Dinosaurs as a Part of Popular Culture in Fiction

For reasons that perhaps can only be explained by psychologists, dinosaurs have always had a large popular appeal. This is evidenced by them being the subject of numerous books, comics, movies, television shows, Web pages, toys, models, and works of art in nearly every industrialized nation of the world. Recognition of this pervasive celebration of everything dinosaurian leads to a sociological observation: dinosaur images in popularized media serve as the most direct source of many public ideas about dinosaurs. Consequently, acknowledgement of mainstream influences, especially in works of fiction, is warranted in order to correct or confirm commonly held notions about dinosaurs.

Dinosaurs were portrayed in fiction relatively soon after their scientific descriptions in the early to mid-nineteenth century. Charles Dickens (1812-70) mentions the dinosaur Megalosaurus (Chapter 9) in the beginning of Bleak House in 1853, only 29 years after the name for that dinosaur was formally proposed (Chapter 3). Other uses of dinosaurs in fiction were apparently uncommon until 1912, when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Holmes) published his seminal novel The Lost World. This book dealt with the experiences of five explorers who discover the existence of live dinosaurs, such as Megalosaurus and Iguanodon (Chapter 11), in a

Valley The Rex
FIGURE 1.5 Photograph from the film The Valley of the Gwangi (1969), set in the early twentieth century western USA, with cowboys attempting to capture a large theropod. From Horner and Lessem (1993), The Complete T. Rex, Simon & Schuster, NY, p. 87. (Dave Allen/PhotoFest).

remote area of South America. Similar portrayals of modern dinosaurs in remote places were written from 1915 to 1944 by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950). Among the dinosaurs were well-known favorites, Stegosaurus (Chapter 12) and Triceratops (Chapter 13). From the 1940s through to the present day, science-fiction magazines and comic books also continued this imaginative theme of humans in conflict with dinosaurs. Some contemporary writers have attempted to incorporate scientific knowledge about dinosaurs in their fictionalized accounts, such as Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park (1990) and The Lost World (1995), and Robert Bakker's Raptor Red (1996).

The long and successful use of dinosaurs as subjects in film began less than 20 years after the invention of this entertainment medium in 1890. Of these films, the most important for its adherence to what was known about dinosaurs then and its influence on future dinosaur-themed films was The Lost World (1925). This movie, based on the previously mentioned work by Doyle, presented Allosaurus, Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, and other Mesozoic animals as either individuals or in groups. The portrayal of this assemblage departed from a standard cinematic formula of having a single dinosaur responsible for virtually all on-screen action and carnage. Other movies that showed dinosaurs based on actual species were King Kong (1933), One Million BC (1940), Journey to the Beginning of Time (1954), The Valley of Gwangi (1969; Fig. 1.5), Jurassic Park (1993), The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), Dinosaur (2000), Jurassic Park III (2001), and the large-format IMAX film T. Rex: Back to the Cretaceous (2002). Many other dinosaur movies have animals that superficially resemble some known dinosaur species or are exaggerated and embellished conglomerations based on various traits from several known dinosaurs (i.e., all of the Godzilla films).

Cinematic treatments of dinosaurs thus provide a good opportunity for critical reviews. For example, the intriguing titles of some films (e.g., the 1991 film A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell) tell how entertainment was their intent, not information. The recurring words in the movie list to note are "lost," "unknown,"

"prehistoric," or some variation on the theme of "beast" or "monster." The frequency of these words in movie titles is probably the result of perceived favorable reactions of the audiences. After all, these films were made with financial profit in mind. Nevertheless, the viewing of any dinosaur-themed films, especially the older ones, allows for a critical examination of their scientific content. Important questions to ask include:

1 Did the film use scientific information that was known at the time; or

2 Was the scientific information known, but ignored for the sheer entertainment value of seeing live dinosaurs on the screen?

Compared to the motion-picture industry, television had limited production budgets for special effects, which meant that dinosaurs were less common and usually took the form of cartoons or actors in clumsy costumes. However, dinosaurs began appearing more frequently on television within several years of the necessary computer technology becoming commercially viable. With the improvement and economic feasibility of such computer-generated images (CGI) in recent years, the increased integration of dinosaurs into the plots of television episodes has begun. For example, the syndicated TV series The Lost World, again reprising the characters and general plot of Conan Doyle's seminal work, premiered in the late 1990s and featured dinosaurs as recurring plot devices. Dinotopia, an imaginatively illustrated book that depicts a place where humans and dinosaurs co-exist in near-peaceful harmony, was also produced as a TV mini-series in 2002. Aside from such overt attempts at entertainment, the 2001 BBC-produced documentary series Walking With Dinosaurs set a new standard by combining scientific information with startlingly realistic CGI dinosaurs dropped into real, natural environments. The overall effect was to emulate wildlife documentaries. An added twist, however, was to use intermittent brief interviews with dinosaur paleontologists to discuss scientific evidence that supported or refuted some of the dinosaur behaviors depicted in preceding scenes.

Many web pages with dinosaur themes are non-fiction and attempt to be educational, and some succeed in that goal. However, an increasing number of these pages not only have written material but also showcase works of art as scanned images of drawings, paintings, or sculptures. CGI artwork or computer animations are also more common as people creatively employ sophisticated hardware and software at home. In many cases, the interpretations of some dinosaur behavior in Web pages blend both fiction and self-expression. The Web authors may not be so concerned with scientific accuracy but with entertainment and voicing their speculations on dinosaur behavior. In this sense, fiction is being created without the authors necessarily realizing it, although the same might be said for every scientist who has ever been wrong about an expressed hypothesis.

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Responses

  • Tanja
    Does doyle popularised the word dinosaur?
    1 year ago

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