Michael Crichton Essay - Crichton, Michael (Vol. 90)

Crichton, Michael (Vol. 90)


Michael Crichton 1942–

(Full name John Michael Crichton; has also written under the pseudonyms Jeffrey Hudson and John Lange, and with Douglas Crichton under joint pseudonym Michael Douglas) American novelist, nonfiction writer, screenwriter, film director, and autobiographer.

The following entry focuses on Crichton's career from 1981 to 1995. For further information about his life and work, see CLC, Volumes 2, 6, and 54.

Crichton is best known as a novelist of popular fiction whose stories explore the limitations of a humanistic worldview in the age of advanced technology. Jurassic Park (1990), his best-selling novel about re-creating living dinosaurs from preserved DNA fragments, examines the dangers of exploiting and coming to rely on highly sophisticated scientific breakthroughs, like computers and biogenetic engineering, whose "inherent unpredictability" ultimately mocks humankind's belief that it can control its world. Although a number of critics fault Crichton for stereotypical characterizations and trite plotlines, many have praised his taut, suspenseful, and fast-paced stories, his entertaining narrative style, and his ability to convey technical information in a readable, exciting manner.

Biographical Information

Crichton was born in Chicago, Illinois, and raised on Long Island, New York. When he was fourteen, he wrote and sold travel articles to the New York Times. In 1964 he earned a B. A. in anthropology from Harvard University. Returning to Harvard in 1965 to pursue a career in medicine, Crichton began writing novels under the pseudonym John Lange in order to support his studies. While doing postdoctoral work at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, Crichton published The Andromeda Strain (1969), a popular thriller, and soon began a full-time writing career. Crichton is also a respected figure in the motion picture and entertainment industries. In 1972 he adapted his novel Binary (1971) for television and then began writing and directing his own films, including Westworld (1973), The Great Train Robbery (1979), Looker (1981) and Runaway (1984). He is also the creator of the critically acclaimed television drama E.R.

Major Works

Crichton has written on a variety of subjects and in a variety of genres: The Great Train Robbery, for example, recalls the history of an actual train robbery in Victorian England; the 1976 novel Eaters of the Dead explores the myths of tenth-century Vikings; the nonfiction work Electronic Life (1983) focuses on the practical applications of computers; and Travels (1988) is an autobiographical account of Crichton's life. He first established himself, however, as the author of Odds On (1966) and A Case of Need (1968), detective novels written under the pseudonyms John Lange and Jeffrey Hudson, respectively, while he was in medical school. Crichton is best known, though, for his work in the science fiction genre. Writing under his own name, he published The Andromeda Strain in 1969, a novel about a seemingly unstoppable plague brought to Earth from outer space; he has said that this story was influenced by Len Deighton's The Ipcress File (1962) and H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds (1898). In his film Westworld, he depicted modern Americans as jaded individuals who depend on technology as a means of escaping reality. At the Delos theme park, guests live out their fantasies in various "worlds" populated by androids. Westworld guests, for example, stay in an "Old West" town where they win all their gunfights and brawls because the androids are programmed to lose. Computer programming problems occur, however, and the robotic cowboys begin to threaten and harm the guests. Congo (1980) similarly explores the dangers of technology, greed, and power. Likened to H. Rider Haggard's adventure novel King Solomon's Mines (1885), Congo tells the story of a behavioral scientist who attempts to return a gorilla capable of linguistic communication to the jungle. In the process they must overcome the ruthless activities of a group of corporate-sponsored explorers who are searching for the Lost City of Zinj, where a band of hostile apes guards a cache of rare diamonds. An encounter with alien life and technology is the central focus of Sphere (1987). Scientists investigating an alien spacecraft that landed in the ocean three centuries earlier get trapped inside the extraterrestrials' ship during a raging storm and are set upon by aliens. In 1990 Crichton published his best-seller Jurassic Park, which tells of greed and technological experimentation gone awry. Set in a wild animal preserve called Jurassic Park, the novel relates how a wealthy entrepreneur and his scientists lose control of the living dinosaurs they have recreated from preserved DNA fragments. Steven Spielberg's 1994 Academy Award-winning film of Jurassic Park—for which Crichton helped write the screenplay—ensured the worldwide popularity of the novel. In more recent works, Crichton turned away from such fantastic tales. Focusing on contemporary Japanese-American relations, Rising Sun (1992) begins with the murder of a young woman and explores the seemingly exploitative and unprincipled actions of Japanese businessmen. Disclosure (1994), which is also set in the business world, examines the issue of sexual harassment. Reversing the traditional tale of a patriarchal abuse of power, Crichton's novel concerns a female executive who accuses a subordinate male employee—with whom she was once romantically involved—of sexual harassment when he spurns her advances. The story focuses on the employee's fight to save his job and reveal the truth. In The Lost World (1995), a sequel to Jurassic Park, Crichton returns to such science fiction themes as genetic engineering and the misuse of technological capabilities. This work focuses on scientists and entrepreneurs investigating an island thought to be inhabited by dinosaurs.

Critical Reception

Crichton's works have received mixed reviews. Initially praised for his detective stories—he received the Edgar Allan Poe Award of the Mystery Writers of America in 1968—he is recognized by most critics for his ability to make technological information understandable and engaging. Some, however, have argued that his plotlines—such as the battle-of-the-sexes scenario in Disclosure and the well-worn story line of Jurassic Park, which exploits the fear of scientific advancement—are hackneyed and predictable. While some critics have favorably commented on Crichton's well-organized narratives and use of clear and simple prose, they also lament his use of stock characters. For instance, the unprincipled entrepreneur John Hammond and the greedy computer genius Nedry of Jurassic Park are seen as caricatures, while the female antagonist of Disclosure is seen as a predictable femme fatale. As Robert L. Sims has asserted, most of "Crichton's characters are one-dimensional figures whose psychological makeups are determined by the particular drama in which they are involved." A few commentators have also remarked on Crichton's ability to identify and successfully capitalize on current public issues and concerns. For example, Disclosure examines the issue of sexual harassment in the business world, and Rising Sun focuses on the fear associated with Japan's growing presence in American business. These two novels, however, have also generated criticism. Disclosure has been compared to the film Fatal Attraction (1987) for its sexist depiction of predatory women and weak men, and Rising Sun was deemed racist for its presentation of the Japanese as ruthlessly bent on destroying the American economy. Nevertheless, Crichton's concise prose style, tightly organized plots, and examination of contemporary concerns continue to make his works popular.

∗Principal Works

Odds On [as John Lange] (novel) 1966
Scratch One [as John Lange] (novel) 1967
A Case of Need [as Jeffrey Hudson] (novel) 1968
Easy Go [as John Lange] (novel) 1968; also published as The Last Tomb, 1974
The Andromeda Strain (novel) 1969
The Venom Business [as John Lange] (novel) 1969
Zero Cool [as John Lange] (novel) 1969
Drug of Choice [as John Lange] (novel) 1970
Five Patients: The Hospital Explained (nonfiction) 1970
Grave Descend [as John Lange] (novel) 1970
Binary [as John Lange] (novel) 1971
Dealing; or, The Berkeley-to-Bostoh Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues [with Douglas Crichton, under joint pseudonym Michael Douglas] (novel) 1971
The Terminal Man (novel) 1972
Extreme Close-up (screenplay) 1973
Westworld (film) 1973
The Great Train Robbery (novel) 1975
Eaters of the Dead (novel) 1976
Coma [adaptor; from the novel Coma by Robin Cook] (film) 1977
Jasper Johns (nonfiction) 1977
The Great Train Robbery (film) 1979
Congo (novel) 1980
Looker (film) 1981
Electronic Life: How to Think about Computers (nonfiction) 1983
Runaway (film) 1984
Sphere (novel) 1987
Travels (autobiography) 1988
Jurassic Park (novel) 1990
Rising Sun (novel) 1992
Jurassic Park [with David Koepp] (screenplay) 1993
Rising Sun [with Michael Backes and Philip Kaufman] (screenplay) 1993
Disclosure (novel) 1994
The Lost World (novel) 1995
Volcano (novel) 1995

∗Many of Crichton's novels have served as the bases for movies. A Case of Need inspired the 1972 film The Carey Treatment, directed by Blake Edwards and written by James P. Bonner. The 1971 film version of The Andromeda Strain was directed by Robert Wise and written by Nelson Gidding. Crichton wrote and directed the 1972 television film Pursuit, which was based on his novel Binary. The 1974 film version of The Terminal Man was written and directed by Mike Hedges. Crichton's screenplay Extreme Close-up was directed by Jeannot Szwarc. The films Westworld, Coma, The Great Train Robbery, Looker, and Runaway were written and directed by Crichton. Congo was adapted for the screen in 1995 by director Frank Marshall and screenwriter John Patrick Shanley. The 1993 film version of Jurassic Park was directed by Steven Spielberg. Philip Kaufman directed the 1993 film based on Rising Sun, and Disclosure was adapted for the screen in 1994 by director Barry Levinson and screenwriter Paul Attanasio.


Pauline Kael (review date 9 November 1981)

SOURCE: "Childhood of the Dead," in The New Yorker, Vol. LVII, No. 38, November 9, 1981, pp. 170-84.

[Kael was a widely-read and respected film critic for The New Yorker until her retirement in 1991. In the following excerpt, she unfavorably reviews Looker, focusing on Crichton's "cold" direction, the lack of character development, and the weakness of the film's plot.]

Michael Crichton directs like a technocrat. This ties in with a small problem he has with his scripts: he can't write people. His new film, Looker (it's his fourth), gives the impression of having never been touched by human hands; it's a shiny, cold job of engineering that manages...

(The entire section is 774 words.)

David Denby (review date 16 November 1981)

SOURCE: "The Wizards of ID," in New York Magazine, Vol. 14, No. 45, November 16, 1981, p. 118.

[In the following excerpt, Denby unfavorably reviews Looker.]

Will Michael Crichton ever make a really good movie? Crichton, the author of The Andromeda Strain and other scientific-medical thrillers and the director of Westworld, Coma, and The Great Train Robbery, is a clever fellow with a talent for conventional suspense and a fondness for slightly bizarre stories about technology run amok. The Great Train Robbery, his most assured work as a director, was overpadded and smug, but at least it had some big-movie sweep and detail, and its Victorian...

(The entire section is 359 words.)

Gary Jennings (review date 11 November 1990)

SOURCE: "Pterrified by Pterodactyls," in The New York Times Book Review, November 11, 1990, pp. 4, 15.

[Jennings is an American novelist, nonfiction writer, author of children's literature, and critic; his novels include Aztec (1980) and Spangle (1987). In the following review of Jurassic Park, he applauds Crichton's ability to make scientific information understandable and interesting but laments the predictability of the plot and characters.]

With his 1969 novel, The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton invented the "techno-thriller" fully two decades before that term became the fad description for every book by Tom Clancy, Dean R. Koontz...

(The entire section is 950 words.)

Ronald Preston (review date 21 November 1990)

SOURCE: "Terrible T. Rex and Other Dinosaur Daydreams," in The Christian Science Monitor, November 21, 1990, p. 12.

[In the following review of Jurassic Park, Preston praises Crichton's ability to present technical material clearly and provocatively but faults his poorly developed characters and trite plot.]

"Soon to be a major motion picture," brays the cover of Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park. Dr. Crichton's books have become films before. The Great Train Robbery and The Andromeda Strain come to mind. But this time the book anticipates the production. This is a screenplay frilled for publication.

Master-of-the universe...

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J. P. Telotte (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Westworld, Futureworld, and the World's Obscenity," in State of the Fantastic: Studies in the Theory and Practice of Fantastic Literature and Film, edited by Nicholas Ruddick, Greenwood Press, 1990, pp. 179-88.

[Telotte is an American critic and educator who frequently writes about film and film history: his works include Dreams of Darkness: Fantasy and the Films of Val Lewton (1985) and Voices in the Dark: The Narrative Patterns of Film Noir (1989). In the following essay, he utilizes key concepts from French philosopher and sociologist Jean Baudrillard in an examination of how Westworld and its seguel, Futureworld, portray the dangers of living...

(The entire section is 4696 words.)

Robert Nathan (review date 9 February 1992)

SOURCE: "Is Japan Really Out to Get Us?," in The New York Times Book Review, February 9, 1992, pp. 1, 22-3.

[Nathan is an American novelist, dramatist, and critic. In the following favorable review of Rising Sun, he contends that Crichton's presentation of Japanese-American economic relations raises important questions "about America's condition at the end of the American century."]

Every so often, a work of popular fiction vaults over its humble origins as entertainment, grasps the American imagination and stirs up the volcanic subtexts of our daily life. Uncle Tom's Cabin was that kind of book; so was Laura Z. Hobson's Gentleman's Agreement....

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Ian Buruma (review date 23 April 1992)

SOURCE: "It Can't Happen Here," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXIX, No. 8, April 23, 1992, pp. 3-4.

[Buruma is a Dutch-born American critic and editor who has written extensively about Japan and Japanese culture. In the following review of Rising Sun, he compares Crichton's negative portrayal of the Japanese to the German anti-Semitic film Jew Süss (1940) and to a contemporary Japanese anti-Semitic book, The Day the Dollar Becomes Paper.]

Once in a while—in America perhaps more than once in a while—a book comes along whose interest is chiefly in the hype attending it. Rising Sun is such a book. The text of the publicity handout...

(The entire section is 2804 words.)

Karl Taro Greenfeld (review date 11 May 1992)

SOURCE: "Return of the Yellow Peril," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 254, No. 18, May 11, 1992, pp. 636-38.

[In the following review of Rising Sun, Greenfeld faults the book for its stereotyping of the Japanese people and suggests that the novel's popularity may render legitimate criticism of Japan and Japanese society suspect.]

Michael Crichton's Rising Sun, judging from its enormous sales (first on The New York Times's best-seller list for three weeks and still second as of April 19), could be the only book about Japan many Americans will ever read. If this is true, its portrayal of the Japanese as inscrutable, technologically proficient,...

(The entire section is 1533 words.)

Julian Loose (review date 22 October 1992)

SOURCE: "Number One Passport," in London Review of Books, Vol. 14, No. 20, October 22, 1992, pp. 26-7.

[In the following excerpt, Loose faults Crichton's negative and unbalanced view of Japanese economic power and influence in Rising Sun.]

For all its awesome success in the world market, Japan remains somehow stubbornly Other. Yet few can afford to ignore its looming presence. Certainly not in America, where the annual trade imbalance stands at 50 billion dollars in Japan's favour, where nearly a third of the budget deficit is shouldered by Japanese investors, and where many now recognise Japan as employer, banker and landlord. When Sony bought up Columbia Pictures in...

(The entire section is 1143 words.)

Stephen Jay Gould (review date 12 August 1993)

SOURCE: "Dinomania," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XL, No. 14, August 12, 1993, pp. 51-6.

[Gould is an American paleontologist, educator, critic, and prizewinning essayist. In the following excerpt, he discusses the novel and film versions of Jurassic Park, comparing their presentations of characters and science.]

Contemporary culture presents no more powerful symbol, or palpable product, of pervasive, coordinated commercialization than the annual release of "blockbuster" films for the summer viewing season. The movies themselves are sufficiently awesome, but when you consider the accompanying publicity machines, and the flood of commercial tie-ins from...

(The entire section is 3931 words.)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (review date 6 January 1994)

SOURCE: "Sex, Power and a Workplace Reversal," in The New York Times, January 6, 1994, p. C12.

[Lehmann-Haupt is a Scottish-born American critic and chief book reviewer for the New York Times. In the following mixed review of Disclosure, he maintains that the plot—despite its contemporary, "high-tech" appearance which masks various implausibilities—is a traditional and exciting "battle of the sexes" story.]

If you think Japan got a bashing in Michael Crichton's Rising Sun, just wait till you see what happens to the cause of equal opportunity in his clever new novel, Disclosure, about a sexual-harassment suit.

The story...

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John Schulian (review date 16 January 1994)

SOURCE: "From Dinophobia to Gynephobia: He Said …," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 16, 1994, pp. 1, 9.

[Schulian is an American journalist and critic. In the following negative review of Disclosure, he examines what he argues are stereotyped characters in "a polemic masquerading as a novel."]

The decline of American manhood can be traced from a daffy heavyweight champion named Leon Spinks, who snuggled up with a lady of the night and awoke the next morning to discover that she had stolen his false teeth. Since then, of course, things far dearer to men than dentures have become targets in the war between the sexes. (Take a bow, John Wayne Bobbitt.)...

(The entire section is 923 words.)

Patt Morrison (review date 16 January 1994)

SOURCE: "From Dinophobia to Gynephobia: She Said …," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 16, 1994, pp. 1, 9.

[In the following review of Disclosure, Morrison applauds Crichton's role-reversing plot about sexual harassment but faults the cartoon-like characterizations and the use of "preposterous devices" to maintain the plot.]

At last, at last it's been published, a dead-bang bestseller that puts the explosive social issue of sexual harassment between bestselling hardcovers, not in some incoherent government report destined for the recycling bin.

Here is the predatory, omnipotent, salacious boss, and here is the prey, the dependent...

(The entire section is 996 words.)

Julie Burchill (review date 22 January 1994)

SOURCE: "Sometime After Dinosaurs, God Created Woman," in The Spectator, Vol. 272, No. 8637, January 22, 1994, pp. 25, 27.

[Burchill is an English novelist, screenwriter, and nonfiction writer. In the following unfavorable review of Disclosure, she contends that Crichton's writing is poor, that the story maligns women, and that it fails to deal with the issue of sexual harassment seriously.]

Novelization—of a film, or of a popular television serial—has always been a moderately quick way to earn a moderately good sum of money. (Often, people educated far beyond their intelligence are drawn to this way of life; I once owned an EastEnders novelisation...

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Geraldine Brennan (review date 30 January 1994)

SOURCE: "Tears Before Bed," in The Observer, January 30, 1994, p. 19.

[In the following unfavorable review of Disclosure, Brennan contends that the novel's plot is contrived and its sexual harassment theme contains misogynistic sentiments.]

Sexual harassment suits are about more than reputations: the scent of big money is in the air, making corporate America twitchy. Crichton has put his finger on the latest anxiety; if women and men are equal in the workplace, does a male subordinate's claim of sexual harassment by a woman employer carry the same weight as a woman employee's claim against a man?

One difference is that the harassed man's...

(The entire section is 407 words.)

Douglas Kennedy (review date 4 February 1994)

SOURCE: "A Soft Touch," in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 7, No. 288, February 4, 1994, p. 49.

[In the following unfavorable review, Kennedy contends that Disclosure is formulaic and timid in its handling of the sexual harassment issue.]

On a recent flight to Hong Kong, I took a stroll down the aisles of the jumbo jet, looking at what my fellow passengers were reading. Yes, I did see one earnest-looking speedreader who risked excess baggage charges with A Suitable Boy. But most people were engrossed in easy-to-digest commercial fiction.

And of the 300 or so passengers, around a quarter appeared to be in possession of a novel by...

(The entire section is 754 words.)

Michael Coren (review date 21 February 1994)

SOURCE: "Office Romance," in National Review, New York, Vol. XLVI, No. 3, February 21, 1994, p. 63.

[In the following mixed review of Disclosure, Coren applauds Crichton's handling of the sexual harassment theme but faults the unbalanced portrayal of good and evil in the characterizations.]

One really has to admire the masters and mistresses of the middle-brow, those novelists who swoop down upon an issue that is capturing headlines and sound-bites and make it the theme of a bestselling novel. Are they vultures or are they eagles? The answer will vary from reader to reader. But for me Michael Crichton's wing-span, his grace in flight, and the clarity of his...

(The entire section is 993 words.)

Francine Prose (review date October 1994)

SOURCE: A review of Disclosure, in The Yale Review, Vol. 82, No. 4, October, 1994, pp. 121-32.

[Prose is an American novelist, short story writer, critic, and educator. In the following review of Disclosure, she faults Crichton's facile manipulation of deep-seated anxieties about women and his poorly developed sexual harassment theme.]

Some years ago I had the misfortune to read a magazine essay by a writer and academic colleague in which he bravely charted his dogged struggle to see women as human beings. One measure of the psychic distance he had traveled was his ability to admit that he had once belonged to a college fraternity in which a ritual of...

(The entire section is 1050 words.)

Publishers Weekly (review date 21 August 1995)

SOURCE: A review of The Lost World, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 242, No. 34, August 21, 1995, p. 48.

[In the following review of The Lost World, the critic applauds Crichton's grasp of science but faults the characterizations and the originality of the story.]

One fact about [The Lost World, which is the] sequel to Jurassic Park stands out above all: it follows a book that, with spinoffs, including the movie, proved to be the most profitable literary venture ever. So where does the author of a near billion-dollar novel sit? Squarely on the shoulders of his own past work—and Arthur Conan Doyle's. Crichton has borrowed from Conan Doyle...

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Mark Annichiarico (review date 15 September 1995)

SOURCE: A review of The Lost World, in Library Journal, Vol. 120, No. 15, September 15, 1995, p. 91.

[In the following review, Annichiarico compares The Lost World to Jurassic Park.]

When strange animal carcasses begin to wash up on the shores of Costa Rica, an eccentric paleontologist suspects that dinosaurs may exist somewhere in the area. [The Lost World, the much-anticipated sequel to the megahit Jurassic Park (1990),] reads more like a movie novelization: so bereft of plot and characterization in deference to action that it is closer in spirit to Steven Spielberg's movie version (1993) than to the entertaining and educational novel that...

(The entire section is 185 words.)

Mim Udovitch (review date 1 October 1995)

SOURCE: "Leapin' Lizards!" in The New York Times Book Review, October 1, 1995, pp. 9-10.

[In the following excerpt, Udovitch favorably assesses The Lost World as a thriller but ridicules Crichton for his allusions to what she terms contemporary "hot-button" issues.]

The director James Cameron once observed that criticizing Jurassic Park (the movie, not the book) is like criticizing a roller coaster for not being Proust. Fans of Mr. Cameron's deft touch in such works as Aliens and both Terminator movies will recognize the grace with which he sidesteps the issue of a direct comparison between Jurassic Park (in this instance and...

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Further Reading


Jaynes, Gregory; Ressner, Jeffrey; and Sachs, Andrea. "Meet Mister Wizard." Time 146, No. 3 (25 September 1995): 60-7.

Overview of Crichton's life and literary career.


Kakutani, Michiko. "Back in the Land of Dinosaur Cloning." The New York Times (10 October 1995): B4.

Faults The Lost World as a "predictable and unimaginative" retelling of Jurassic Park.

Lemonick, Michael D. "How Good Is His Science?" Time 146, No. 13 (25 September 1995): 65.


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