Cultural Depictions of Dinosaurs

The most popular and common current cultural depictions of dinosaurs involve their size and their ability to remain at the top of the food chain. The Tyrannosaurus Rex, the king of dinosaurs, was first and most broadly represented to the world as the gross, brutal, indefensible, destructive, merciless, yet cunning nature of Americans, as symbolized in the postwar Japanese “Godzilla” films.

“…and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.” was the first fictional literary mention of a dinosaur in Dicken’s “Bleak House”. Early on,mythical depictions and tales of “dragons” were the term for large lizards that emitted moisture vapors in colder climates, that were confused with smoke and flame.

Later, dinosaurs were focused upon as large, plodding, and slow, which, along with their age and the fact that they were extinct, lead to the cultural reference to dinosaurs as outdated, obsolete, and no longer functional in a fast moving world.

The early conceptual, visual and scientific cultural relationships of dinosaurs to reptiles led to cultural assignment of the behaviors and personalities of today’s smaller, living examples of lizards to their ancient and varied counterparts. But, as more discoveries were made, it became clear that they came in many forms and demonstrated many types of behavior, capabilities, speed and ability to duke it out.

As a result, imaginary scenarios where other worlds were populated by writers such as Jules Verne, with huge, battling behemoths, allowed for more refined depictions of the capabilities, fighting methods and massive threat that the monsters could exhibit. Even in space, monsters that were both reptile and insect, yet cunning and highly intelligent, as depicted in the “Alien” series changed the view of possibilities for creatures of our nightmares.

The most stunning cultural depictions of dinosaurs in film came from the imaginings of writers who wondered what would happen if today’s creatures were exposed to radiation, as a symbol for the communist threat or the threat of too much science too fast. Of course, the largest lizards that we’ve ever seen in such realistic form came before our eyes. The dinosaur became the favorite interest, toy, idol and image of millions of children throughout the world.

At one point, jokers creating a puffing dragon to represent the joys of pot smoking.

Then, the “what if ” imaginings of writers who studied the developments in genetics, cloning, and tinkering with life led to the grandiose and stunningly realistic “Jurassic Park” series, which sparked an explosive new interest in dinosaurs, thanks to the incorporation of new facts and discoveries about a wide variety of animals, from tiny, poison spitters to highly intelligent and almost unbeatable velociraptors. The stunning ability to incorporate the computer generated “animals” into realistic settings, complete with light, shadow and realistic movement made us learn and look at dinosaurs in a different way: not as obsolete, slow moving, stupid, and ineffective, but as highly efficient killing, thinking, and surviving machines.

Except for the T-Rex, which is now understood to be so stupid, because most of it’s brain is used to manage it’s body, that it could not remember what happened a few days earlier, including it’s own children or mate.

With even more discoveries, the dinosaur is now a monster fish that thrived in the deeps of the seas; is a large, flightless animal with feathers; and is a tiny animal that can poison, kill and eat a much larger animal. They had families, herds, communities, and even organized battles and joint defense mechanisms.

The dinosaur will never go away as a cultural icon, a symbol for external sociopolitical threats, or a reminder that our place on earth is a transient thing.