A critical analysis of Michael Crichton's bestselling novel, The Lost World, and the nature of its success
Throughout this study of Crichton's bestseller, research has proven that The Lost World is unable to exist without the stigma of being a sequel. Yet despite the flack that the novel so often gets, from its critics and readers too, for being "too much like" Jurassic Park (see previous Assignments 3 and 4 on The Lost World for more information on critics' responses), perhaps this branding is a blessing in disguise. While there decidedly is a lot about this novel that jumps off and is able to take flight from Crichton's earlier one, The Lost World is not solely a product of Jurassic Park's success. Rather, in It is a combination of both these factors?having a successful parent novel and being uniquely strong on its own?that made The Lost World one of 1995's top bestselling novels.
It is undeniable that The Lost World takes much from its predecessor, but one must remember that that is the nature of sequels. In both novels, many characters overlap. Although Ian Malcolm, the mathematician and Lewis Dodgson, one of the bio-tech baddies from the preceding book, are the only characters to reappear, most of the other characters, right down to the kids, are reincarnated in some form or other. Plotwise, The Lost World from its start admittedly takes off of much of its predecessor. In fact, many critics have the feeling that The Lost World was part of Crichton's first draft of Jurassic Park and that it was cut due to redundancy. The story of The Lost World takes place six years after the original Jurassic Park disaster. The book starts out with Ian Malcolm giving a speech on his theory of extinction at a place called the Santa Fe Institute. As he's talking, a tall man stands up. His name is Richard Levine. He's a paleontologist, and he is fairly wealthy. He interrupts Ian to tell him that he doesn't think dinosaurs are really extinct. He believes there's a lost world on an island somewhere off Costa Rica. "I'm quite serious. What if the dinosaurs did not become extinct? What if they still exist? Somewhere in an isolated spot on the planet?" (5) Ian tells him this is nonsense, and continues on explaining his theory. It is this scientific hypothesizing and discussion that is the premise for the rest of the novel, and is the very concept which makes it so potentially controversial.
What is perhaps the most interesting--and potentially controversial--point of The Lost World plotwise, is Dr. Ian Malcolm's extinction theory. In his novel, Crichton offers some decidedly contentious ideas of nature and animals, ones that may even challenge what the general public holds as true. But one must assume that those who read The Lost World are average Americans, one who fit under the basic trends of possessed knowledge. What kinds of things does this average reader know? We can assume that the average American reader is one who holds a basic understanding of science and the study of dinosaurs and related ancient phenomena. Almost everyone knows basic truths about dinosaurs as a species: when and where they existed, basic trends of the behavioral trends of each type, and when they became extinct. Crichton's novel offers a picture of dinosaurs that may or may not be true, and it is in this uncertainty that ambiguity lays. In a scene set in Sorna, one of five islands known as the "Five Deaths", Satellite evidence indicates to Richard Levine (who serves as antagonist to Malcolm) that a volcanic island in this area may be home to nests of living dinosaurs. Before Levine leaves for the island, he hires a local guide, named Diego, who visited the island frequently as a child and claims to have knowledge of the island's trails and primitive roads. Once on the island, in the undergrowth around him, Diego notices several small, chicken-sized dinosaurs. Levine warns him that even though these dinosaurs are small, it's possible that they could have a venomous bite. Diego quickly pulls his hand back just as one of the dinosaurs jumps at him and tries to bite him. At this point, the reader of the novel is forced to pause and question the facts he previously held as truths. Is this a total fabrication? Or is there a glimmer of truth in Crichton's words? Is Crichton telling an accurate story of present-day dinosaur existence?
Ultimately, we are not sure. For that is the beauty of being a writer of fiction and not a sworn piece of non-fiction. It is up to the jurisdiction of the author to weave a tale; it is the author's decision to make his story as true to real life?or as far from it?as he or she decides.
Crichton continues with this ambiguity by personifying the dinosaurs in such a way that they, in an almost human-like way, control the scene and the emotions of the humans involved, though they are mere animals. After their debate about the potential danger of these small dinosaurs, Levine and Diego watch the little dinosaurs begin to chirp and become skittish. They quickly scatter into the underbrush and disappear. Levine looks around worriedly for some sign of what has frightened the diminutive dinosaurs. As he glances around, he can tell something is wrong, but he can't put his finger on what it is. Suddenly, Diego is jerked from his feet and dragged screaming into the surrounding bushes. Levine fills with panic and blindly begins running into the jungle. He doesn't make it far, however, before he is smashed from behind. Back in San Francisco, Malcolm picks up a ringing phone only to hear static and the words,
"Help...trapped...Isla Sorna." They recognize Levine's fear-stricken voice immediately. Then the connection goes dead. Here Malcolm's?and the reader's?knowledge of what exactly happened on Sorna ends. It is curious that these small dinosaurs?commonly believed to be primitive, inhuman creatures?control the suspense of the scene and hold both the fictional characters and the readers in suspense. It is almost as if Crichton has painted them as more than solely primeval organisms; that they have a greater, innate genius or intuition.
In fact the novel ends on a similarly uncertain note, again, ambiguous not because of human activity, but on account of the dinosaurs. In the very last scene of the novel, Kelly and Thorne, two of the novels' main characters, are discussing the nature of the extinction of the dinosaurs they have spent the entire novel investigating. "'Can you bring me [a photon]?" (393) Thorne challenges Kelly. When she replies in the negative, Thorne continues: "'And you never will, because those things don't exist. No matter how seriously people take them?A hundred years from now, people will look back at us and laugh. They'll say, "People used to believe in photons and electrons. Can you imagine anything so silly?" They'll have a good laugh, because by then there will be newer and better fantasies?The sea?the salt?the sunlight?all of us together?that's real. It's a gift to be alive, to see the sun and breathe the air. And there isn't really anything else. It's time for us all to go home.'" (393) Thus the novel ends, with the humans?knowledgeable, talented scientists at that?in question of the nature of the very existence of the animals it is their life's goal to study.
Were the dinosaurs ever real? If so, how can we know? This is a debate that lays at the very core of The Lost World.
In this course we have been primarily taught that while movie replicas may be good and entertaining, they should never be held as replacement for the original novel. In examining Michael Crichton's work as a novelist, it is hard to ignore the fact that his bestselling books--The Lost World in addition to Jurassic Park-- were made into successful, box-office smash hit films. Obviously there are many factors to the film's popularity--most prominently, the initial success of the novel. But the fact that Crichton succeeded in obtaining the acclaimed filmmaker Stephen Spielberg to direct the movie version of the film could not have hurt ticket sales. A reviewer of "The Lost World": the film version, comments on this choice of including Spielberg in the creative process. He points out that Spielberg has made mechanical movies before, movies where he coasted on his skills, content to simulate a sense of wonder rather than conjure one up. But, as he claims rather controversially, "The Lost World is the first time he's ever treated an audience contemptuously."
Watching "Jurassic Park," it was tempting to see Richard Attenborough's loony visionary as Spielberg's unconscious self-portrait, a man who wanted to give the world something extraordinary and produced monsters that mindlessly gobbled up everything in their path. The Lost World doesn't allow for such generosity. The reviewer obviously has no holds barred regarding the director: "It's appalling that the filmmaker who more than any other has shown sympathy for the fantasies of children should so ruthlessly exploit their nightmares...If Spielberg has any counterpart here, it's the dinosaurs." In
a sense it seems as though the reviewer feels that Crichton was perhaps selling out by choosing such a household name to direct the movie replica of his bestselling novel. But shouldn't a best-selling novel be able to engender a popular film, regardless the ways and means in which this end goal--a lucrative box office smash--was obtained?
The Lost World says a great deal about many of Crichton's choices as an
author in terms of character development. About his work, Crichton has stated that: "My stories are not character driven. Usually I have the story first, and make the characters follow the story I have prepared for them. Sometimes the characters refuse. They can be troublesome." Here Crichton clearly states that his novels are not character driven. If characters' motivations are not his primarily thrust in his writing, then obviously, by default, plot lines and action must take precedence. And this declaration is not solely made by Crichton himself. Rather, his critics have stated as much: "Crichton has been criticized in the past for creating high concept, non-character-driven stories." He goes on to speak specifically about Ian Malcolm, the protagonist of both Jurassic Park and The Lost World, proving that the above generalization holds true in his most recent bestselling novel: "...in Jurassic Ian Malcolm wouldn't shut up. I wanted him to say a paragraph or two, but instead he rambled on for four or five pages! And I would look at this stuff and think, it's pretty good, but I don't really need all this."
Thus the argument could be made that Ian Malcolm works mainly as Crichton's voice in the novel--yet he is more or less ignored in the action parts of the movie. The argument that Crichton's novels are not character driven connects well with criticism of Jurassic Park: the movie, saying that the characters are only there to help the "Dinosaur Story" forward. This assignment is one based fundamentally on one best-selling novel: that of The Lost World. Yet it is important to realize that this novel can be best understood in light of its preceding forefather of a bestseller: Jurassic Park. By observing the patterns that Crichton continues to develop in his later novel from continued trends from his first, and by analyzing the changes that ensue, one can better understand Crichton as a novelist and his literary technique. A pattern of sorts is certainly eminent in the leap from Jurassic Park to The Lost World. The reader can get the idea that many aspects of The Lost World were taken from its extremely successful predecessor. Parts of it seem to be a plausible first draft of Jurassic Park and that it was cut due to redundancy. Although Ian Malcolm, the mathematician and Lewis Dodgson, one of the bio-tech baddies from the preceding book, are the only characters to reappear, most of the other characters, right down to the kids, are reincarnated in some form or other.
An interesting aspect to Crichton's novel is the inextricable influence of another novel of the very same title, written decades before Crichton's very birth. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created the first "lost world", and oftentimes his work is confused with Crichton's more modern, twentieth-century adaptation, or vice versa. In truth, however, the "first" version of the novel--by Conan Doyle--does have some legitimate sway over Crichton's "second". Most people do tend to know the basic story of The Lost World, and even the lower-case letter version of its name, by virtue of it's being one of the main dinosaur-story templates. Everybody knows the story of the lost world where some explorers go, meet some dinosaurs, and maybe bring one back so that it can bring a reign of terror upon civilization. Unfortunately, sometimes this familiarity can backfire. All too often the story of "The Lost World"--both Conan Doyle's version and Crichton's--are misdiagnosed as "obvious[ly] a ripoff of Jurassic Park." Crichton is very fond of slightly faulty science - perfect, but only on the surface. Perhaps his books are a really good reflection of modern science, perhaps not. Unfortunately, as many "old-school" fans of Conan Doyle's original science-fiction novel would argue, this classic and important piece of literary and film history has ended up utterly forgettable, in light of the more recent bestselling hit of the same title.
Throughout this course we have learned that a novel becomes a bestseller only by a combination of factors. First and foremost, its plot must be spot-on interesting and brilliant, capturing the interest of potential readers who are the ones who create the gross sales that provide for the novel's popularity. The novel's characters must show personal development and be innately interesting, for no one wants to read a novel with a dull protagonist. There must be a healthy balance between dialogue and description, the author cannot rely too heavily on either form of expression or else the reader's interest will undoubtedly stray. Yet there are factors independent of an author's writing and words themselves that play into its status as a potential best-selling novel. And in this day and age, some of the most important are publicity, reputation in the media and word of mouth. Some critics, readers, and aficionados of classic, pure literature may be against this nature of a novel's success. They may argue for an age when a novel became a bestseller and was classified as "a great book" solely by the quality of its content. But we live in a world that is inextricably intertwined to print-news, television and cinema. If a book succeeds in all of these media?if it is touted as successful in magazines and newspapers, reviewed well on the news, and is replicated in a popular motion picture, not to mention being the sequel to a wildly successful novel, then it is on its way to being a bestseller. Crichton's The Lost World certainly is a product of such multi-faceted success.