The year was 1991. It was a comparatively innocent time. Well, that’s bullshit, but it was a time when every detail of every major movie in development wasn’t announced and promoted and analyzed and endlessly discussed on the Internet, for the simple reason that almost nobody was on the Internet back then. (I got my first e-mail account the following year, and then only because I was attending college; Mosaic, the first widespread graphical browser, was two years away.) Michael Crichton’s latest novel, Jurassic Park, was burning up the bestseller lists, and a film adaptation seemed inevitable. At the time, I was working at—yes, these existed—a laserdisc store, and during the many slow hours when customers were scarce, my cinephile co-workers and I would speculate excitedly about how awesome the movie was gonna be. We’d all read the book, and while we had zero access to any studio scuttlebutt, we were confident that the project would wind up in the hands of the best pure action director then working.
We absolutely could not wait for James Cameron’s Jurassic Park.
Bear in mind, this was right around the time that Terminator 2: Judgment Day came out—I can’t recall now whether these conversations took place mostly before or after its July release, but if it was before, it was during the heavy anticipation phase. Steven Spielberg, by contrast, was coming off of a stretch of serious dramas (The Color Purple, Empire Of The Sun, Always) and was about to unleash Hook upon the world. His only recent action/adventure effort had been Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, which was… fine. Nobody had yet pronounced Spielberg to be past his prime, but my friends and I were much more stoked about the prospect of a hypothetical Jurassic Park from the director of The Terminator and Aliens. What’s more, Crichton’s novel read like a potential Cameron film, not like a potential Spielberg film. Unbeknownst to us in our pre-Internet bubble, however, Universal had acquired the rights, specifically for Spielberg, before the book was even published. There was never even a chance of the movie we wanted to see being made.
I confess that I still long to see that version, even though today just thinking about the forthcoming Avatar sequels makes me sigh. And I’ve watched, befuddled, as Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, which I found massively disappointing when I finally saw it in the summer of 1993, has not merely retained its popularity, but become a revered classic. (The Dissolve named it No. 9 on its list of the 50 Greatest Summer Blockbusters.) To this day, I firmly believe that the James Cameron of that time would have made a movie that does belong on such a list. Here are a half-dozen reasons why.
1. The visual effects would have been far more impressive.
Strangely, I occasionally still encounter people who wonder aloud why the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, which was made over 20 years ago, are more impressive than the effects in such-and-such blockbuster today. These people are high, or maybe they’re comparing Jurassic Park to truly shoddy contemporary work. I’m looking at the scene in which Grant, Sattler, and Malcolm first see what I think is a brachiosaurus, and just about everything about the animal looks slightly “off”: its musculature, the texture of its skin, its alleged physical presence among the trees. Granted, this was among the very earliest instances of fully computer-generated creatures (the film fares much better in later scenes involving animatronics), and it was damn impressive for its time. But Cameron is obsessed with technology, as every film he’s made since T2 has demonstrated, and I feel certain that he would have pushed his F/X team much harder, even if that meant delaying the film’s release until 1994 or even 1995.
2. There wouldn’t have been so much damn wonder.
Spielberg’s heart is in the wrong place—remember, this is the guy who started out with a project called Night Skies, about malevolent aliens terrorizing a family, and wound up turning it into E.T. (Note: That’s not at all a knock on E.T., which I adore.) Here, he’s making a movie about killer dinosaurs on the loose, but deep down he’s less interested in the carnage than he is in another opportunity for what video essayist (and occasional Dissolve contributor) Kevin B. Lee has dubbed “Spielberg face.” Cameron would not have commissioned the majestic fanfare John Williams provides (which I can no longer hear except as played ineptly on the melodica), nor would he likely have panned into so many awestruck faces. Sure, the characters are witnessing something truly incredible, and awe is a natural response. But there are ways to convey awe that aren’t so quintessentially Spielbergian. Given the direction this story will take, something a bit less emphatic would have been welcome. (By the same token, I doubt that Cameron would have released the tension by tossing in a clever joke like “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.”)
3. There wouldn’t have been any child-bonding nonsense.
First and foremost, Cameron would have not gone that route because he’d already done so, via the evolving relationship between Ripley and Newt in Aliens and that film’s whole motherhood theme. More to the point, however, there would have been no reason for him to do so, as Grant has no particular antipathy toward children in Crichton’s novel. Tim and Lex are significant characters in the book, but Grant’s character arc in the film, in which he starts out almost hostile toward them and slowly comes around, is an invention of screenwriter David Koepp, who knew that Spielberg would likely be directing. And it seems expressly designed to appeal to Spielberg’s sensibility—one might even say to pander to his sensibility. Part of the reason I’ve never enjoyed the film as much as most other people is that everything involving those two kids, with the sole exception of the raptors-in-the-kitchen sequence (which is unassailably brilliant), makes me cringe, and that’s a whole lot of cringing for one movie. Cameron could have made it work.
4. Some great scenes in the book seem tailor-made for Cameron.
In a way, it’s surprising that so many of Crichton’s novels have been adapted for the screen, as he was fundamentally an expository writer—a pop-science guy fashioning stories around cutting-edge research. His books feature endless scenes of people explaining stuff; once that gets cut out, on the grounds that it would be boring as spoken dialogue, you wind up with something like Sphere or Timeline. Koepp does his best to include some of Ian Malcolm’s speeches about chaos theory (and casting Jeff Goldblum to deliver those jargon-y mouthfuls was inspired), but he nixes a lot of material that I suspect Cameron would have embraced. In particular, my friends and I eagerly imagined what Cameron might do with the discovery that animals are breeding in the park, which in the book involves a monitoring system that’s been poorly designed. Malcolm resets it to search for more than an expected number of dinosaurs, circumventing a shortcut that had been in use, and they all watch anxiously as the number goes up and up and up and up. (Think of the tracking scene in Aliens: “Nine meters! Seven! Six!” “That can’t be, that’s inside the room.”) It’s a fantastic example of implicit horror, and it’s not in Spielberg’s movie at all—they just find broken eggshells, well after things have spiraled out of control.
5. Cameron doesn’t (or didn’t) like to tip his hand so early and so often.
Again, these are mostly screenwriting issues—Spielberg did a fine job with the material he was given. But he also accepted the material he was given, and he was given material that was expressly designed for him. Koepp feels obligated to establish at the outset that raptors are bad news, presumably because they weren’t a well-known species (unlike, say, the T. Rex) prior to the movie. But by showing some anonymous worker get dragged into the raptors’ pen and at least half-eaten, literally three minutes into the movie, Spielberg gives the movie nowhere to go. By contrast, Cameron lets Aliens’ build tension for ages before any actual aliens show up, even though that was a sequel and the xenomorph had already been established. Also, while there was perhaps no good solution for the Nedry problem—in the book, the early scene in which he accepts payment from Dodgson for stealing embryos doesn’t identify him, referring to him only as “the man”—it seems unlikely to me that Cameron would have chosen to reveal his identity right up front, given how cagey he is regarding Paul Reiser’s slimy Carter Burke in Aliens.
6. Cameron’s movie would have probably been rated R.
Granted, there’s no way to know this for sure. Maybe Universal (or whichever other studio acquired the property) would have insisted on PG-13, or maybe Cameron would have opted for the larger audience himself. He’d made one previous PG-13 film, 1989’s The Abyss. But The Abyss isn’t fundamentally a violent movie, and he’d gone for the hard R with Aliens and both Terminator films. It would have been a battle with the suits, to be sure, because little kids love dinosaurs, and little kids have to be accompanied by ticket-buying parents—but did parents take their little kids to see even the PG-13 Jurassic Park? I hope not. In any case, Spielberg had undergone trial by fire a decade earlier with Temple Of Doom, which was instrumental in creating the PG-13 rating, and he wasn’t about to make another movie that could be accused of terrorizing small children. Consequently, Jurassic Park is relatively tame compared to its source, and many of the characters who die in the book survive in the movie (though Crichton himself ludicrously resurrected Ian Malcolm for the sequel, The Lost World). Cameron wouldn’t have felt any such restraint, and I’m certain his Jurassic Park would have been significantly nastier and more genuinely frightening.
On the other hand, Spielberg was the ideal choice for the 1997 sequel The Lost World: Jurassic Park, in which Koepp pretty much tossed Crichton’s (lame) book aside and went his own way. It’s a better film in almost every way: funnier, less sappy, devoid of pretense. “Where is the awe?” Roger Ebert asked at the time, expressing the general feeling of disappointment. “Where is the sense that if dinosaurs really walked the earth, a film about them would be more than a monster movie?” With all due respect to Mr. Ebert, and to Crichton’s longstanding concerns about the dangers of technology, an exciting monster movie is all Jurassic Park should ever have been, and it fails precisely to the extent that it tries to be more than that. Cameron has some idealistic notions of his own, to be sure, but only in Avatar do they overshadow pure genre thrills. If you want to imagine what his Jurassic Park might have been like, just picture a less militaristic version of Aliens, which is nothing if not a singleminded exercise in sheer panic. Imagine an adaptation that doesn’t soft-pedal the book’s carnage, or diffuse it with jokes (e.g. Gennaro—a character who survives in the novel, ironically—getting eaten while sitting on the toilet). Imagine a version that isn’t worried about another Temple Of Doom debacle. Game over, man. Game over.
Update: Commenter PapaJo called my attention to this article, previously unseen by me (I swear!), in which Cameron not only says he tried and failed to get the Jurassic Park gig, but that he definitely would have “gone further, nastier, much nastier.” Vindicated! Granted, he also says that this would have been a mistake, and that Spielberg’s gentler sensibility was better suited to a film version that could appeal to kids. But at least I can now feel secure in my conviction that I would much rather have seen Cameron’s adaptation. Thanks, PapaJo.