JURASSIC PARK: Michael Crichton on Adapting his Novel to the Screen

The hungry T-Rex takes a bit out of the tour.
The hungry T-Rex shifts the paradigm a bit.

“Paradigm” was just another word for a model, but as scientists used it, the term meant something more, a world view. A larger way of seeing the world. Paradigm shifts were said to occur whenever science made a major change in its view of the world.
-Michael Crichton, JURASSIC PARK

In his novel Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton comes close – or so it would seem to a careless reader – to reworking the standard science fiction plot of portraying the havoc that erupts when scientists meddle in things they were not meant to experiment with. However, instead of telling us that there are some things man was not meant to know, JURASSIC PARK tells us there are things we cannot know. The plot of the disaster which engulfs the park is an illustration of the book’s theme: that there are limits to our ability to under¬stand and control the world and that science, whose premise is that we can understand and control everything, is an out¬dated system that needs to be replaced by a new paradigm.
Of course, that’s not what’s going to draw audiences to theatres this summer. People will come because they want to see dinosaurs roaring and rampaging across the big screen. And as a matter of fact, Crichton originally conceived his dinosaur-cloning story as a screenplay, minus the thematic subtext. “I had become interested in the notion of obtaining dinosaur DNA and cloning a dinosaur in 1983,” he recalled of his initial effort. “The script didn’t work, and I just waited to see if I could ever figure out how to make it work. It took quite a few years.
“It was a very different story,” said Crichton of the original script. “It was about the person who did the cloning, operating alone and in secret. It just wasn’t satisfactory. The real conclusion for me was that what you really wanted in a story like this was to have a sort of natural environment in which people and dinosaurs could be together. You wanted the thing that never happened in history: people in the forest and swamps at the same time as dinosaurs. Once that notion began to dictate how the story would proceed, then everything else fell into place, because there are certain things that I wanted to avoid, like the dinosaurs in New York City – that’s been done.”
Working with his new slant on the story, Crichton opted to write a novel. “I didn’t revise the script,” he said. “By the time I got around to doing it, there were other considerations. The most important is that it wasn’t clear that anyone would ever make this story into a movie, because it would be very expensive. So one way to get the story done was to write a book. I could do that.”
Despite the story’s origins as a screenplay, the novel ex¬pounds on its thematic material in depth, mostly through the character of Ian Malcolm, played by Jeff Goldblum in the film, a mathematician whose eponymous theory “the Malcolm Effect” predicts the failure of the park. Of course, this ma¬terial had to be condensed or deleted when the story came full circle to being a script again. “I feel very strongly that books should be the best books they can be, and you should not worry about what the movie will do,” Crichton said of his uncinematic approach, which makes the novel stand up as a work in its own right rather than a stepping stone to a film deal. “In movies, a little bit of that kind of dialogue goes a long way. A movie like JURASSIC PARK is not the format to have extended discussions on the scientific paradigm.”
Crichton did several initial screenplay drafts for Spielberg, retaining the basics of his novel in condensed form. “I think everyone’s feeling was they liked the book in its overall shape and structure, and they wanted to keep that. So the question was how to get it on film since there are some parts – but not a tremendous number of parts – where it’s clear that you can just lift it out and the structure remains. It was a question of paring down and trying to keep things from the original, simplifying.”
Further describing the adaptation process, Crichton went on to note that, “It’s a fairly long book, and the script can only have somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the content. So what you’re really trying to do is make a sort of short story that reproduces the quality of the novel and has all the big scenes retained and has the logical flow that appears in the much longer and more extended argument.
“A similar issue has to do with what you call `visceral things,”‘ said the author-adapter. “You can have gory descriptions in a book, because everyone is their own projectionist. I’ve al¬ways found it unwise to do that in a movie, because it throws you out of the movie. As soon as you see guts, you immediately think, `Where did they get them? How did they do it?’ You do not believe for a moment that that’s actually happening. Since I see it as an insoluble problem to present viscera, the movie wisely doesn’t do that. I also think the explicitness of the violence serves a different purpose [in the book]. You don’t have certain advantages a movie has, so in a way the violence is a way to say, `These are real dinosaurs, and take them seriously, 0 Reader.’ In the movie, if they look wonderful, then you take them seriously; you don’t have to see them tear people open. Your decision about taking them seriously is based on other things, so [graphic violence is] unnecessary.
In the adapting process, Crichton was forced to drop several scenes he would like to have retained, but his previous experience as a screenwriter taught him to be philosophical about the process. Noted Crichton, “Scenes went for all kinds of reasons: budget reasons, practical reasons, in the sense that they were difficult to do; they went out of the belief that they were repetitive in some way. But I think the primary thing that drives something like this is budget. You have to stop somewhere and where you stop, people will say, `Oh, that was my favorite scene and it’s not in.”‘


Although authors sometimes adapt their own novels to the screen in order to try to protect their work from hampering filmmakers, this was not Crichton’s intention; in fact, he did not initially intend to do the adaptation himself. “I didn’t have it in my mind to do the script, but Steven said, `We really need somebody to pare this thing down into some kind of manageable shape so we know what to build and it has to happen fast.’ I said, “I do have the advantage of having tried many versions of this, so I know what works; I’ll whack it down. Then when you want to do your character polishes, get somebody else.’ I really wasn’t able to stay with the project for three years; I had other things to do. I really didn’t want to do the script; I had a lot of confi¬dence in Spielberg.
“There are disadvantages to having the original writer,” continued Crichton. “People think writers fall in love with their own words. I don’t have any sense of that at all. What’s difficult for me is that in doing a story like this, you do several drafts which change the story dramatically from one to another – at least that was what happened in this book. So you’ve rethought it several times; now you have to rethink it again for a movie, and it’s just hard to re¬think it too many times. It’s hard to take the same elements, toss them up in the air and re¬arrange them again and again and again.”
Crichton is confident that those elements have been re¬arranged into a satisfactory order. “I think it’s going to be a pretty amazing movie,” he suggested enthusiastically. “I think it’s going to have stuff in it that people will be floored by – they are not going to believe what they see. That’s always nice.”

Copyright 1993 by Steve Biodrowski. This article orignally appeared in Cinefantastique Volume 24 Number 2 August 1993.

Interview: Stan Winston on making Jurassic Park's full-size dinos live and breath

Stan Winston's live-action raptors from JURASSIC PARKIn discussing his live-action dinosaurs in JURASSIC PARK, makeup effects expert Stan Winston referred to Willis OBrien’s KING KONG as “yet to be surpassed.” But the praise ir O’Brien had an edge. Winston bore the confidence of one who expected his work to be the top dog come June. But dinosaur film fans, who have seen many a live-action dinosaur fall on its face, will need a lot of convincing. “Steven [Spielberg] wanted to do live action as much as possible,” said Winston. “He asked how much we could do. I, being a little insane, told him we could do a great deal. He asked. ‘How?’ My response was. ‘I don’t know, but since it’s something we would love to do, we’ll figure out a way.’ I think that’s pretty much what Steven wanted to hear.”
Figuring out a way required revising the script and dropping some sequences, such as when the T-Rex takes to the water. “If we don’t feel we can do exactly what’s scripted, then it’s a matter of going back and adjusting to work within certain parameters,” said Winston. The parameters are not necessarily, ‘Can you do it?’ My gut feeling is that with the magic of the film-making process we can do anything, given enough time and money. The question is, ‘How can we do it within limitations on money and time – how much we’ll spend, how much can we get done?’ To bring in a movie of this scope on the dollars they spent, we were very frugal. Nothing in excess of $50-million is cheap, but investment equates to return. What you see on the screen will in every way justify the expense of this movie.”
Winston noted he faced two major challenges on the film: the artistic challenge of making the dinosaurs look good and the practical challenge of bringing them to life. “Our job was to create the most realistic dinosaurs that anyone has ever seen,” said Winston. “We did an enormous amount of research. We maintained a legitimacy to all of the available knowledge when it came to what dinosaurs looked like and how they lived. We had to take that reality and make it as interesting, as dramatic, as beautiful, and as spectacular as you have ever seen.”
As with men, not all Raptors, for example, are created equal. “Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger are both men,” noted Winston. “We had to make artistic judgments in the creation of our dinosaurs to make this Raptor or that Tyrannosaurus the neatest one you’ve ever seen? A lot of that is instinct, not right or wrong.”


Winston saw the task of bringing the dinosaurs to life his biggest challenge. “They had to act,” said Winston. “We couldn’t cast a gorgeous actor who couldn’t deliver a line; we had to create saurian Robert DeNiros and Jack Nicholsons. That’s stretching it, but in the broadest sense of the term, we did need to create characters that performed. I think what we accomplished is beyond anything like this that’s been done in motion-picture history. I’m hoping the audience will feel as I do.”
The biggest influence on the look of Winston’s dinosaurs was the work of artist John Gurche. “I have an enormous amount of respect for the feeling of reality, drama and character in his work,” said Winston. “That’s what we shot for: that our dinosaurs were as dramatic and beautiful as a Gurche dinosaur.”
Winston began with a series of pencil renderings by staff artist Mark “Crash” McCreery. “I’m surrounded, fortunately, in every area – from sketching to painting to sculpting – by an unsurpassed group of artists,” said Winston.
Once the sketches received approval from Spielberg, fifth-scale miniatures were built, then full-scale sculptures.
“We attacked our sculptures in a much more technically engineered way,” said Winston. “Instead of just sculpting free-hand, we took our fifth-scale sculptures and sliced them into pies, so to speak, so we had a sculpture put together like the hull of an airplane; then we blew those slices up five times, recreated those hull pieces, and put the armature back together, so that we had an armature that was very close to the finished structure of the character. Then it was a matter of detailing: putting on the skin and doing the final sculpting on an armature that gave us the shape.”
At the same time, Winston and his crew were deciding on a variety of methods to bring the dinosaurs to life: cable-actuation, radio-control and computer-governed hydraulics. The most innovative method was strapping the top half of the T¬Rex to an airplane flight simulator.
“That concept came from Craig Caton, one of my key mechanical coordinators,” said Winston. “It limited a certain amount of shooting ability, because for many of the shots we would only be able to shoot the T-Rex from the waist up, but it seemed like a perfect way to do the broad moves-it’s a tried-and-true method of taking a lot of weight and giving it a mutli-axis.” Winston’s crew also built an insert head, hoisted by a 13,000 lb. crane, and insert legs.

The live-action T-Rex head was placed atop an airplane flight simulator for simple movements

For the Tyrannosaur’s more complex movements, Winston developed an idea “that came to me in the middle of the night: a performance-capturing Waldo. It was always a concern how we were going to puppet this enormous guy. We did have some people with us whose background was amusement park-size creatures like King Kong. The conventional method was, on a slide-pot board, to log in the actions of the hydraulic character, motion by motion; then, once that action is created, the computer memorizes it, and you can play it back over and over again. But it takes a long time to program that action and we needed to be able to take direction on a set. So I came up with the idea of recreating the dinosaurs’ inner structure mechanically – which we had already done in mock-up-so that we knew how everything would move. For every joint or axis of motion, we placed a linear potentiometer – which is a slide-pot, so to speak, that looks like a little piston. If we could get those little pistons to match the movements of the hydraulics, then instead of putting them on a control board, we could put them in place of where the hydraulics would be in the full-size character. This gave us a small version of the insides of the big version, so that any movement we gave to the small T-Rex as a puppet – holding onto it as a puppeteer and mov¬ing the head – would go right into the dinosaur, and he would do what we wanted, in real time. It worked beautifully.”
The film’s Triceratops and Bilophosaurs (a poison-spitting species) were filmed totally live using Winston’s creations. For the Brachiosaur, Winston’s team built only the head and neck. For the Raptors, Winston’s crew employed a variety of rod puppets, cable and radio-control versions, as well as the conventional man-in-a-suit approach. Fuller shots of the T¬Rex, Brachiosaur and Raptors were augmented with ILM’s CGI work.
Winston said matching his dinosaurs to the computer-generated versions of ILM was not one of his concerns. “It didn’t influence the design at all,” he stated. “They took exactly what we designed here and duplicated it. Phil Tippett was a major influence. I think that a great deal of any continuity that we have between live-action and computer-generated is greatly due to Phil and his helping us create as realistic dinosaur motions as we could. Phil’s a dinosaur himself.”
The live-action Triceratops was the only dino to go to HawaiiThe only dinosaur to visit the Hawaii location was the Triceratops, for a scene where the creature is found lying ill That left the majority of dinosaur effects to be filmed am stage, under the supervision of Michael Lantieri.
“Michael worked very closely with us,” said Winston. “We had certain requirements from a floor effects standpoint, a crane, for instance, to operate characters externally. We knew what was needed from his team and how any physical apparatus, interior or exterior, would marry. It was a perfectly coordinated marriage of teams.
“I would say that about the whole movie,” Winston continued. “It was the most perfectly coordinated movie I’ve ever worked on, from set design art direction, floor effects to creature effects. Every aspect of this film was a team effort, helmed by a director I had an enormous amount of respect for, even though I had never worked with him. Now, having worked with him, I know that it is no accident that Steven Spielberg is Steven Spielberg. He’s an incredible director, and he has an amazing feel for film. This could have been the worst working experience of my life, because it was the biggest. It turned out to be the opposite. It was a joy to go to work every day. It was the best working experience I’ve ever had, with the exception of directing my own movies.”


Copyright 1993 by Steve Biodrowski. This article orignally appeared in Cinefantastique Volume 24 Number 2 August 1993.



Price on Poe: Thoughts about the Horror that Made him Famous

Vincent Price as Fortunate Lucresi in the Long before Vincent Price was asked by director Roger Corman to star in a screen version of THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (1960), he had been a fervent admirer of the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Price relates “I’ve been enchanted by Poe ever since I was forced to read him as a kid.” Later, as an English major at Yale, Price had further time to become immersed in the world of Poe, and he bristles at the lack of acclaim Poe received in his lifetime. “The American people relegated him to a second place in the history of American literature,” says Price. “In the rest of the world, Poe is considered to be our major contribution to literature. He invented the detective story, he influenced all of the great French poets: Baudelaire, Valery, Verlaine, as well as all of the great English poets. And almost every major artist of the 19th century illustrated Poe: Gustave Dore, Edouard Manet, Odilon Redon. His influence on the world of art was enormous.” Read More