Michael Crichton,'Jurassic Park' writer, dies at 66
Keith Meyers/The New York Times
Michael Crichton directed movies and created the television series "ER" in addition to writing thriller novels.
Published: November 6, 2008
Michael Crichton, whose technological thrillers like "The Andromeda Strain" and "Jurassic Park" had dominated best-seller lists for decades and had been translated into Hollywood mega-hits, died Tuesday in Los Angeles. He was 66 and lived in Santa Monica, California.
A statement released by his family gave the cause as cancer.
A doctor by training - he also created the hit television series "ER" - Crichton used fiction to explore the moral and political problems posed by modern technology and scientific breakthroughs, which in his books defied human control or ended up as tools used for evil ends. In his fictional worlds, human greed, hubris and the urge to dominate were just as powerful as the most advanced computers.
Crichton's fast-paced narratives often involved the arcana of medical technology, computer science, chaos theory or genetic engineering. But by combining old-fashioned storytelling with up-to-date, gee-whiz science, the books made for a compelling formula that was adapted easily by Hollywood. His books sold in the tens of millions and almost routinely became movies, many of them blockbusters like "Jurassic Park" and the sequel, "The Lost World," as well as "Rising Sun."
Reviewers often complained that Crichton's characters were wooden, that his ear for dialogue was tin and that his science was suspect.
Environmentalists raged against his skeptical views on climate change, first expressed in the 2004 novel "State of Fear" and subsequently in various public forums. Even his severest critics, however, confessed to having been seduced by his plots and unable to resist turning the pages, rapidly.
"He had a ferocious, brilliant intellect and the ability to write entertaining narratives," said Lynn Nesbitt, his agent since "The Andromeda Strain." "I can't think of many writers who can match that."
John Michael Crichton was born in Chicago, the oldest of four children, and grew up in Roslyn, New York, on Long Island. His father was the editor of Advertising Age and later president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies.
At Harvard, after a professor had criticized his writing style, the younger Crichton changed his major from English to anthropology and graduated summa cum laude in 1964. He then spent a year teaching anthropology on a fellowship at Cambridge University. In 1966, he entered Harvard's medical school and began writing on the side to help pay tuition.
Under the pseudonym John Lange, he wrote eight thrillers. Under the name Jeffery Hudson, he wrote "A Case of Need" (1968), a medical detective novel that revolved around the moral issues posed by abortion. It won an Edgar Award for best novel.
In 1969, after having earned his medical degree, Crichton moved to La Jolla, California, and spent a year as a postdoctoral fellow at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Already inclining toward a writing career, he tilted decisively with "The Andromeda Strain," a medical thriller about a group of scientists racing against time to stop the spread of a lethal organism from outer space code-named Andromeda.
With a breakneck, suspenseful plot that played out against a carefully researched scientific setting, the novel - he was now writing under his own name - became an enormous best-seller and a successful 1971 Hollywood film, a pattern that was to be repeated many times in the years to come. More than a dozen of Crichton's novels were made into movies, and he turned his hand to directing, screenwriting and producing for film and television along the way.
After having published the nonfiction book "Five Patients: The Hospital Explained" (1970), Crichton returned to the best-seller list with "The Terminal Man" (1972), an updated "Frankenstein" in which an accident victim goes on a killing spree after a tiny computer implant, intended to control his brain, malfunctions. Technology, for Crichton, never worked quite the way it was intended.
Having directed "Pursuit," an adaptation of one of his early novels, for television, Crichton turned to film, directing the low-budget "Westworld" (1973), for which he had written the screenplay, about a virtual-reality theme park that made it possible to enter ancient Rome or the old West.
Crichton followed up that quirky project with a series of departures. In the novel "The Great Train Robbery" (1975), he turned back the clock to Victorian England to tell the story of a genteel archcriminal (played by Sean Connery in the film) who relieves a speeding train of its cargo of gold bullion. That was followed by the novel "Eaters of the Dead" (1975), in which he plunged into the mist-shrouded world of the Vikings. "Jasper Johns" (1977), a straightforward biography of the painter, completed that set of projects.
After directing his adaptation of the Robin Cook novel "Coma," with Genevieve Bujold in the starring role, Crichton returned to familiar territory in the novel "Congo" (1980), about a team of hunters on a jungle expedition in search of a rare variety of diamond capable of being transformed into a power source more efficient than nuclear energy.
A remarkably facile writer, with a restless imagination, Crichton continued to juggle roles as a novelist, screenwriter and director. His marital schedule was also crowded; Crichton married five times.
He is survived by his wife, the former Sherri Alexander, and by a daughter, Taylor.