Misconceptions in Media: How Jurassic Park Shaped Society’s Inaccurate View of DinosaursSeptember 13, 2023
Written by: Ryan Gray
Who doesn’t love a good dinosaur movie? For more than a century, dinosaurs have brought action and adventure to our screens, firmly fossilizing themselves as a staple in the film industry. Probably the most famous depiction of dinosaurs in film, the Jurassic Park franchise plays a special role not only in cinematic history, but also in shaping public perceptions of palaeontology. Can we believe everything we see in movies? How do we separate fact from fiction? Keep reading to see what QMNH summer student, Ryan, has to say about this fascinating topic!
First of all, I have to start by saying that I am personally a huge fan of the Jurassic Park franchise. It is undeniably exciting to see dinosaurs on screen. However, I can understand the distaste many palaeontologists have towards the film, especially considering the general public’s interpretation of it. The misconceptions about dinosaurs created by Jurassic Park are still present in today’s media, and many believe these to be factual. Despite palaeontologists’ best efforts to have dinosaurs portrayed as accurately as possible in film, including in the recent Jurassic World installments, very few recent projects have hit the scientific mark. Unlike living species of animals, the idea of what dinosaurs were like is often associated with their appearances in films like Jurassic Park. With no living, breathing example, people tend to base their understanding more heavily on media portrayals.
At one point, Jurassic Park was the highest-grossing movie of all time, bringing in over a billion dollars when it was first released in 1993. With this great success came a renewed public interest in dinosaurs. Unfortunately, it also led to many new misconceptions about them, particularly how they looked and behaved. During the film’s production, palaeontologist Jack Horner was hired as the scientific advisor to ensure the film portrayed the most up-to-date understanding of dinosaurs. Horner, who was the advisor on not just the first, but all three of the original Jurassic Park movies, has stated that his advice and expertise were taken with significant artistic liberty. Granted, at the time, knowledge of many dinosaurs was not what it is now. Filmmakers and scientific advisors can only do their best with the evidence currently available to them. Jurassic Park cannot blame all of its inaccuracies on a lack of information, though. Strangely, as the films progress, the scientific accuracy of the dinosaurs decreases. For example, the Spinosaurus fighting and killing a T.rex in the third film is complete fiction. These two species never lived at the same time, nor in the same region, not to mention that Spinosaurus likely would not have ventured out of the water or eaten much but fish. As far as the Jurassic Park franchise, the first film was the most successful and the most iconic. It is what started many generations’ interest in dinosaurs. Compared to the other films, it is also the most grounded in scientific research, though by no means should it be viewed as fact.
What many palaeontologists consider to be the biggest misconception presented by the film is how it portrayed the Dilophosaurus. In what is considered one of the most iconic scenes from Jurassic Park, the Dilophosaurus is shown to be a relatively small dinosaur with a large frilled neck and the ability to shoot poison. In reality, it was roughly 20 feet long, had a strong jaw, and did not shoot poison. In fact, palaeontologists have never found evidence that any dinosaur species had this ability. It is still uncertain whether or not the Dilophosaurus had a frilled neck, but it is not out of the question, although it would most likely have looked more like a colourful bird than a lizard.
Another false impression created by the film is the Tyrannosaurus roar. Palaeontologists have generally concluded that T.rex, like all dinosaurs, could not roar. Instead, it would have likely cooed, hooted, and made deep-throated booming sounds similar to the noises its closest living relatives make, crocodilians and birds. Roaring is something typically associated with mammals, and in the Jurassic Park films, the roar we hear is made up of multiple living mammal sounds, like big cats and baby elephants.
Finally, the biggest issue palaeontologists have expressed about the film is the lizard-like look all the dinosaurs were given. Dinosaurs’, particularly theropods, closest living descendents are birds, but Jurassic Park makes them appear more like reptiles. Many dinosaurs, including Tyrannosaurs, are believed to have had colourful feathers on their bodies that they likely used to attract mates. Several fossils have been found with preserved feathers, and it is now widely recognized that theropods had feathers at some point in their lives. Jack Horner told Steven Speilberg this idea during the production of Jurassic Park, and Speilberg reportedly replied that “technicolor, feathered dinosaurs wouldn’t be scary enough”. At the time dinosaurs having feathers was still a relatively new hypothesis, but by the making of the Jurassic World series, it was almost universally accepted as factual in the field of palaeontology. For the sake of consistency and fear factor, this evolution in understanding was not reflected in the look of the dinosaurs in the series.
Although Jurassic Park has never claimed to be a scientifically accurate film, and audiences generally do not regard it as so, small details such as the ones I have mentioned are often mistakenly accepted as fact. While the plot of the film is regarded as a work of fiction, these seemingly minor details, when inadvertently passed as facts, can perpetuate false ideas. Since many people do not otherwise know much about dinosaurs or recent palaeontological studies, they may not question what they see in film. Truly accurate renderings of dinosaurs are never used in mainstream movies and television, as they are simply not as scary as their fictionalized counterparts.
It is important to remember Jurassic Park is an action and adventure film rooted in fantasy, and its portrayal of dinosaurs is meant to create a thrilling experience for viewers, which is generally the case in Hollywood. Dinosaurs have often been considered monsters on the same level as King Kong and dragons, the only difference being dinosaurs actually existed. This does not mean that we cannot enjoy sensationalized depictions of dinosaurs, it just means that we should never base our understanding of science on it. We can have both a thriving creative film industry and a solid base of scientific understanding. So, the next time you are watching a movie or television series featuring dinosaurs, or any species for that matter, it is vital to remember to question the accuracy of what you are seeing, while still enjoying the cinematic experience all the same.
Dinosaurs: How Jurassic Park Got it Wrong. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2009/feb/08/jurassic-park-dinosaur-inaccuracies
How Jurassic Park Changed Paleontology. Retrieved from https://www.benjamin-burger.org/how-jurassic-park-changed-paleontology/
Jurassic Park Got Almost Everything Wrong About This Iconic Dinosaur. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/jurassic-park-got-almost-everything-wrong-about-iconic-dinosaur-dilophosaurus
Jurassic Park Got Many Dinosaurs Wrong. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/jurassic-park-movies-dinosaur-accuracy-2019-11