Books

Some Things Haven’t Survived: Another Look at Michael Crichton’s “The Lost World”

michael crichton the lost worldMichael Crichton – The Lost World (Knopf, 1995, 397 pgs.): When I read Michael Crichton’s bestselling novel Jurassic Park in high school, I had finally stumbled upon an instance where I thought the film was better than the book. That’s not to say I thought the book was bad; I was just more struck by the movie, with its awesome visuals, tight story, and aura of enormity. Perhaps seeing the film first ruined the book for me—I already had the characters’ movie personalities emblazoned on my mind (Jeff Goldblum’s iconic performance as chaos theory guru and rockstar mathematician Ian Malcolm in particular), and I more or less knew what was going to happen, so any tension in the plot department was voided. But when I relayed my idea of the film’s superiority on a message board I used to frequent, one of the older guys simply dismissed the notion. In his eyes, the book was better because it dealt with actual science, and more wholly explored the theme of the inherent instability of complex systems and their inability to sustain themselves. The movie, he contended, was a kids’ movie.

That idea stuck with me. I couldn’t get it out of my head when reading The Lost World some ten years after reading Jurassic Park. I thought about Spielberg’s sequel, so different from the novel save for the famous sequence with the literally cliffhanging trailer that wondered whether Spielberg’s desire to get the shot with the Tyrannosaur on a rock roaring across the bay at San Diego was the entire purpose for producing the film. I thought about an interview I watched between Crichton and Charlie Rose, where out the gate Crichton admits that not only did he originally have zero interest in writing a sequel, but that it was largely written for an audience of children.

And that makes sense when considering the content of the novel (sort of). Like the original, there are two child characters brilliant beyond their years who save the day just when it’s needed. As for wanting the book to be educational, Crichton slips in several long lectures wherein Malcolm waxes poetic over the nature of evolution, extinction, and, well, nature. But that doesn’t account for the gratuitous and predictable deaths, or the number of times arch-villain Dodgson says ‘fuck,’ or that the book in general commits a number of sins against storytelling 101, rendering it little more than a sequence of events that resolves because Knopf probably didn’t want to print any more pages.

One of the reasons the original Jurassic Park film works is because Spielberg understands that characters need arcs. The only difference between the novel version of Alan Grant at the beginning and end is that his clothes are a bit dirtier and he’s more weathered for the experience. But the film stuck in the growth, however slight, of his disdain for children to his sense of something approaching ‘fatherhood’ in the final silent scene in the helicopter. The novel version of John Hammond saw him begin as a money-grubbing venture capitalist who wanted to squeeze money out of rich visitors, and end as a dead money-grubbing venture capitalist who wanted to squeeze money out of rich visitors. In the film, Hammond is an idealistic CEO who overlooks the dangers of the research that gives the world what he believes to be a magical gift, and he ends as a man with a broken dream and the deaths of several people on his shoulders.

Crichton, on the other hand, uses The Lost World as little more than a mouthpiece to air his ideas about whatever it is he feels like airing about. Malcolm, and to a lesser extent Levine, spends a good part of his time explaining to others how fossils don’t signify behavior, or that chaos theory blah blah. When he’s served his purpose, he’s once again injured and drugged up and essentially cast to the side so that the other characters can figure out how to escape the novel. (Also of note is how many characters black out in random locations and miraculously are not eaten alive.) Sometimes it seems the sole purpose of having other characters in the book at all is not to have them act as foils for Malcolm, but rather be excuses for Malcolm to expound upon whatever topic by periodically asking “What?”

I don’t remember Jurassic Park the novel well enough to stand by my assertion that the movie is better—although I do think it is a great movie—but The Lost World is a failure through and through, an abandoned island that deserves no visitors.

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