With his fingers in fiction, journalism, hit TV shows, audio books, his own website, even games, Michael Crichton is another king of all media. Yet, shocking as it may be to say, artistic success in the movies has only eluded him. I've liked some of the films he has directed himself, especially Looker, but the last six or more films based on his books, from Rising Sun on, are at best unmemorable. Jurassic Park may be fair Crichton, but it is lesser Spielberg. And it's telling that for The Lost World they more or less threw out the book, while plans to film Airframe possibly with Sigourney Weaver under the direction of John McTiernan, have, as of this writing, been canceled. At some point there will be a Jurassic Park 3, apparently based on a book called Embryo.
Scribes attempting to adapt his latest novel, Timeline will face pitfalls similar to those posed by Airframe and the others. As with the air disaster book, Timeline purports on the surface to be one thing, but once you get into it, the book turns out to be entirely something else.
At first exposure, Airframe was an unnerving exploration of the technology that keeps airplanes in the air. But gradually you realized that Crichton had really mounted that embarrassing hobby horse of critic-hatred, one that superstars from Frank Sinatra to George Clooney have mounted, decrying the inaccuracy, mendacity, unprofessionalism, and sheer sloppiness of journalists. That's not a particularly cinematic premise, and sure to raise the hackles of hacks everywhere. Even worse, as far as an adapter is concerned, the air disaster investigator at the heart of the book, once to be played by Weaver, all too often finds herself in passive situations, at the mercy of weather and wind, of planes and pilots.
Timeline imposes similar impediments to smooth cinematic translation. On the plain of mega-publicity, the book is officially about time travel (or space travel, as characters in the book insist that it really is). But in reality it is a brief against Bill Gates, and the exploitation of modern technology for amusement. If the reader feels as if he has been there before, he has, in that the character Robert Doniger /Bill Gates is another stand in for John Hammond in Jurassic Park, which was itself a reconsideration of ideas that Crichton had already put forward in Westworld. The book's loathing for Doniger is intense; he has few if any redeeming characteristics, and most of his traits are based on what we have learned about Gates from two biographies and numerous profiles, such as his impatience with others and ridiculing of any outside idea as the stupidest thing he's ever heard of. It is a measure of the book's hatred of Doniger that he is accorded one of the worst revenges suffered by any character in the whole Crichton canon—he is teleported back to the middle ages and is coughed on by a victim of the Black Plague. As long as the potential adapter of this book keeps its real priorities in mind, though, he may make sense of a text that is in fact three separate books in one.
The novel begins (after prefatory material meant to convince us that time travel is plausible) with a grumpy tourist husband and his wife driving through the Arizona desert looking for Indian crafts. Amid the swirling dust, they think they hit an Indian or an old geezer who seems to have appeared out of nowhere. Rushing him to the hospital, the man's body provides clues right out of a Sherlock Holmes story (and Crichton admits that Doyle, whom he still reads for pleasure, is the main inspiration for his work). This is a top notch Crichton opener, and in setting and tone reminiscent of The Andromeda Strain (hospitals, desert). Several characters are introduced, however, including an Indian policeman, who fail to figure in the rest of the book. There are several of these red herrings in the novel, and they must be deemphasized by the adapter or the viewer will be confused.
Then we meet the book's real main characters, Doniger and his assistants (whom he continually brutalizes), and then Professor Edward Johnston, a Harvard historian, and his team. They are in someplace called Dordogne, in France, engaged in an archeological dig, resurrecting a series of castles, monasteries, and attendant towns, all financed, for a reason that actually is never really explained, by Doniger. Johnston's assistants are the real heroes of the book. One is a past-obsessed historian, Andre Marek; another is a cliff-face climbing token female, Kate Ericson; and finally there is Johnston's protege, Chris Hughes, the Everyman of the book, whose reactions to things more or less represent what the dense reader would think if he were experiencing the past first hand, too. The only problem with this guy is that he's not funny, and he needs to be to ofset the dour tone of most of the book—the whole project needs a really big dose of humor to fly.
We learn that Doniger is manufacturing some kind of time / space travel device. We then learn that the dig has some connection to it. The guy at the start of the book, who dies and is unimportant except as an intro to the whole plot, was a renegade figure in Doniger's company, and he seems to have messed up some stuff. Anyway, Doniger wants Johnston to go back to the past and fix things. So Johnston disappears for a while (actually the bulk of the book. For audiences to remember his character he will need to be played by someone very vivid and likable, so that the tension of the team's travel back has weight).
One of the best parts of the novel is when the characters unearth a document that is 600 years old, but written in Johnston's handwriting, pleading for help. The only problem with this sequence is that the reader, and of course the viewer, already guess what is going on, so this is one of those classic sequences, so prevalent in TV cop shows, in which the viewer knows more than the characters, and sits there twiddling their thumbs waiting for the fictional people to catch up as they talk out loud and mull over stuff that we already know. If at all possible, this must be eliminated from the film.
At this point, because the team has a spy in its midst (again, a thread that is left hanging by Crichton), Doniger comes after them, both to shut them up, but also to ask them to go back into the past and rescue Johnston, who is trapped in medieval France, caught between two warring factions in the very town they are excavating.
Thus we come to the only part of the novel that Crichton's fans are interested in—the explanation of time travel. This scene unfolds much like they always do in Crichton. One guy does the explaining. His auditors ask questions. The flow isn't particularly good, and in a movie, with all the visual distractions, the audience may not grasp key points in an explanatory sequence that in a sense is irrelevant (so they go back in time, who cares how? just do it). On the other hand, there will always be those viewers (like me) who can't get their mind around the whole concept of time travel fantasies (vide the latest Austin Powers vehicle). Like prison films, it is one of my least favorite genres. But there are some enjoyable nuggets here. For example, Crichton discounts the belief that if you go back into the "past" you will change the present. For one thing, his puppet explains, you are not important enough. Second, it is all happening in a parallel universe with no contiguous relationship with this one.
Crichton does write page turners. We sail through his books, eager to find out what happens next. He lures us on because we associate him with brainy and informative discussions that are at the cutting edge of scientific knowledge. He taps into that same hunger that James Michener fed, the pop novelist as tutorial leader. Unfortunately, the one overall attitude one takes away from Crichton, at least the later books, is boredom. He is impatient: with the necessity to construct a plot; with language (Crichton, unlike most novelists, evinces absolutely no love of the English language), with readers and their desire for such mundane things as adventure and thrills.
The whole time travel technique seems plausible when it is explained in the book (there are parallel universes breaking off of ours all the time; people can get to one via a "wormhole"; the person has to be "faxed," or broken down and reconstituted in the other place) despite the fact that Crichton avoids just explaining how it is really done, that is, the technical aspects of the actual transporting process. But then, since it is currently impossible, even almost unimaginable, he can't be blamed for failing to imagine it. In the movie, with steam and gizmos and rising music and things shaking, viewers will believe that several people have been transported "back" to April 7th 1357.
Frankly, the whole "Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" middle of the novel is the most boring part of the book. Conveniently, the Marek character speaks the local lingo, and has been practicing jousting and court behavior for years. But the situation is also hard to follow. There seems to be two castles, a secret underground passage, a stand-off of some kind between two competing factions, blah blah blah. Dull. It's all an excuse to provide cinematic fodder, and there to exploit the briefly the various skills of the characters that Crichton introduced pro forma when we first met them, such as Ericson's wall climbing skill. There is a big hall sequence, there is a joust, there is an escape from a dungeon, and then a whole lot of chases, all against the deadline that the characters have to get back. George McDonald Fraser does all this stuff much better. There is the "surprise" that one of Marek's enemies is another renegade from the "present" who has turned into a villain and likes it better back in the 14th century. There is also the "surprise" that Marek, who knows so much about that time, would prefer to stay there himself. Appropriate poignant farewell scene follows.
One miscue that Crichton obeys is to alternate between the present and the past. While the kids are all forced to joust in France, Doniger and his aides are trying to figure out how to rescue them (the machines all blew up). Crichton follows around Daniel Stern, one of Johnston's team who chickened out and decided to stay behind. He also happens to come up with all the ideas for getting them back. However, in the movie itself, it would be much more suspenseful to stay in the past, and explain how they are rescued later. The adaptor needs to create a real sense of isolation in a strange world, of people trapped, otherwise it is tedious period costumery. Crichton violates that, but as happens all too often, his screenwriters can fix his mistakes. If anyone ever gets hired to do it.
For already, Timeline The Movie is in trouble. According to the Publisher's Weekly of November 1, quoting Salon , there is some confusion as to whether any of Hollywood's studios actually want to make a movie of the film. Supposedly, the cost of recreating medieval 14th century France, even in this age of CGI, and despite the fact that there have been several films about Saint Joan lately, was viewed as prohibitive by Disney, Fox, Warners, Paramount, Sony, and Universal, but Crichton's new agent, the friendless Michael Ovitz, is viewed as a deterrent to a happy contract. The movie, if ever made, wouldn't hit the screens until of summer of 2001 or 2002 anyway, and who knows if anyone at in that timeline will still be interested in time travel and jousting.