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The Admirable Crichton: Michael Crichton (1942 - 2008)

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Wednesday, Nov 5, 2008

Michael Crichton was a big man, and not just in stature. At 6’ 9”, he definitely did tower above his peers - at Harvard where he graduated summa cum laude, at the prestigious university’s medical school where he earned his doctorate; among his fellow science fiction writers; and on the set of his hit TV series ER. But he was also a man of big ideas, big successes, and toward the end of his life, big controversies. His accomplishments play like a greatest hits compilation in the main mediums - literature, film, television - he worked within. But upon his passing from cancer at age 66 on 4 November, 2008 one fears he will be remembered for his more contentious nature than his artistic accomplishments.


Crichton was born in Chicago on 23 October, 1942. A prodigy of sorts, he was interested in history and the humanities from a very early age. His mother would take the family to museums and other cultural experiences in and around New York City (the Crichton’s had relocated to Roslyn, Long Island, when Michael was still small) and the strapping student would often offer extra papers to his teachers. Growing faster than the other children, he survived the occasional razzing by losing himself in writing and books. He even wrote a play at age nine. By the time he reached Harvard, he was a bit of a wunderkind. He started writing novels, and publishing them under the pseudonym John Lange. Eventually, he penned The Andromeda Strain, and in 1969, it became a bestseller. Using his given name, it established Crichton as a genre author of formidable note.


And the hits just kept on coming. Among the over 100 million books he was responsible for selling, he crafted The Terminal Man (1972), The Great Train Robbery (1975), Congo (1980), Sphere (1987), Rising Son (1992), Disclosure (1994), and Prey (2003). But his biggest success came when a chance conversation with Stephen Spielberg revealed the plot for Crichton’s upcoming dinosaur-oriented thriller. Mr. Blockbuster snapped up the rights before it was even published, and with that, Jurassic Park became a literal monster. Not only did it bring CGI to the otherwise ordinary giant b-movie creature feature, but it turning Crichton and his catalog into the go-to oeuvre for future book to film adaptations.

Of course, many forget that, in addition to writing, the gentile giant was also a decent director of big screen fare. With the amazing success of Andromeda (which was made into a wonderful film by Robert Wise in 1971), Crichton was given a chance behind the lens. When the TV movie Pursuit (based on his political assassination tome Binary) was well received, he made the leap to the theater, delivering one of 1973’s most provocative and profitable films. Westworld told the tale of a theme park where robots fulfilled the fantasies of its patrons. When a gunslinger android goes rogue, it’s up to a group of visitors to avoid his preprogrammed wrath. Successful enough to mandate a sequel (1976’s Futureworld), it provided the creative carte blanche that Crichton needed.


His next film would be an adaptation of Robin Cook’s organ bank fright fest, 1978’s Coma. It representing a weird kind of aesthetic synchronicity, as both men were medical doctors turned successful novelists. With Michael Douglas in the lead, it turned into a sizeable smash, and this allowed Crichton to pursue more personal projects. In 1979, he adapted his own Great Train Robbery as a vehicle for Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland. Unfortunately, the follow-up, 1981’s Looker, was a plastic surgery disaster. While staying well within Crichton’s signature themes of science gone astray and technology trumping common sense, it was not the cautionary tale triumph of previous efforts.


Prior to hitting paydirt again with Park (which he merely scripted with help from David Koepp), he offered up the unexceptional sci-fi slop Runaway, perhaps best known for its casting of Kiss’s recently unmasked Gene Simmons as the main villain. After taking on the turgid Physical Evidence (1989) as a director for hire, Crichton seemed uninterested in continuing in film. While he contributed to the script of the Jan de Bont disaster smash Twister, Crichton seemed content to sell his stories to the studios, and then watch as adaptation after adaption failed to live up to his words. But when Park became a worldwide phenomenon, Critchon recalled the first project he and Spielberg discussed. A proposed novel about a doctor’s life in a bustling hospital emergency room, the TV take known as ER bowed in 1994. This year, 2008, marks its 14th and final season on NBC.

Over the course of his three and a half decades in the spotlight, Crichton never shied from his scientific background or his own interests. He wrote four non-fiction books - Five Patients (about his experiences in Massachusetts General), Jasper Johns (about his personal friend and renowned artist), Electronic Life (an introduction to the home computer) and Travels. He also did extensive programming for both the Applesoft and Basica PC languages. But as the new millennium approached, Crichton stopped sitting on his simmering beliefs and began spewing what many thought to be misguided and mean spirited attacks on environmentalism, the media, and what he considered to be the ‘contestable’ theory of global warming. He even went so far as to offer up a band of mass murdering eco-terrorists as the main plot point for his 2004 work State of Fear.


As each new novel was met with a decreasing level of excitement, Crichton appeared to turn inward. In his last published work, the 2006 “missing link” genetic research shocker Next, the author introduced a minor character named Michael Crowley. Described as a pedophilic Yale Graduate with a small penis, it was seen by some as a petty retort to the real life Crowley, himself a Yale grad and writer for the New Republic. Apparently, he penned a column highly critical of Crichton, and the resulting literary reference was a rather obvious if crude attempt at payback. When he learned he had cancer, Crichton asked that his soon to be published book be held until after his death. The still untitled effort should be released sometime later this year or early next.


Whatever the subject - and speculation among the messageboard faithful is fierce - it is clear that the standard Crichton commercial craftsmanship will be there. Issues that don’t ring true to him will be challenged and chopped up, fed like fodder to a mainstream audience who may not even understand the expressed nuances. Much more than just the man responsible for bring dinosaurs back into the pop culture conversation, Crichton was like Arthur C. Clarke without the knack of precognitive tech accuracy. He took on the growing influence of Asia with Rising Sun, and argued about sexual discrimination - in reverse - with his controversial Disclosure. He often bristled at criticism, complaining that many made their condemnations without actually thinking through their arguments. Up until the end, he remained a contentious contemporary thinker.


But one shouldn’t forget his pre-politics persona. As one of the few science fiction writers with an actual commercial following, Crichton proved that the speculative genre could be as compelling and profitable as Stephen King’s horror or the seedy soap operatics of someone like Jacqueline Susan. Indeed, long before he gave us the return of the T-Rex, Crichton was commenting on the frequent future shock society experienced with the endless march of progress. It’s no surprise then that many of his books take on and deconstruct the big picture painted of the world around us. After all, with someone like Michael Crichton, everything was and still is big - even his legacy.

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