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Friday 7 November 2008

Michael Crichton

A year or so after we moved into our current house we had a bookshelf collapse that was a consequence of a) the urge to display far too many cherished hardcovers on a screw-to-the-wall track system, and b) my total inability to put a secure screw into a plaster wall.

One of the most cherished, and one of the few volumes to take any damage from the fall, was my 1972 copy of Michael Crichton's The Terminal Man. It was only a slight tear to the jacket at the top of the spine, but it was still upsetting. I'm not quite your anally-retentive Mylar Snuggs fanboy, but that particular copy is unique.

For a while in the 70s, particularly in that run of stuff from Binary to Westworld, Crichton was one of my career gods in the days way before I had any kind of a career. In 1972, I was still in the Sixth Form. My copy of The Terminal Man was that year's Nancy H Bent Memorial Prize for English, a choice which I suppose would give plenty of scope for snarkiness to commentators who praise Crichton's narrative ability while cutting him down to size on literary quality.

I didn't care. As far as I was concerned, Crichton had nailed it. Then Westworld, precursor of both the Terminator and Jurassic Park franchises, nailed it in another medium.

My non-critical appreciation continued until Sphere when, despite myself, I was disappointed. Instead of a novel offering a solid template for adaptation, it felt like the novelisation of a movie that was yet to be made. If I backed off thereafter, my appreciation of the earlier stuff didn't fade. And I did back off... made uncomfortable by an overt misogyny in his treatment of female characters in Jurassic Park and Disclosure, and feeling myself being co-opted into a neo-con didacticism that first showed itself in Rising Sun.

But then I'd turn up something like Runaway, his overlooked (and great fun) 'gadget cop' movie with Tom Selleck and Gene Simmons, or Airframe, a crash-investigation novel that's light on character but an object-lesson in the mastery of detail, and I'd be reminded of all the positives. To my mind, the pilot of ER still stands as a self-contained gem of a TV hour.

Crichton spoke of the obstacles inherent in making drama out of science, and responded to criticism by scientists of the ways in which they saw themselves portrayed.

"Let's be clear," he said in a 1999 address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, "all professions look bad in the movies. And there's a good reason for this. Movies don't portray career paths, they conscript interesting lifestyles to serve a plot. So lawyers are all unscrupulous and doctors are all uncaring. Psychiatrists are all crazy, and politicians are all corrupt. All cops are psychopaths, and all businessmen are crooks. Even moviemakers come off badly: directors are megalomaniacs, actors are spoiled brats. Since all occupations are portrayed negatively, why expect scientists to be treated differently?"

Adding, quite reasonably: "I'd remind you Jurassic Park does have a scientist as its hero. He's right there, Alan Grant. He saves the kids, he saves the day, rights the wrongs, and looks dashing. Beside him is another hero, Ellie Sattler, a botanist. So in a movie where nearly every character has a doctorate, why talk about wanting to be heroes not villains?"

It's an insightful address, and recommended reading for anyone interested in the workings of the science-based thriller. David Milch's assertion that "the scientific method is antithetical to storytelling" may well be true, but Crichton's genius was in the dramatic work-arounds that bridged the gap between the two.

And now he's gone.

Damn. Didn't see that one coming.


Lucy V said...

66 is no age. What a year it's been for losing creative people. I wasn't keen on his later work because of said misogyny issues too (I especially didn't like Disclosure). Becasuse of it and Jurassic Park I discovered Crichton's early stuff was fantastic, which distracted me from the some of Stephen King's more dodgy offerings around the turn of the 90s.

Chris said...

ER was for quite a long-time unmissable TV - and Westworld along with The Andromeda Strain just goes to show how good he was.

Mind you, one of my most guiltiest of pleasures is The Great Train Robbery: such a great cast, too - Connery, Sutherland and Leslie Anne Down.