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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

May 20, 2015: BlockbusterStudying II: Jurassic Park

[A couple years ago, I spent a fun week AmericanStudying summer blockbusters—this year, it’s time for the sequel! Add your thoughts, on these or other blockbusters, for a weekend post that’s sure to set box office records!]
On two ways the groundbreaking film oversimplified the novel, and why they matter.
Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) has a great deal in common with his Jaws (1975), widely considered the first summer blockbuster; I’m far from the first to make that point, of course, but it remains an interesting way to AmericanStudy the two films and their respective moments. But there are differences between the two films as well, including this important one: to my mind, Jaws actually improved substantially on the relatively slight Peter Benchley novel, adding a number of layers of compelling characterization and story; whereas I would argue that the reverse is true in the case of Jurassic Park’s relationship to Michael Crichton’s sci fi bestseller. And it’s not just that Crichton’s novel has more depth than the film (that seems inevitable when comparing a 400-page book to a 2-hour movie)—it’s that a couple of the film’s most significant choices significantly change and lessen the novel’s themes.
For one thing, there’s the drastic oversimplification of mathematician Ian Malcolm’s (played, mostly for laughs, by Jeff Goldblum in the film) ideas about chaos theory. Of course a blockbuster film can’t stop for the kinds of long expositional speeches with which Crichton provides this character; nor could the novel’s central structuring element, the use of Malcolm’s ideas of “iterations” of a chaotic event to frame the book’s different parts, quite translate into visual storytelling. But on the other hand, the film likewise fundamentally changes the character’s overall arc: in the novel (SPOILER alert), Malcolm’s character dies gradually and painfully over the book’s second half, and in the process finds his perspective and ideas greatly altered. This “paradigm shift,” as Malcolm defines it, becomes a broader idea through which Malcolm and Crichton argue for how all of us can and must come to see the world diffently, particularly when it comes to our relationship to and role in the natural world. So if the film had had the guts to kill off Malcolm, it might have allowed for at least a few such moments of deeper reflection amidst the dinosaur attacks.
That’s not the only, nor the most significant, death scene that the filmmakers decided to cut, however. In the novel (SPOILER alert once more), John Hammond, the billionaire entrepreneur behind Jurassic Park, likewise dies, and in one of the most ironic sequences in modern American fiction: Hammond’s grandchildren, whom he has invited to the park to test its effects on children, are playing with the sound system and create a T-Rex roar; Hammond believes it’s the real T-Rex, stumbles and falls into a ravine, and injures his leg badly; and while lying there he is set upon and slowly devoured by Compys, the park’s smallest dinosaurs who survive by scavenging. Ironically, it was likely Spielberg’s own desire to create a film that could appeal to older kids (hence its controversial PG-13 rating) that made the inclusion of such a scene impossible. But in the process, the film turns Hammond from a dark, pointed commentary on capitalism and the modern corporate world into more of a naïve but good-hearted teddy bear, played with silly charm by Richard Attenborough. And in so doing, Spielberg loses another chance to make his scary blockbuster into a more layered story.
Next blockbuster post tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other summer blockbusters you’d analyze?

2 comments:

  1. I rewatched Jurassic Park recently!

    You mention how "the film turns Hammond from a dark, pointed commentary on capitalism and the modern corporate world into more of a naïve but good-hearted teddy bear, played with silly charm by Richard Attenborough."

    What I realized on my recent viewing was that Hammond is /still/ a commentary on capitalism and the modern corporate world. Even though he's *played* as a goofy harmless old man, the disaster of the park is still mostly the result of his hubris.

    By *not* punishing him in the end, as Crichton does, Spielberg shows that evil corporations can kill people, get away with it, and still be viewed as likable.

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  2. Thanks for sharing that interesting take, Chance!

    I'm not sure I agree, not least because I kind of think of Spielberg as a bit of an evil corporation himself...But it's a good alternative reading for sure.

    Thanks,
    Ben

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