It is remarkable that a book with paper thin characters can keep my attention. It is downright mind-boggling when a book like this turns into an insanely fantastic page turner. Thus, having finished Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, I am beginning to question what it is that I love the most in a story.
Intricate Plot versus Character Depth
Previous to this, I've always been a stickler for compelling characters with depth. To be lost in a story, I've long believed that you have to have an incredible degree of empathy for the characters that populate whatever setting is at hand. For example, Star Wars would be nothing without complex lovable characters like Obi-Wan Kenobi and Han Solo. The plot of the movie is simply too basic for it to have much weight without them, which is a big reason why the prequel movies failed; the vast majority of the characters in those movies were simply too poorly written/acted for us to give a damn.
However, I've begun to notice that these books by Michael Crichton manage to be incredibly compelling in spite of the fact that the characters can often seem like cardboard cutouts. Hammond is the one-dimensional park creator who thinks only in how Jurassic Park can become a fantastic amusement park. Gennaro is the lawyer who assesses the Park for safety and profitability. Ellie Sattler is there just for her perspective on botany. Wu is present to provide perspective on genetics. Ian Malcolm is there to harp endlessly on chaos theory. And the children are in the book to scream and whine a lot as a cheap way to create drama.
Long story short, the characters are defined by their professions, and have next to no depth outside of that. But, though I make it sound bad, the weird thing is that this totally works. What makes Jurassic Park so incredibly interesting is the science, technical ramifications, and operations of the dinosaur park and the step-by-step process of how it all goes to hell. Thus the park itself becomes the main character and the pages just keep on turning; the characters are vehicles for different perspectives on how the park works and whether it should work. And this writing functions brilliantly to keep you invested in what is going on, even when you forget who this character is and ask yourself why you should care whether he is in trouble (I'm looking at you, Harding and Regis!).
Book vs Movie
In terms of book versus movie, as is often the case, I found the book to be the better of the two. However, I would note that the movie does a far better job of making you care for the characters, but this is achieved by adding facets to the characters that are not present in the book. For example, Hammond (the park creator) comes off as single-minded and deluded in the book, but in the movie he is an empathetic older gentleman whose dream has gone sadly awry. Ian Malcolm becomes snarkier in the movie, with an added twist of coming off as a ladies' man. Romance is hinted at between Grant and Ellie, but only in the movie. Samuel L Jackson brings Arnold to life, whereas in the book he is pretty much identified just as "that guy who is always in the control room trying to fix shit".
But the intricacies of the book can't be thrown aside and I found them, in the end, to be the far more exciting fare. As I mentioned before, the characters are identified by the perspectives of their professions, and it is through this that we get an interesting analysis of the concept of dinosaurs being brought to life and whether this is something to get excited over or something which you want to run very, very far away from. Muldoon, the park warden, explains to the reader how intricate and difficult it is to maintain a park of this size, particularly one populated by dinosaurs. Gennaro provides information on how investors would look at such a feat, and how funding for it would feasibly work out in real life. Malcolm harps endlessly (albeit hilariously) about how chaos theory postulates that the park is doomed to failure because of humanity's inability to compensate for random events. And there are countless more perspectives that analyze things in an interesting manner, making you really think about how incredible it would be for a park like this to exist, and how feasible or infeasible it would be to contain and create dinosaurs like this.
In the end, although I knocked the character side of things, this is a book that I could not put down because I enjoyed it so much. It is comparatively rare to find a 'thriller' where you are encouraged to think intellectually about events within the novel as they occur. You already know that the park is doomed to failure from the popularity of the movie, if nothing else. But knowing this does not take away from the events of the book in any way. Additionally, though they are of course similar, the book and the movie are different enough that seeing/reading one before the other does not affect matters in the slightest. They are both interesting takes on an exciting concept that are equally entertaining.
So, if you have seen the movie and loved it, do yourself a favor and check the book out as well. By contrast, if you are one of those few people who haven't seen the movie, try reading the book first then checking the movie out. Both are superb, and I would be interested to hear the opinion of someone who read the novel before the movie.