Reel Rumbles: “Jurassic Park” vs. “Schindler’s List”
Today is Steven Spielberg’s 67th birthday, and this year marks the twentieth anniversary of two of the most important films of their era: Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List — one the box office champ of 1993; the other, its Best Picture. Both films would be worthy of entries in all our blog series, but because this is Flickchart, the truest place to discuss and reflect on their respective legacies is here in Reel Rumbles.
ROUND I: POSTERS OF PROMINENCE
Tom Martin designed the striking posters for both films, and he was kind enough to share some insights into the finished, familiar images.
On Jurassic Park:
As you know, the logo was part of the set decoration, used in the signage and on products in the film’s gift shop so, unlike most film logos, it had to be created before shooting began. The film’s art department asked the Universal Pictures marketing dept to help them come up with something. We generated 100+ title treatments, none of which were what they were looking for. One of the film’s art directors, John Bell, sent over a rough thumbnail sketch of the book art in a circle with the title in a horizontal bar. Super simple. We (designer David Renerick and myself) took that sketch and refined it by choosing the type font and adding the trees below the text which gave the dinosaur graphic a sense of scale.
There were a few other poster designs created but nothing was quite as simple, direct and powerful as the logo image. We added the line “An Adventure 65 Million Years in the Making” which is a throwback to the prehistoric action films from the 50s.
On Schindler’s List:
The poster image for Schindler’s List is actually a stock photo from the Ibid collection that designer, Georgia Young found and adapted. Steven Spielberg suggested adding the red tint to the sleeve as he did in the film and that was the only change. He also suggested the copy line [“Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.”].
Martin diplomatically parried having a personal preference between the two posters, offering instead the following remarks:
I think both posters demonstrate the classic “less is more” principle and let the viewer fill in the blanks and imagine more than you could show in a more complicated image. They are also both posters for a film where the real “star” of the movie is the director, more so than any one actor or scene from the film.
That leaves me to arbitrarily break the tie. Commercially speaking, the winner has to be Jurassic Park, which adorned even more merchandise than was on display in the film’s visitor center (seriously, who stocks the gift shop before they’ve worked out locking mechanisms on the tour vehicles?), but artistically, Schindler’s List wins here. It wasn’t put up on bedroom walls in 1993, but it conveys instantly the poignancy of the film. It’s a powerful image, and one that seems all the more striking twenty years later as floating heads have come to dominate posters.
ROUND II: BOOK TO SCREEN
The late Michael Crichton’s website features some comments from the author on the genesis of Jurassic Park:
I wrote a screenplay about cloning a pterodactyl from fossil DNA in 1983, but the story wasn’t convincing. I worked on it for several years since, trying to make it more credible. Finally I decided on a theme park setting, and wrote a novel from the point of view of a young boy who was present when the dinosaurs escaped. I then sent the book to the usual people who read my first drafts.
All reviewers hated each incarnation of the story, Crichton recalls, until:
Finally one of the readers said that they were irritated with the story because they wanted it to be from an adult point of view, not a kid point of view. They said, “I want this to be a story for me.” Meaning for an adult.
So I rewrote it as an adult story.
And then everybody liked it.
Crichton’s concept so excited Steven Spielberg that Universal optioned it before it was even published. The author wrote the first draft of the screenplay, which then went to Malia Scotch Marmo, who had just written Hook for Spielberg. The director still wasn’t satisfied, though, and the screenplay was handed to David Koepp. At Spielberg’s request, the ages of Tim and Lex were changed so that the brother became a young boy and the sister a precocious adolescent hacker. It speaks to Spielberg’s storytelling sensibilities that the point of view characters really are Tim and Alan Grant – essentially one character at two very different stages of his life.
Readers were wowed by seeing on screen so many of the things they’d imagined from Crichton’s novel, but have long lamented how much of the story was eschewed in the translation to screen. Whole passages of the novel were omitted, though some were incorporated into the subsequent sequels. Character arcs were altered beyond the changes of Tim and Lex’s ages; Ian Malcolm and John Hammond fare better in the film than in the novel.
Thomas Keneally is, by trade, a novelist rather than historian, but as the famous story goes, he happened to visit a pawn shop owned by Holocaust survivor Poldek Pfefferberg, who had been trying for years to get Hollywood to take notice of, and tell, Oskar Schindler’s story. Idle conversation led to Keneally becoming the storyteller Pfefferberg had hoped to find. His research took him across the world, interviewing as many Schindlerjuden (“Schindler’s Jews”) survivors and heirs as possible, including Schindler’s widow, Emilie.
Though technically classified as a novel, complete with disclaimer, Schindler’s Ark is a moving historical document of firsthand accounts relayed to us through Keneally the interviewer. Wisely, Keneally gets out of the way of his interviewees and simply tells us what they told him, rather than try to “punch it up.” Spielberg was drawn by the mystery of why Schindler would exhaust his fortune – built on war profiteering – to rescue Jews. Keneally addresses the matter directly:
Oskar’s later history seems to call out for some set piece in his childhood. The young Oskar should defend some bullied Jewish boy on the way home from school. It’s a safe bet it didn’t happen, and we are happier not knowing, since the event would seem too pat.
Rather than invent a dramatic epiphany, Spielberg and his succession of screenwriters (beginning with Keneally himself) show us instead the key events as they were reported and allow us to speculate when Schindler made the conscious decision to use his business as a front for saving Jews. It is an especially conspicuous demonstration of restraint on the part of Hollywood that such a set piece was not invented, and credit for that lies chiefly with Spielberg.
Lost in the adaptation process, however, are not just a lot of individual stories, but also a clearer portrayal of the corruption of the Nazi regime. Keneally describes a thriving black market in which everyone from the lowest paperwork clerk to the highest ranking commandants and generals were active participants. It was not his crimes against humanity that brought Amon Goeth to the gallows, but rather his extravagant lifestyle that attracted the attention of the SS. Goeth was hanged not after a trial at Nuremberg, but by the Gestapo.
Today, Jurassic Park would be a two and a half hour film that gave us everything from Crichton’s novel, and Schindler’s List would be an HBO mini-series. In 1993, though, adaptations were not held to as exacting a standard. Schindler’s List is easily the more powerful, and of the two it’s the one that needed to be put on screen for the world to see. The reverence shown for its content easily compensates for anything lost in the abridgment.
ROUND III: ACTOR SPOTLIGHT
A story is only as strong as its villain. Though an unorthodox choice, many reviewers noted at the time of its release that “the real stars” of Jurassic Park were the dinosaurs themselves. They’re what we all paid to see, and if they were unconvincing, the whole film would have failed. The combined efforts of Stan Winston, Phil Tippett, Michael Lantieri, and Dennis Muren – advised by paleontologist Jack Horner – were a resounding success. Horner’s guidance was instrumental in creating the personalities of each dinosaur, reflecting up-to-date paleontological research and understanding rather than mimicking obsolete portrayals that had dominated pop culture. For the first time, we saw a Tyrannosaurus rex who didn’t walk upright, dragging her tail, forever changing the way we perceive the species. The effects team was recognized with an Academy Award for Visual Effects.
Even by Nazi standards, Amon Goeth was particularly despicable. Incredulous as it is, despite the fact Goeth was charged with prosecuting the genocide of the Jewish people, Goeth’s random murders of prisoners were deemed out of bounds. Ralph Fiennes imbues his mercurial performance with disturbingly cold and casual cruelty, and is even more chilling when he flashes the appearance of friendliness. Fiennes personifies the entire Nazi regime, looming over the entire picture, making even the tender scenes uncomfortable because we don’t know when he’ll reappear and what sadistic thing he’ll do when he does.
As powerful and as nuanced as Fiennes’s performance is, it’s hard to pick against the dinosaurs. They’re why we went to see Jurassic Park again and again in the summer of 1993, why we went back for two more sequels and why we’re all excited for the forthcoming Jurassic World. The dinosaurs of Jurassic Park transcended their role in the movie and have entered our collective consciousness, establishing for us what dinosaurs looked like, and how they behaved.
ROUND IV: SOUNDTRACKS OF SIGNIFICANCE
Both films were scored by Spielberg’s go-to composer, maestro John Williams. As has been his wont, Williams presented his music on both soundtrack albums not exactly as can be heard in the film, but rearranged and re-sequenced, to be listened to as a work of music.
In his liner notes for the Jurassic Park soundtrack album, Spielberg wrote:
When listening to this score, you should pay particular attention to the music of the raptors – as well as the ennobling sounds of the brachiosaurus – in my opinion some of the most original writing John has ever done for the movies.
Released May 20, 1993, the Recording Industry Association of America certified the album gold (signifying shipment of half a million units) less than a year later on March 31, 1994.
As for Schindler’s List, Spielberg commented on the challenge presented to his composer:
The choice John Williams made was gentle simplicity. Most of our films together have required an almost operatic accompaniment, which is fitting for INDIANA JONES, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, or JAWS. Each of us had to depart from our characteristic styles and begin again. This is certainly an album to be attended with closed eyes and unsequestered hearts.
The Schindler’s List album was also certified gold by the RIAA, though it took longer to reach that status. However, its sophistication and importance to the film were recognized with both an Oscar and a Grammy, the fourth time that Williams has won both awards for the same score.
Elegant and sophisticated, Schindler’s List displays levels of nuance rarely asked of Williams, and it’s hard to argue with Oscar and Grammy. Still, these soundtracks stand as instrumental albums, not as scene-by-scene score cues, and judging them solely on that basis, Jurassic Park has the advantage of replay value.
THE FINAL WINNER
Both films raised considerable awareness for their respective subjects. Public consciousness about dinosaurs was dramatically altered from the clumsy guesswork of yesteryear, but everything that’s great about Jurassic Park are things that can be found showcased in other Spielberg movies. Schindler’s List is something greater, though. It exists less as a film and more as the document that Spielberg envisioned, and it’s a reminder why film is considered part of the humanities. If the director is to have a single film represent his legacy, it should be Schindler’s List.
For more on Steven Spielberg, read his profile in Directors Who Dominate.