For those of you that don’t know, Ellie Sattler is the leading lady of the 1993 classic, Jurassic Park. The film deals with an eccentric billionaire’s attempts to create an island filled with killer dinosaurs, poisonous plants and easily-climbable electric fences – you know, for kids! Dr Sattler comes into the story when she and her boyfriend are asked to review and endorse the park for insurance purposes, and consequently spend the rest of the film being chased around by dinosaurs. The film was an instant classic, spawning legions of sequels, merchandise and parodies – and Dr Sattler herself has been hailed as one of the unsung heroines of 90s movies.
But does she live up to her reputation? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
Much like her counterpart in the previous post, Ellie’s character falls into a lot of the same pitfalls as Claire’s does in Jurassic World. I went into it in quite some detail in my previous post, so here I’ll boil it down to its most basic principles: when the plot of your movie revolves around running away from a big scary monster, ultimately, it’s the monster that’s calling the shots.
However, Ellie’s character gets a few more opportunities for agency than Claire’s did. She volunteers herself for multiple tasks – whether that’s trying to cure a sick triceratops, rescuing Jeff Goldblum –
– or running through a forest full of raptors in order to switch the power back on. These differences are in part due to the way the films are structured: Claire has one overarching goal over the movie (to get her nephews safely off the island) whereas Ellie has several, which largely depend on her situation. I’ll give her half a point in the name of equality.
SCORE SO FAR: 0.5
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
Ellie’s goals are very well established even before the main plot of the film starts up. She wants to secure funding for her dig, she eventually wants to have children – and once she starts being chased by raptors, she wants to not get eaten. As far as her hobbies and beliefs go, we don’t really see very much of them, apart from the fact that she believes she can eventually talk her boyfriend around to the idea of having children. Once again, she’s getting half a point.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
Ellie’s character is very well established. She’s an intelligent, active young woman who’s not afraid to strike out on her own, utterly absorbed by her profession and certainly isn’t afraid of getting her hands dirty.
Her skills are pretty consistent too. She’s an expert in her field – which why she’s summoned to the park in the first place – and we actively see her demonstrating these skills in the film, when she examines the local plant life and works out that it’s poisoning the dinosaurs. She doesn’t miraculously pick up any new skills as the plot demands, either – when she goes to switch on the power manually, the other characters have to talk her through it via walkie-talkie. That’s all very believable, so I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A driven, intelligent young woman who’s an expert in her field must fight to ensure her own survival.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
It’s established early on in the film that Ellie is in a relationship with Dr Alan Grant, even though the two don’t exactly see eye to eye. The only time that this relationship really affects her decisions is when we see her encouraging him to spend time with eccentric billionaire John Hammond’s grandchildren, in the hopes that this will bring him around to the idea of having children of his own. For the rest of the film, what motivates her is the need to ensure the survival of herself and her companions.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Ellie doesn’t really develop at all over the course of Jurassic Park. We don’t really see her learning anything new, or her beliefs being challenged, or her working to overcome a flaw. She doesn’t really go anywhere – and that’s partially because she isn’t the main focus of the film – so she doesn’t pass this round.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she have a weakness?
The overall impression I got of Ellie’s character is that her main weakness is impatience, which manifests itself in a tendency to push people. Instead of accepting Dr Grant’s decision not to have children, she manoeuvres him into situations where he’s forced to spend time with kids in the hope that he’ll change his mind. However, this weakness doesn’t really affect her journey through the story – particularly in the survival situations, where Ellie’s tendency to run blindly into things actually ends up serving her very well when she’s running away from the raptors. I’ll give her half a point, but I can’t help but feel like I’m being generous.
SCORE SO FAR: 4.5
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
As I’ve already discussed, Ellie’s ability to impact the plot is seriously undercut by the fact that it’s always going to be dictated by the actions of the dinosaurs. That said, she is nevertheless an active player in the story. She sets Dr Grant off on his story arc by making him go with the children, she sets her own story arc in motion when she chooses to stay with the triceratops, and she volunteers herself for several important missions in order to help get everyone off the island. I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 5.5
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
In terms of gender stereotypes, Ellie’s character is actually pretty progressive. The one thing that really defines her character is her intelligence and her passion for her field. She’s driven, doesn’t seem to care about her appearance and isn’t afraid to get herself dirty once in a while. What’s more, she’s become an expert at a very young age in a relatively science-based area – which isn’t something you see every day. She also actively calls out sexism during the film, in a scene which I, for one, really appreciated.
What’s great about Ellie is that her desire to have children doesn’t undercut these other aspects to her character. She’s never once presented as a ‘baby-crazy’ woman for eventually wanting children – in fact, she’s actually presented as the reasonable one in her relationship with Dr Grant, as he’s the one who reacts in a really over-the-top way to having children around him. Her maternal instincts are treated as a very natural part of her character, and not as something that completely overshadows the rest of her personality.
SCORE SO FAR: 6.5
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Ellie doesn’t really relate to any other female characters. The most we see are a few incredibly brief scenes of her interacting with Lex, John Hammond’s grand-daughter, but this isn’t given any real depth or substance.
FINAL SCORE: 6.5/10
Ellie is an intelligent, dedicated character with clear goals, a consistent personality and relates to gender stereotypes in a very mature way – but ultimately, she hasn’t passed my test. She doesn’t develop over the course of the story, she doesn’t have any significant relationships with any other female characters, and both her agency and her weaknesses are questionable.
I find it really interesting that given all that’s been said about Claire Dearing, the two characters ended up getting incredibly similar scores, yet Ellie is almost universally seen as the ‘better’ character. I suppose that when you get right down to it, a lot of Ellie’s flaws as a character are due to her lack of screen time and writing constraints, whereas a lot of Claire’s flaws as a character are more clearly classified as the result of stereotypes.
That said, I still think Ellie is a really enjoyable character. She may not have passed my test, but that doesn’t mean I don’t really enjoy her scenes in Jurassic Park – it’s very entertaining to watch a character who’s so utterly absorbed in their field.
Next week, I’ll be trying something a little different. I’ll be looking at one of my favourite novels, Dracula, and its many adaptations. I’ll look at a few of the most famous adaptations of the story and see just how they’ve portrayed one of my very favourite characters – and whether these portrayals stand up to my test. Mina Harker, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.