Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Seek the Original: Jurassic Park

98.2% of everything Hollywood does is adapted from a book, or short story, or comic. Never settle for an adaptation. Seek the original!

Watching a movie doesn't feel like an accomplishment. Finishing a big book, however, does.

An ebook may contain the same words as a printed copy, but the physical copy lets me see and feel the book I have just conquered. It is, on the whole, much more satisfying to finish a real book than to reach the end of a Kindle edition.

Being in a bookstore, or a library, surrounded by all those books, gives me an inspired feeling. The sight of them all, the smell of the old paper. I'm surrounded not by books, but by possibilities, and their physical presence is invigorating.

Clicking around Amazon for a book to read is not the same. There is no inspiration or possibility. I am surrounded by nothing but ads and suggested products to buy.

They say the death of the bookstore is inevitable, but I think bookstores will always be around in some form. When people realize what they have been missing this whole time, they will flock to them again.

My recent trips to the library and a bookstore reminded me of that wonderful feeling of being surrounded by possibility, and suddenly I'm not wasting my time! For the first time in many years, reading felt good! I felt like I was exploring, accomplishing something at last!

Jurassic Park was a satisfying book to finish.


Jurassic Park
by Michael Crichton



John Hammond forms the InGen corporation in the 1980's, hires the best scientists in the world and recreates the dinosaur genetic code. After buying a company that created artificial eggs, his scientists succeed in bringing 15 species of dinosaur back from extinction.

What to do with this marvelous advance in science? Why, turn it into a zoo so you can make money off it of course!

However, something is happening off the island where the park will be located. Children in Costa Rica are being attacked by strange lizards. An American girl is bitten multiple times by a small lizard. A partially eaten specimen is recovered, analyzed, and x-rays are sent to renowned paleontologist Dr. Allen Grant for identification. He thinks it resembles a species of dinosaur.

About this time, Hammond gathers his small team of experts to visit the island and give him their opinion on how things are, and so they can see just how safe and sophisticated everything is and how there is no way anything can go wrong. All of these people gave him input on the park in some way in the past, even if they didn't know it: Allen Grant, the dinosaur expert; Ian Malcolm, the mathematician who calculated the park can never work; Dr. Sattler, an expert on prehistoric plant life; Donald Gennaro, the lawyer representing the park, whose company has a 5% stake in the profits.

They reach the island off Costa Rica. Hammond and his team really have made dinosaurs, and Hammond sees his creation as something of pure wonder, sure to delight the world. Everyone else reacts with fear. They find flaw after flaw in the systems. Proof that things are, in fact, going wrong.

The dinosaurs are supposed to be all female, but an unexpected side effect of genetic engineering has allowed the dinosaurs to change gender and breed in the wild.

On top of that, the dinosaurs have mysterious health problems, and they're faster, stronger and smarter than expected.

The motion sensor tracking system has flaws that keep the scientists from seeing they have more dinosaurs on the island than expected.

And this is only the beginning of the park's problems. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and their best efforts to be prepared for the worst prove inadequate. The dinosaurs are out of their control, and now it's down to survival.

The book is about many things. Chief among them is: no matter how precise your calculations are, something will always go wrong. Ian Malcolm gives a wonderful example of a pool table. Strike a pool ball, and with good enough measurements, you can predict exactly where the ball will go hours, days, or even years into the future. But over time, tiny flaws that didn't affect calculations immediately will gradually alter the results. Imperfections in the table, or in the ball itself, for example, will alter the ball's course, making calculations impossible. What should be a simple system turns out to be unknowable after all.

It is just so with genetic engineering. The scientists of Jurassic Park claim to know the genetic code--to know what each gene does and what will happen if it is cut, rearranged, inserted into something else, and so forth; and yet even the scientists admit sometimes a protein will misfire and they'll have to start again, analyze what went wrong and rebuild the animal.

It all sounds eerily familiar 25 years after the book was published. Especially frightening is the boardroom meeting between executives of Biosyn, a rival genetics corporation, speculating on what InGen might do with their new dinosaur creation:

If InGen can make full-size dinosaurs, they can also make pygmy dinosaurs as household pets. What child won't want a little dinosaur as a pet? A little patented animal for their very own. InGen will sell millions of them. And InGen will engineer them so that these pet dinosaurs can only eat InGen pet food.

This is creepy because it echoes what's going on today, with Monsanto and like companies doing basically the same thing with plants. Patenting life. Remaking it. Tying it to profit.

Jurassic Park is about how scientists think the more they know, the more they can control, and yet there are always unintended consequences. Something always goes wrong. Something you could not expect, and what you don't know will undermine everything. It is a near-future glimpse into the world gene manipulation will create, and how it will eventually get out of control because control is impossible.

The book is full of details about the park itself, how they created it, and even why and how it came to this point. Science is no longer a purely academic endeavor, but done for profit. Profit ahead of safety or caution. The rest of the book is pure action as the people try to fend off the dinosaurs and escape the island, peppered with science-philosophy-mathematical monologues from Ian Malcolm, who spends the whole book lecturing people about how everything is hopeless. The power science has given man has outpaced man's ability to handle it. Man has a lot of knowledge, but no idea what to do with it. In time, Malcolm argues, something new will have to come along to replace science.

The visuals are sometimes difficult to grab, and the dialogue often feels too clean and unnatural. Malcolm's monologues are especially contrived. As in, there's no way a man under morphine would rattle this stuff off the top of his head. But damn it they are fascinating to read, and they pose an interesting way of looking at things.

The counterarguments other characters give are just as thought-provoking. There are always problems, but you solve them. How else can advances be made if you don't try? Problems are inevitable, but you don't run from them. You fix them. We didn't abandon the train, or the automobile, or the vaccine just because of the possibility something may go wrong, so how is Jurassic Park any different?

Malcolm's view of the world seems to be that people shouldn't try anything new because everything is doomed to fail anyway. It give's Hammond's point of view some credence. There are problems, but problems can be fixed.

Or can they? Is it all hopeless? Can we really control anything, or is everything we do--no matter how good our intentions--going to lead us down an unexpected path to ruin? That's what the book is about. Not dinosaurs, but science.

The strong points more than make up for the weak points. It's vastly different from the movie in how it turns the island into an object lesson regarding the illusion of control.


compare that to




Jurassic Park (1993)
starring Sam Neil

The movie trades the book's dire warning for visual spectacle. It works. Damn, it works. The movie's special effects were cutting edge for the time. Hard to imagine the filmmakers had to scale back the story because of the limits of computer animation and animatronics back them. They could not do Grant's and the kids' raft trip down the river to reach the visitor's center. They could not do the aviary at the time, with the pteranodon attack. They could not do the T-Rex swimming across the lagoon like a crocodile and pursuing them down the entire river. It would have been too expensive, and the special effects were so new at the time.

Almost completely gone is the warning of the dangers of genetic manipulation, and the state of science advancing purely for profit at the expense of safety. It touches on all of this, but when the CGI dinosaurs appear on the screen, it's easy to forget about the warning. The book makes sure we know what's going on here--that there is no such thing as a controlled system. The movie tries, but at best it only makes a couple clich├ęd lectures about the illusion of control. The book practically gives a logic proof!

The characters are all different. The lawyer, for example, is turned into a stereotype and is one of the first to die. In the book, he isn't exactly a hero, but he helps everyone fight for their lives, and he survives!

Then there are the kids. In both the book and the movie, Hammond brings his grandkids to the island at this critical moment because, first and foremost, he made the island to delight the children of the world. The kids are about useless in the book. Lex especially. She's supposed to be a sporty girl who's into baseball, but she spends the whole book whining about how hungry she is and she's afraid to do anything. It's Tim, her brother, who knows about dinosaurs and computers. He figures out the computer and brings the systems back online. It's Tim who baits the raptor in the kitchen and locks it in the freezer. Lex doesn't do anything but whine. Sure, she's young, but so is Tim! In the movie, the girl is much older, she's the computer nerd, and Tim is the useless one.

Grant hates kids in the movie, but he loves children in the book. Of course he would. It's always the kids who are so fascinated by dinosaurs, and he would be eager to feed their sense of wonder. It doesn't make sense for him to hate kids, and I have a feeling this was done just to have some character development. Character development is absent from the book, so the movie needed some sort of emotional center, even if it is tacked on.

John Hammond is the most different. In the movie, he's a warm, grandfather-like character with the best intentions. In the book, he's a frail old man who builds the park to make money. He's stubborn, refuses to accept the idea that something has gone wrong with the park, and it's not as simple as just getting a better team next time and preventing these mistakes next time. Malcolm tries to convince him that it's an inherent problem in the idea itself, and no matter how many times he tries, it will end up the same way. In the movie, however, Hammond does see that chaos was inevitable. He's not likable at all in the book, but in the film, he's the man I want as my grandfather! He has the best intentions, and he seems to want to delight people with what he's made.

The movie never establishes why Ian Malcolm is on the island. What possible use would a mathematician ("chaotician") be? The book explains he's the one who calculated that Hammond's park could never work because the tiny flaws in the various systems he created would become more pronounced as time went on and eventually cause the whole thing to fail. He's not very likable in the book or the movie, but in the book we understand why he's here, and what chaos has to do with anything. The movie doesn't explain this, so he's essentially useless to the plot, too.

Then the raptors. It's pretty well-known Spielberg doubled the size of the raptors in the movie to make them more terrifying on screen. In the book, as in real life, velociraptor was only about the size of a leopard. The raptors are huge in the film, and it's quite effective.

Then, during production, a fossil named Utahraptor was discovered that matched Spielberg's giant raptors. In the book, there is one raptor described as 6-feet tall, the one in the kitchen chasing the children.

The jury's still out on whether these dinosaurs had feathers, but both the book and the movie predate that idea.

The movie is a visual spectacle that oversimplifies the story into a basic monster flick. The special effects saved it then, as they do now. Nobody had ever done computer animation like this before, and it took our breath away in 1993. The effects still look good today, but strip away the special effects and you have the same basic monster-movie plot we've seen a hundred times before.

The book has a lot more to say about what went wrong with Hammond's plans. We may think we understand something, but we can never foresee the long-term effects.

So does this mean we should stop experimenting? Ian Malcolm would say, no, of course not, because we can't change the direction we're headed. Eventually, science itself will be out of control, and something else will replace it. Like him, I can't imagine what. I hope it's something that gives man more discipline for what to do with the power he gains.

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