R.I.P. Michael Crichton

“Jurassic Park” author Michael Crichton died unexpectedly yesterday in Los Angeles after a battle with cancer, he was 66.

The Chicago-born, Harvard-educated medical doctor was never content to sticking with medicine and became a notable film and television producer and director.

Along with penning both fiction and non-fiction works, Crichton wrote and directed several motion pictures including 1973’s “Westworld,” 1978’s “Coma,” 1981’s “Looker” and 1984’s “Runaway”. He also co-wrote the screenplay for “Twister” and famously created the long-running drama series “ER”.

He remains most well-known however for his best-selling cautionary-themed techno-thriller novels which have sold 150 million copies worldwide. Though light on character and decidedly mainstream, the books were notably strong on premise, pacing and research which incorporated many medical or scientific elements to lend credibility to the issues explored.

His work influenced many other writers and he became one of the most recognized authors in the world – right up there alongside the likes of John Grisham and Stephen King. It’s a sad loss for many, including myself as he was my personal favorite author throughout much of my teens and twenties.

Crichton’s resume is also one of the most prolific in terms of adaptations with almost all his major novels having been turned in Hollywood films, albeit with generally mixed results. In the early seventies he saw four films made of his work.

The first and one of his better novels, “The Andromeda Strain”, was the first to get filmed in 1971 under the helm of Robert Wise. That was soon followed by Blake Edwards’ “The Carey Treatment” which adapted his book “A Case of Need” in 1972, Mike Hodges’ “The Terminal Man” in 1974, and “The Great Train Robbery” which he himself directed in 1979.

It was the mid-90’s however that saw a true flood of Crichton lit-adaptations hit the market place thanks to the success of his best work “Jurassic Park” which Steven Spielberg famously adapted in 1993. Though it remains the most recognizable and successful film version of his work, it wasn’t without criticism as the film toned down the book’s darker adult horror elements in favor of crowd-friendly thrills.

The same year was Philip Kaufman’s “Rising Sun”, a solid but forgettable and famously altered film version of Crichton’s compelling exploration of Japanese-American business relations set against a sexual murder mystery. The following year saw Barry Levinson helm a film version of Crichton’s sexual harrasment thriller “Disclosure” and though generally dismissed even at the time, it remains to this day arguably the most accurate adaptation of one of his works.

Unfortunately things began to slide downhill from there. 1995’s “Congo”, 1998’s “Sphere”, 1999’s “The 13th Warrior” (an adaptation of Crichton’s “Eaters of the Dead”), and 2003’s “Timeline” all took Crichton’s deftly entertaining sci-fi and adventure stories and turned them into four widely panned genre features.

Spielberg’s 1997 ‘Jurassic’ sequel “The Lost World” bared very little relation to the novel, Disney paid a fortune for the film rights to his 1996 thriller “Airframe” and subsequently ditched plans to make a film adaptation, and a 2008 mini-series remake of “The Andromeda Strain” with large changes to the original story drew disappointing reviews.

Crichton’s novels also began to head in a strange direction. Following mixed reaction to 2002’s “Prey” about a ‘nano-bot swarm’, Crichton penned his single and most controversial work – 2004’s global warming-themed “State of Fear” in which environmentalists create various natural disasters in order to advance their agenda. His views and rather sketchy science in the book drew sharp criticism from the environmental lobby and many of his readers.

His most recent work released was 2006’s “Next” which explored the legal issues surrounding genetic research. Crichton had completed work on his next book, an as-yet-untitled thriller originally due out early next month, before he died.

In person he was famous for his basketball player-sized height of 6’9, a gentle demeanor, and an inexhaustible knowledge of countless fields of study. He will be dearly missed.