Tim Appelo
December 07, 1990 AT 05:00 AM EST

Fanged, eight-ton carnivores have been kind to Michael Crichton. Their colorful lives inspired his latest thriller, Jurassic Park, a novel about a theme park stocked with dinosaurs cloned from fossils by clever geneticists, whom the dinosaurs ungratefully regard as lunch meat. Universal has paid Crichton $1.5 million for a movie version Steven Spielberg will direct. The author gets another $500,000 to write the screenplay. ”It allows Spielberg to work somewhere between the poles of Jaws and E.T.,” Crichton says. On the wall behind him in his Santa Monica office, a paleontologically correct storyboard depicts a dinosaur in the jungle watching a couple of kids hungrily, like E.T. contemplating Reese’s Pieces. Jurassic Park’s budget is estimated at $50 million.

Crichton, 48, has been working the goose-bump trade for decades. In the ’60s he worked his way through Harvard Medical School by writing mysteries. One day he realized what a bully pulpit a pulp novel could be. His 1968 novel A Case of Need used the detective genre to study the issue of abortion; it won the Edgar Award as the year’s best mystery novel and became a 1972 James Coburn movie, The Carey Treatment. Then The Andromeda Strain, a tale of virulent microbes from outer space and the government’s effort to enlist them in the U.S. armed forces, made Crichton famous in 1969. He went to Hollywood to hang around during the filming of the 1971 Andromeda movie and got to know directors — including a youngster named Spielberg, who was still shooting TV shows for Universal. Crichton has lived in California ever since.

He had found his calling — and it was entertainment, not medicine. ”The teaching at Harvard Medical School was so bad it was unbelievable,” says Crichton. Instead of using his M.D. to practice, he became a kind of science teacher himself. Not since G. B. Shaw and H.G. Wells has a mass-market author been so passionately animated by the rage to educate. But while those writers preached the gospel of Progress, Crichton’s mission is precisely the opposite — he writes books (and directs movies like Coma) to warn us against the most advanced scientific ideas of his time.

The ideas behind his new book involve biotechnology trends that alarm him. Crichton concedes that reanimated thunder lizards are not the principal danger posed by genetic engineering. But he thinks they’re a great way to get the public thinking about the consequences of recent breakthroughs. ”Do people have any idea what we’re dealing with?” he demands, his eyes wide behind round spectacles, ”or do they think nature is some kind of very complicated but ultimately comprehensible mechanical system, and there are just a few details left to work out, so why don’t we go ahead and do any damn genetic thing we feel like? I think that’s suicidal. If you think radioactive milk from Swedish cows after Chernobyl is frightening, wait until some idiot decides to make a plant virus to improve the cocoa leaf, and it wrecks all the planet’s chlorophyll because he made a mistake. Oops!”

Utterly preoccupied with the morals of his stories, Crichton is not exactly a disciple of fine writing. ”I’m not interested in having a distinctive style,” he says. ”Because I deal with technical information, the highest goal I aspire to is clarity. I don’t really care if it’s graceful.” Capable of tapping out 10,000 words a day, Crichton once defined his style as ”arrant seventh gradeism.”

But he’s serious about ideas, and the ideas in Jurassic Park (named after the geological era about 160 million years ago when dinosaurs flourished) are straight from the frontiers of science: genome research, chaos theory, the arcane lucubrations of the Extinct DNA Study Group at Berkeley. For Crichton, the story is strictly a vessel for conveying this information. ”I have a collection of feelings about the risks we face,” Crichton says, ”the unthinking arrogance of certain scientific procedures, and if I don’t want to write something for The New England Journal of Medicine, how do I get it out to the widest audience? Piggyback it onto another form, the action thriller.”

He does try to satisfy the demands of the genre: ”If you’re going to do a dinosaur book, people must be munched. You know going in that some of your characters are dino fodder — it’s a dirty job, but some characters have to do it.” The cheap thrills have a nobler purpose than making Crichton a millionaire. ”The munches are just there to keep the reader going. The ideas in Jurassic Park are much more important to me than the munches.”

If Jurassic Park is a crash course in all manner of captivating scientific lore, that’s not why directors Joe Dante and Tim Burton and Columbia’s Peter Guber and Jon Peters reportedly pursued Crichton with offers of even more money than Universal paid. All Hollywood was after him because Jurassic Park is irresistibly cinematic. Spielberg will get the tallest, darkest supporting cast in Hollywood: titanic Apatosaurs, poison-spitting Dilophosaurs, Procompsognathids (”Compys”) with five E.T.-like fingers and a sweet tooth for baby humans, and — scariest of all — packs of Velociraptors, the fastest, smartest, most Alien-like predators that ever stomped the earth. The rampaging dinosaurs afford Spielberg a richer dramatic trove to plunder than he had with, say, the Indiana Jones movies. Jurassic Park boasts chase scenes through treacherous waterfalls; secret passageways with large pupils glowing in the dark; terrified children glimpsing, in a flash of midnight lightning, a Tyrannosaurus rex eyeball peering into their jeep’s window.

But even in crass commercial terms, Jurassic Park‘s most savory thrills depend on the logic of the prehistoric predators’ behavior. ”The challenge was to make animals that worked,” says Crichton, ”that seemed consistent without being too explicit or too bounded.” Jurassic Park could be the first adventure film to give moviegoers a glimpse inside the mind of a dinosaur.

The plot of Jurassic Park points up the folly of thinking that mankind can duplicate nature. But the book’s primal appeal is rooted in the compulsion we all feel to do so. And there are few chapters of natural history we would more like to reopen than the one starring the reptile giants who make us mammals look anticlimactic. Crichton’s first daughter, borne by his fourth and present wife, Anne-Marie Martin, a couple of years ago, exemplifies the yearning we feel. ”One day when she was 1 1/2,” he recalls, ”I was about to take her to the zoo. ‘What kind of animals do they have there?’ she asked. I said, ‘Well, zebras and bears,’ and she shouted, ‘DINOSAURS!’ I guess she thought we’d just never gotten to the dinosaur section before.” Crichton chuckles. ”Dinosaurs — everybody wants to see them. I want to see them.” If all goes according to plan, her daddy and Mr. Spielberg will unleash them on a shuddering world in June 1992.

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