Since my teenage years, I’ve been both a massive fan of Jurassic Park and of author Michael Crichton himself. While I absolutely adore director Steven Spielberg’s classic film and can even appreciate the sequels that followed, as a Jurassic Park fan, there have always been many scenes, events, and character elements from Crichton’s novels that I’ve preferred over the cinematic adaptions. The Jurassic Park and The Lost World novels are more mature, more cerebral, more complex, and have a grimly violent edge to them that has been very much softened onscreen. While Crichton’s novels may not be every Jurassic Park fan’s cup of tea, it has kept me revisiting these books again and again over the years.
Recently, while consuming Crichton’s The Lost World once more, I became keenly aware of how Crichton’s depiction of women, specifically Sarah Harding in The Lost World, helped to define my view of women in the same way that characters like Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor did during my younger years. As a young man who idolized and cherished these characters as heroes, it was always surprising to me when my male peers struggled to accept women (peers or not) as capable, resourceful, intelligent, or strong. While I’m sure many factors played a part in constructing my world view and feelings on the opposite sex, given how powerful an impact genre stories and characters have had throughout my life, I’m extremely thankful for the kind of female representation Crichton wrote into one of my very favorite fandoms, as I’m sure many fellow fans are, as well.
For those who have only seen The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Spielberg’s cinematic sequel, it’s important to understand that Crichton’s novel only has the most basic similarities to the film adaptation. While Julianne Moore is a gifted actor and does a fine job portraying the character of Sarah Harding in the film, the character herself is written very differently in the novel, and I have always found myself preferring that version. While Moore’s character has a paleontological background, the Harding of the novel is an animal behaviorist who studies predators like lions and hyenas in the African savanna. Her theories are controversial, yet respected, and she’s well known for her work, so much so that she’s a hero and idol of the teenage Kelly even before they meet. Harding is described as having short black hair and an athletic, muscular frame, which also plays into the fact that in Crichton’s book, she’s basically the “action lead” on a team of all-male scientists.
The “strong female character” trope is nothing new at this point in genre fiction, and it really wasn’t anything new in 1995 when The Lost World novel was released either. Still, the author succeeds with his depiction of Harding because of the grounded, relatable approach present in all of his novels. Harding isn’t an unbelievable master warrior or hyper-skilled “super” person, but she’s still the most capable and heroic character in the book. And, in what was an unusual choice for the time, Harding is easily the most physically adept member of the team. The other members of the expedition to Isla Sorna (a.k.a. Site B - Ingen Technologies secret “dinosaur factory”) in Crichton’s novel are very much what you’d expect from a “real-world” team of scientists in regards to physical prowess. While all members of the group are brilliant scientists at the top of their fields, only Harding gets to play the traditional “action hero” role. Paleontologist Richard Levine is intelligent and bold, but selfish and easily rattled. Doc Thorne is a technological whiz and full of heart, but the older man couldn’t beat Harding in a foot race, let alone keep up with her physical abilities. And our old friend, Ian Malcolm, is an aging figure who suffers panic attacks due to the Tyrannosaur attack he experienced in the first book and now walks with a cane because of those near-fatal injuries. Malcolm continues to be a great mouth piece for Crichton and is still one of The Lost World’s most interesting characters, but he is nowhere near the physical hero actor Jeff Goldblum plays in Spielberg’s sequel, instead suffering another major injury in the T-Rex/trailer attack and spending the majority of the second half of the novel theorizing while high on morphine. While there are plenty of “damsels in distress” in the novel, they are almost all exclusively male, and it is Harding that Crichton unapologetically has come to the rescue again and again. It’s Harding who activates the electronic shock defense of the trailer, ending the Tyrannosaur attack, and then pulls the broken and bloodied Malcolm from the wreckage, saving his life. It’s Harding that uses a motorcycle to chase down an escaping velociraptor in one of the most tense and action-filled moments of the novel. And it’s Harding who refuses to abandon hope in the final chapters and goes the extra distance to secure a vehicle that allows the team to escape the island with their lives. Over and over again, it’s Harding who refuses to quit in every scenario. It’s clear this woman is a survivor and that without her, the other members of her team would have almost certainly perished on the island at several turns.
While Crichton has Harding save Malcolm, the character many would consider the “hero” of the book, he also has her defeat the villain of the story in one of the coldest, yet well-deserved, moments of revenge put to page. Readers may remember the character of Lewis Dodgson from his sole scene in Spielberg’s film where he meets with disgruntled Jurassic Park employee Dennis Nedry (played by actor Wayne Knight), bestowing him with a bag of cash and a very special shaving cream can. Dodgson works for the Ingen corporation’s competitor, Bio-Syn, and, in Crichton’s novels, has earned a reputation for his unethical and cutthroat tactics in his mission to “acquire” new genetic technology for this employer. Ingen’s genetically engineered dinosaurs have been a want of his for some time and in Crichton’s The Lost World, it is Dodgson, not Ingen itself, who returns to Isla Sorna with a plan to harvest the animals. Dodgson actually attempts to murder Harding about a third way into the novel, bashing her head against a metal railing and throwing her overboard into the churning seas, but she manages to survive and return the favor. When she finds herself hiding from a Tyrannosaur underneath a car with the would be murderer, she makes the quick decision to use her legs to push him out from their hiding spot, purposefully exposing Dodgson to a Tyrannosaur. The beast quickly scoops up the Carter Burke of the Jurassic Park universe and takes the terrified man back to its nest and hungry brood.
But, make no mistake, Harding is no Laura Croft, and her value as a character doesn’t amount to just her ability to drive a motorcycle, save everyone’s butts, and generally kick ass. Crichton writes Harding as perceptive, intelligent, confident, compassionate, and fiercely independent. In short, Harding is not so much a “strong” female character as she is a complex one. She is rightfully respected by her male colleagues. She has a romantic past with Malcolm, and while they share some subtle moments of affection, the relationship never defines Harding and is barely present in the novel. When Kelly (who is a teen girl, but not Malcolm’s daughter in the novel) witnesses a velociraptor escape with a vital key caught in its mouth, it’s not only Harding who finally listens to the panicked youth, but she also empowers the younger woman by informing her that she will have to fire the rifle while Harding drives the motorcycle, trusting that Kelly is more capable than even the girl believes herself to be. And Harding’s influence on the younger woman (and probably the younger women who read the novel) doesn’t end there. In one fantastic scene, when Kelly first meets her idol, Harding has a fascinating interaction with the thirteen-year-old girl, where the middle-schooler confides how her peers tease her for being a “brainer” and, at home, her mother tells her men don’t like women who are “too smart.” While Harding was a hero of Kelly’s before, the adult clearly sees a bit of herself in the girl and makes their first conversation especially meaningful by giving Kelly some great advice and encouragement. She praises the girl for not knowing what she wants to do yet as a career, stating, “Nobody smart knows what they want to do until they get into their twenties or thirties,” and pushes back on the misogyny of teachers who’ve told Kelly the girls aren’t supposed to be good at mathematics. Harding confides that her own mother used to tell her she’d never amount to anything and passes an important lesson to Kelly:
“So, Kelly, even at your young age, there’s something you might as well learn now. All your life, people will tell you things. And most of the time, probably ninety-five percent of the time, what they’ll tell you will be wrong.”
While these scenes and messages certainly had an effect on me as a young boy, I can’t help but imagine that Crichton crafted them knowing that young women would also be reading his novels and knowing that true representation of smart, capable female characters, the kind who were depicted taking pride in their intelligence and skills, were in short supply. In many ways, they unfortunately continue to be.
Representation like this does have a positive effect on all genders and in ways that are quite unpredictable. We fans hold these stories and characters close to our hearts, and there are many out there who, like me, have let the influence of their favorite fandoms weave its way into their lives in unexpected ways. For example, while I do tend to prefer the book version of Sarah Harding, there’s one specific bit of dialogue spoken by the cinematic depiction of the character that has stuck with me since my teenage years. In the film, Malcolm races to the island when he discovers his girlfriend, Harding, has already gone to the island alone to study dinosaurs in their natural habitat. When he arrives, terrified for her safety, her reaction is somewhat flippant and not what he expects. Harding states the following to him:
“If you wanted to rescue me from something, why didn’t you bail me out of that fundraiser at the museum three weeks ago, like you said you would? Or, why not rescue me from that dinner with your parents that you never showed up for? Or why not rescue me when I really need it; actually be there when you say you will?”
It’s a tiny, simplistic moment, but it caused at least one teenage boy to reconsider his own assumptions about the definitions of “heroism” and examine what’s really required to be equals within a loving and respectful relationship.
Ultimately, I feel like I knew a lot of young women that shared many of Harding’s traits when I was reading The Lost World as a teen and, even today, I continue to find the women in my life to be far more than what’s often given to them by Hollywood. While there are many others that are contributing to the cause in various was, this holiday season I will be taking a moment to feel thankful for Sarah Harding and the other complex female characters Crichton has given us.
If you want to check out The Lost World for yourself, you can purchase the novel here, the film here, and can find the audio book with a quick search on YouTube.