The life of Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton, told through five interesting pieces of trivia
1. While studying English at university, he caught out one of his professors. The precocious Crichton (1942-2008 – real first name John) began his writing career helping his classmates to write their school assignments. Later, while studying English at Harvard College, Crichton believed that one of his professors was unfairly marking down his work, and so the disgruntled Crichton devised an experiment: he plagiarized an essay by George Orwell, submitting it as one of his own assignments. The paper was returned by the professor – who failed to spot the plagiarism – with a B- grade. As a result of such experiences, Crichton decided to change his studies from literature to biological anthropology – a career-change that would prove useful in Crichton’s later career, especially for his work on such TV shows as ER and his numerous scientifically-informed novels.
2. Crichton was extremely tall – 6’9″ to be precise. His height reportedly made him self-conscious. Nevertheless, he alluded to it in two of the pseudonyms he adopted early on in his career: while in medical school, Crichton adopted the pen name ‘John Lange’ (which in German means ‘long’) and ‘Jeffrey Hudson’, after a dwarf who was at the court of Charles I in seventeenth-century England. However, he published his most influential early novel, The Andromeda Strain, under his own name in 1969. Pleasingly, when the novel was adapted into a film two years later, Crichton was given a tour of the set by a young Steven Spielberg, who was on his first day at work as a film director. Spielberg, of course, would later direct the film adaptation of Jurassic Park. Crichton was also the writer of Westworld, the 1973 film which Crichton also directed. Westworld was the first film to use CGI.
3. He co-wrote a novel with his brother under the pseudonym ‘Michael Douglas’. Douglas was Crichton’s brother’s name, and the two men worked on the 1970 novel Dealing together. Aptly, when Crichton’s novel Disclosure was adapted into a film, Michael Douglas played the lead role.
4. His most popular novel owed a debt to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The similarities between Crichton and Conan Doyle are curious: both trained in medicine, both wrote novels called The Lost World, both wrote novels set in the fourteenth century (The White Company and its prequel Sir Nigel in the case of Conan Doyle, and Timeline in Crichton’s case). Jurassic Park, Crichton’s most commercially successful novel, was effectively a clever updating of the premise of Conan Doyle’s 1912 classic The Lost World. In Conan Doyle’s novel, Professor Challenger and a band of intrepid explorers go to South America in search of a rainforest plateau that has somehow remained untouched by the modern world, and as a result is still a habitat for prehistoric creatures, including dinosaurs. The Guardian obituary for Crichton in 2008 likened him to Conan Doyle, and in some ways Crichton can be seen as Conan Doyle’s heir. We’ve offered our five best facts about Conan Doyle in this post.
5. Jurassic Park wasn’t the first work to propose the idea of a dinosaur theme park. Which novel is being described here? Published in 1984, it centres on the scientific idea of recreating dinosaurs from DNA fragments found in fossils. A number of dinosaurs are reconstructed, including Tyrannosaurus. The novel features a whole theme park or zoo filled with dinosaurs. A film adaptation was released in 1993. Got the answer? Well, no, of course, it’s not Jurassic Park – although all of the above could apply equally to Crichton’s novel, more or less (with the exception of the publication date: Crichton’s book was published in 1990). Instead, the 1984 novel being described above is Carnosaur, written by Australian author Harry Adam Knight (the pseudonym of John Brosnan). The book did not sell particularly well, and Roger Corman’s 1993 film adaptation did poorly at the box office – losing out to Spielberg’s blockbuster film version of Crichton’s book. Brosnan himself described the film Carnosaur as ‘crap’ – though he added that it was ‘interesting crap’. We agree that it is interesting, not least because it provides a neat complement to Crichton’s more famous vision of dinosaurs run amok.
To conclude this selection of our favourite Michael Crichton facts, a few extra quick bits of trivia. In 1994, Michael Crichton was the only person ever to top television, film, and book charts simultaneously (for ER, Jurassic Park, and Disclosure respectively). In 2001, he was almost on board the American Airlines flight from New York to Los Angeles involved in 9/11. And in 2002, a genus of dinosaur was named Crichtonsaurus in honour of the author of Jurassic Park.
Further reading: the Guardian obituary for Michael Crichton.
Image: Indroda Dinosaur and Fossil Park, Gandhinagar, nicknamed ‘India’s Jurassic Park’ (author: FabSubeject), 2013, Wikimedia Commons.