Moving Across Mediums

Standing beside Michael Crichton amid the armor collection of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, you get a vivid sense of his creative power. He has the ability to take the relics of a museum case, objects that have been boring children on rainy Sundays for generations, and turn them into "Timeline" (Knopf), his fascinating new novel about time travel back to 14th-century France. Crichton is a master of an odd hybrid: entertaining novels that educate. "Timeline" is a page turner and a very lucid look at life in the late Middle Ages. He teaches you how to think like a knight during a joust by putting you in the saddle. You're balancing a lance in one hand, a shield in the other, while you struggle not to fall off a galloping horse and struggle even harder not to throw up in your helmet.

But this exhibit also inspires another question: does Crichton, at 57 the most financially successful novelist of the day, ever feel like a prisoner of his own success, trussed up like one of these knights in shiny but not very flexible armor? Typically, he mulls over the question for several seconds before he answers. "There is an internal and an external pressure to keep doing the same thing," he says slowly. "People liked it. You got rewarded and praised for it. So do it again! The same, only different. So it becomes something you have to fight."

That's a battle Crichton never stops fighting. While he moves easily from fiction ("Jurassic Park") to original screenplays ("Twister") to television ("ER"), media moguls keep nagging aloud, how do you get a handle on a best-selling writer like this who won't settle down and create a franchise like Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan? Even booksellers, who love Crichton, point out that you don't sell him the way you sell Grisham or Clancy, where you know going in what you're going to get. Crichton's audience, they say, changes with every book. As a result, say executives at Knopf, the selling strategy changes, too. "Will it be like 'Disclosure,' or more like 'Jurassic Park'?" says marketing director Paul Kozlowski. "Sci-fi or mystery?"

Crichton's versatility makes his stock in Hollywood a little shakier, partly because he produces the occasional bomb, like last summer's "The 13th Warrior." But Hollywood's real problem with Crichton is that he doesn't just keep doing "Jurassic Park" over and over. "His name sells movies," says one studio chief, "but it has to be a blockbuster idea. He's not a guarantee." That problem arose again last month when it briefly appeared that Crichton's new manager, Michael Ovitz, couldn't sell "Timeline" to the movies. Because Crichton has a spotty box-office record? Because a lot of people want to see Ovitz fail? Choose both. And while Ovitz sold the book to Paramount, the chattering continued. The potentially lucrative deal Ovitz won for Crichton on "Timeline" reflects that opinion: $1 upfront, but as much as 15 percent of the gross. In other words: when we make money, you make money.

Crichton says the "Timeline" deal worked out "exactly as I wanted," and there is no doubt that even in his business dealings, he is a creative contrarian. He gets away with that because he is powerful, and because he's known as a stand-up guy. According to Disney studio head Joe Roth, when Crichton saw that Disney was never going to get his novel "Airframe" into production, he recently made the unprecedented move of buying back the rights for $1 million less than the $10 million Disney paid for it three years ago.

"Timeline" is a novel about arrogance--modern arrogance (we're smarter than people were 500 years ago) and 14th-century arrogance (you build a suit of armor to deflect arrows, and then they shoot the horse out from under you). In Crichton's view, arrogance leads to stasis and antiquation. His way around the problem is to keep moving intellectually, no matter what the cost. "I think if you don't fail a certain percent of the time, it means you're playing it too safe. You're obligated to miss sometimes." And somewhere, hearing that, a producer--probably someone Crichton helped make rich--is throwing up in his helmet.

Moving Across Mediums | News