Michael Crichton: Pop Culture Giant

In 1995, a Time magazine cover dubbed Michael Crichton "The Hit Man" with a "golden touch." A year earlier, Crichton became the only creative artist ever to have works simultaneously charting at No. 1 in television, film, and book sales –– with ER, Jurassic Park, and Disclosure.

"Michael’s talent outscaled even his own dinosaurs of Jurassic Park," director Steven Spielberg said in a statement after Crichton's 2008 death. "There is no one in the wings that will ever take his place."

During his 66 years, Crichton wrote more than 25 novels that sold more than 200 million copies and were translated into almost 40 languages. Some of those novels were turned into blockbuster films, most notably the Spielberg-directed Jurassic Park, which has grossed more than $1 billion since its 1993 release.

Crichton's status as a pop-culture phenomenon may have hurt his credibility among the literati, John J. Miller noted in the Wall Street Journal in an article published after Crichton's death. Critics did not take Crichton's novels seriously, and "when they bothered to read them at all, they complained about cardboard characters and preposterous plots," Miller wrote.

Yet others acknowledged that Crichton was a skillful storyteller, a hard worker, and an incredibly intelligent writer with a questioning mind. As Washington Post writer Linton Weeks said on NPR after Crichton's death, "He was always pushing himself and though he wasn't the most poetic of writers, I admired his mind, his energy, his productivity and his insatiable curiosity. He was always just slightly ahead of the societal curve to turn a controversial idea — cloning or nanotechnology — into a fast-paced story."

Crichton was literally a giant among his peers –– he stood 6-foot-9, so perhaps it's fitting that in 2002, scientists named a dinosaur for him, Crichtonsaurus bohlini. The Harvard Medical School-trained doctor wrote his first thriller –– at least, the first written under his own name ; his earliest novels were published under pseudonyms –– when he was still a medical student. The Andromeda Strain told the story of scientists fighting a deadly organism that came to earth via American spaceship. It was a best seller, turned into a film in 1971, and loosely inspired a 2008 television miniseries.

Some say it was the success of The Andromeda Strain that pushed Crichton into the entertainment industry, not only as a writer but also a director with projects like Robin Cook's Coma, and a creator and executive producer of television's ER.

Still, his writing is his greatest legacy. Crichton "used fiction to explore the moral and political problems posed by modern technology and scientific breakthroughs, which in his books defied human control or ended up as tools used for evil ends," Crichton's obituary in the New York Times said. "In his fictional worlds, human greed, hubris and the urge to dominate were just as powerful as the most advanced computers."

Crichton's long-time agent, Lynn Nesbitt, noted that he "had a ferocious, brilliant intellect and the ability to write entertaining narratives. I can’t think of many writers who can match that.”

Some of Crichton's writings were controversial. Rising Sun, published in 1992, was seen by some reviewers as anti-Japanese. His 1994 novel Disclosure, in which a woman falsely accuses a man of sexual harassment, irked some readers –– but its merits were in its story, Entertainment Weekly said in its review. "Guaranteed, Michael Crichton's slick new novel about sexual harassment is going to be called antifeminist, antifemale, probably even misogynist –– and slammed all over the place," the article said. Still, the book is a "cunning dissection of corporate gamesmanship," the article continues, and "the real issue in Disclosure isn't sex, or even gender. It's power."

In Crichton's 2004 novel State of Favor he questioned global warming, a stance that made him popular in some circles. As the Associated Press noted in its Crichton obituary, "In recent years, he was the rare writer to get on well with President Bush.” However “Crichton's views were strongly condemned by environmentalists, who alleged that the author was hurting efforts to pass legislation to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide."

In a 1993 article titled Mediasaurus published in Wired magazine, Crichton predicted the death of mass media –– specifically the New York Times and commercial television networks –– in about 10 years. They produced inferior products, he argued, and would be replaced by technological advances.

Fifteen years later, Slate writer Jack Shafer wrote that while Crichton may have misstated the time frame, "I've got to declare advantage Crichton. Rot afflicts the newspaper industry, which is shedding staff, circulation, and revenues. … Crichton's original observations about the media future now ring more true than false."

And Crichton could be … prickly. "Vindictive," Miller noted in the Wall Street Journal. In 2006's Next, the last novel published during Crichton's lifetime, a minor character named Mick Crowley is a Yale-educated child rapist. Michael Crowley is the name of a Yale-educated New Republic writer who was critical of Crichton's work.

Crichton continues to be a player in the entertainment industry after his death. In November 2011, his novel Micro was released. The website MichaelCrichton.com reported in May that Open Road Integrated Media will digitally publish the books that Crichton wrote under pseudonyms during his medical school years, and a fourth Jurassic Park movie is still in the works despite some setbacks.

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."