it was a very creepy and effective opening.

It later becomes a little ridiculous as characters completely fail to twig what’s going on. Dr Alan Grant is staggered to find dinosaurs being cloned on Isla Nublar, despite being a palaeontologist receiving funding from a genetic engineering company, who was sent fax evidence of what appears to be a dinosaur corpse found on the coast in Costa Rica, has had the company’s lawyers call him about said dinosaur corpse sounding very concerned, has seen the construction plans at Isla Nublar for what appears to be a large game park with very high fences and large moats, and has been invited down to it for the weekend because it would be “right up your alley.” Like… come on, man. And towards the ending of the novel, characters’ actions become increasingly random and motiveless.

This is often the problem with airport fiction – the sparse dialogue, the characters used as chess pieces, the plot as a machine to drive the novel in the direction the author wants it to go regardless of how little sense it makes. What it adds up to, in the latter stages of the book, is a thriller that’s not very thrilling. A film is always going to find it easier to create a sense of terror and suspense, but in this case the novel and the book aren’t even remotely close.

Spielberg was interested in telling an exciting story; Crichton is more concerned with exploring the ideas and the ramifications of cloning extinct species, both scientifically and philosophically. Writing a thriller comes second. Which is not to say that Jurassic Park is not a thrilling book – I found it quite compelling and page-turning, at least in the first half, despite having read it probably a dozen times as a kid. It’s just deeply flawed, and the film is far superior. The novel’s pace is too often interrupted by clunky (and sexist) characterisation, exposition, awkward info-dumps, authorial lectures masquerading as dialogue (especially from Ian Malcolm) and a lack of consistency in how dangerous the dinosaurs are supposed to be. It annoyed the hell out of me, for example, that even after the carnage unleashed on the characters by the raptor attack near the climax of the novel, Grant and Ellie and Muldoon and Gennaro still go off hunting for the wild raptor nest – and enter it – with the casual attitude of a Sunday stroll.

Having said all that, I still like it. Jurassic Park a great piece of airport fiction – a gripping novel which is easy to read and difficult to put down. The movie is unquestionably better, but the book is still worth reading – especially given that it has a very different ending.