Let's talk about the giant lizards in Jurassic World. Their tails droop like noodles, their skins are scaly and wrinkled, hanging off prominent bones. Their hands curl in front of them as if ready to dribble basketballs. They hiss and spit, and glare at the world through slit-pupiled eyes, their skulls as bony and gnarled as dragons'. Jurassic World's lizards are scary. They're distinctive (and copyrightable) on the screen and in toy stores. They're lucrative as hell. And they're wrong. They are less similar to real Velociraptor than the ones in the original Jurassic Park movie 20 years ago.
Universal Studios had a good reason for using giant lizards rather than real dinosaurs in Jurassic World. They didn't want to make just any old dinosaur movie, they wanted to continue the Jurassic Park franchise, and Jurassic Park raptors look like this. If the special effects people made raptors that look like that, they would have been off-brand—unrecognizable to the public, and (since you can't copyright what a real animal looks like) terrifyingly public domain. Even worse, a real Velociraptor wouldn't have worked symbolically. The movie doesn't need a real animal. It needs a key to the lock in your brain that opens a door marked "here be dragons."
If Jurassic World was called "Dragon World," that would be the end of this essay. Why not give the public what they want, after all? What does it matter what symbol we use to denote "dinosaur" in our brains? Well, none. We don't have time machines. We're not going to meet real dinosaurs, so the question of what they really looked like will only ever be academic. There is a bigger problem, though, and that's the fact that movies play just as fast and loose with real, present day reality.
The angry "hey, that's not accurate!" feeling I get when I watch Jurassic World hits me at other times too. The female CIA agent who helped track down Osama Bin Laden looks like this, but in the movie based on her work, she's played by an actress who looks like this. Why did the casting director make that decision? Because Alfreda Frances Bikowsky's face doesn't press the "pretty, tough-girl" button as hard as Jessica Chastain. In The Avengers: Age of Ultron, there's a small Eastern European country where people write in Cyrillic, but speak accented English to each other. No such country comes even close to existing, but if they spoke Serbian, how could we sympathize with them? If they wrote in English, how would we know they were foreign? In Interstellar, climate change has made human life on Earth impossible, except the main character still tends crops growing in the soil under an open sky, because if he didn't, the movie wouldn't press button in our rains marked "farmer." When we watch movies, we aren't actually seeing CIA agents or Eastern European countries or climate change, any more than we're watching anything like real dinosaurs. Instead, we're seeing symbols.
Except we are very bad at remembering the difference between symbols and reality. Doctor-turned-statistician Hans Rosling put together a quiz about the state of the world. Who's rich and who's poor? Who's peaceful and who's violent? What countries are better to live in than what other countries? He gave the quiz to people on the street and found that the answers they gave describe a world in which the US and a handful of western European countries huddle at the center of a vast wasteland of desperate, dangerous, funny-talking foreigners. That's a world that exists only in movies, and yet most of the people Rosling quizzed mistake it for reality. What happens when these misinformed people vote? What happens when they march off to war?
We live in a complicated world, more complicated than we can probably understand. It's tempting to wallpaper over variegated reality and lump all changes, exceptions, and shades of meaning into a monolithic symbol. Young woman = pretty, Eastern Europe = war crimes, farmer = dirt, dinosaur = lizard-monster. I urge you storytellers out there to resist the temptation of symbols, however. We ignore reality at our peril; like a Velociraptor, reality is most likely to attack when you're not looking.
Daniel M Bensen is an English teacher and author. His new book, Groom of the Tyrannosaur Queen, is about accurate dinosaurs and what happens when you forget that other people are real. It also has particle beams and tyrannosaur hunts and a wedding!