Probably one of the first movies I ever started to think about analytically, and also my favourite movie, is Jurassic Park. So it’s a fitting one to start with. There’s so many reasons this movie is great: the action, the cracking dialogue, such unique and interesting characters, and the massive leap forward in film visual effects. But for this I want to talk about an aspect of the movie that doesn’t get talked about a whole lot, and is what I think operates as the beating heart of this film. My proposition is this: that at it’s heart, Jurassic Park is about a man learning to love kids.
With movies there’s two scenes that are often very important when it comes to understanding what a film is about, beyond just being a series of events. One is the closing scene, and the other is the first time you meet the main hero, known as the protagonist. Let’s look at these two scenes in Jurassic Park by taking the Christopher Nolan approach, and starting with the end.
The closing scene of the movie shows us the survivors of the island flying away into the sunset in a helicopter. But what is the moment inside the helicopter that we seem to hold on for the longest? It’s Alan Grant, with the two kids Lex and Tim snuggled in against him asleep. And Ellie looking at him so proud. It’s a very emotionally satisfying ending, and it’s not just because they survived. We’d just need to see them get on the chopper and fly off to get that. But we don’t. We go inside the chopper and share this moment. So what’s going on? This was a film about dinosaurs chasing and eating people right? Well let’s go look at the first time we are introduced to Alan Grant.
We meet Alan Grant on a dig, and they use some new technology to scan some fossils still buried in the ground. Alan does a small impromptu lecture, and along the way completely schools a cocky little brat. (I’m going to assume you’ve seen the film and not waste your time describing the entire scene in detail.) This is the first time we meet Alan Grant, and what does this scene teach us? That he knows a lot about dinosaurs, he LOVES dinosaurs, and he really doesn’t love kids. And in the moments immediately after he vividly describes a child being disemboweled and eaten alive, we learn that him and Ellie are in a relationship. And she wants to have kids, and he really, really doesn’t.
Are you picking up what’s going on here?
There’s a principle in good screenwriting that goes something like this: Find what your character’s greatest weakness, their greatest area of fear and need is, and challenge them in that. What is the most difficult thing your character could face? Give them that, and guess what you just created? Drama. The foundation of all storytelling. No drama, no story. So with Alan Grant, what’s his greatest area of weakness and fear? And no his greatest fear is not that dinosaurs would once again roam the earth, he’s pretty damn stoked about that the first one he sees. It’s children. Because deep down, most people who say they don’t like kids, it’s because they’re scared of them. They don’t know how to handle them, they feel powerless, out of control and out of depth. And when people feel that way, we almost always mask that by saying we just don’t like whatever it is that made us feel that way. Instead of admitting that we’re actually scared of it, we say we hate it. And we get angry about it to make ourselves feel more powerful and in control.
So how does Alan have to face his greatest area of need? It’s so well done. This is the kind of writing that makes me giddy with excitement. He gets trapped in a situation with two kids. And in particular, one kid who worships and adores him, and one who has a little bit of a crush on him. These kids are going stick to him like glue. Even without all the dinosaurs and action set pieces this is great character writing and the set up for an entertaining story. Watch the movie closely, so many times the thing that makes him feel most out of his depth is not the fact that dinosaurs are alive and eating people, it’s that he’s on his own with two children. Consistently he makes informed and correct choices when it comes to pressure moments of how to respond to the dinosaurs, and he’s consistently a guy fumbling, getting it wrong, but doing his best, with the kids. And that’s enough for the kids.
This is where I love Steven Spielberg, where I think he’s one of the greatest storytellers alive today. Because he knows how to give us big, entertaining, awe-inspiring blockbusters, that are actually ABOUT SOMETHING. They are stories that at their core are about every day things. And Alan Grant’s story, is my story. I didn’t like kids, I didn’t really want them. I now have two of them. And I consistently feel completely out of my depth, and they consistently adore me and stick to me like glue. And turns out I love them more than anything in the whole world. I didn’t think I liked kids, I feared them because I didn’t know how to deal with them, they made me feel powerless and completely out of my depth, but now those two little humans are everything I want and the thing I needed most. And just like Jurassic Park, there’s a ton of chaos, and running and screaming (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6GEFwiXWieM), but I’m learning how to love them, and how to every day face the things that scare me.
And this is great writing. If Jurassic Park is a chocolate bar, then the theme park and the dinosaurs is just the shiny wrapper to make you buy it. Learning that you can face the things that scare you and make you feel powerless, is the delicious chocolate that makes it satisfying. Alan Grant’s story is the story of literally every person whose ever had kids. This is the power of great storytelling, to tap into the universal and give you something to take with you into your life. So often it works on a subconscious level, but it’s there, and it’s feeding your soul and bit by bit it’s teaching you the things you need to know to live well.
So the life lesson is this: you can face the things that scare you. And learn to be honest about what your afraid of, don’t just mask it with anger and hate. You have no idea how much better everyone feels when someone finally owns up to what they’re afraid of, because odds are high most people feel the same way too.
And the writing lesson is this: if you’re going to write about something like learning to love children, then at least throw in some dinosaurs and a chase or two so we have fun. Because life is hard, raising kids is hard, loving people is hard, and every now and then getting together in front of a screen to share a fun story makes it all just that little bit easier, and makes life that little bit better.
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