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