Why the horror of "Jaws" still works on me (part three: the movie)
SPOILERS: I cannot believe I have to write this about a movie that came out in the 70s, but if you haven't seen the movie Jaws (what is your problem?) then there are spoilers ahead. Like, big ones.
The movie rights to the novel Jaws were sold very quickly. The publishers knew they had a hit on their hands even before it shot up the bestseller list. The question was, who the heck was going to direct it? How would it be filmed? Also, how did you translate this novel that had so many unlikable characters into a movie that people would want to see?
Of course, now we know a young up-and-comer named Steven Spielberg got the movie. Up until then, he had directed a very well received TV movie named Duel (go watch that one, too!) and a movie called Sugarland Express. The technical aspects of filming Jaws have become legendary. The first problem, though, was fixing that plot and giving the audience the visceral experience that comes with movies and not so much with books.
Peter Benchley did the first pass at the script and then was there for the filming of the movie. The other writer? Remember the guy who runs the town newspaper in the film? Carl Gottlieb is his name and he stepped in to do the rewrites. The first thing they did was get rid of the mob story line, the affair with Brody's wife story line and streamlining the town and the characters involved. They also had to change the ending.
What they ended up creating was what many film historians consider to be the first real summer blockbuster movie. It was a monster hit. People cheered at the end and then stuck around until the end of the credits and cheered again. It became the first of a whole series of nature-versus-man movies and sea-creatures-attack-small-towns movies.
The town of Amity is in New England and not Long Island. Chief Martin Brody has just moved there with his family from New York. Brody has big city sensibilities, but is terrified of water and unsure about how such a small town works. A young girl named Chrissie is brutally killed and the local medical examiner tells him it was a shark attack. Brody tries to shut down the beaches immediately. He is stopped by Mayor Vaughn who knows the town relies on summer dollars and word of a shark will kill the summer.
Brody does his best, but he is stopped. A young boy named Alex Kitner is brutally killed in front of most of the town. A reward is put into the paper by Alex's mother to kill the shark. Another shark is killed, but Brody has called Matt Hooper from the Oceanographic Institute and tells them this is likely not the right shark. Brody and Hooper bond quickly and become friends. They confirm that there is a great white shark out there feeding because the pickings are good and the only way to get rid of him is to cut off his food supply - shut down the beaches. The mayor refuses.
When the shark attacks again and the mayors own son is nearly killed, the town agrees to hire the eccentric shark hunter Quint. Brody and Hooper go along and soon have several instances where they run into the shark. Quint and Hooper have very different attitudes towards the shark. Quint has a vendetta against the shark, but Hooper wants to study it.
Eventually, the three of them bond. Quint reveals he was on the USS Indianapolis, which was sunk on a secret mission and many of the men on board were eaten by sharks, and this is why he hates sharks. The great white attacks again. Hooper goes down in a shark cage and is attacked, but manages to survive. The shark attacks the boat and Quint slides down the slippery deck and right into the shark's mouth. Brody shoves a compressed air tank into the shark's mouth and then takes a gun, shooting at the tank still in the corner of the shark's mouth. He hits the tank and blows up the shark. Hooper resurfaces and the two survivors swim to shore.
In the movie, Brody is a much more sympathetic character and very much in love with his wife. He is also much less competent and a bit of a fish out of water (pardon the pun).
The mafia connection is removed and the mayor's reasons for not shutting own the beaches involves summer dollars needed for the town to survive.
Quint is eccentric, but not quite as much of a jerk as in the novel.
Brody and Hooper become close friends and there is no affair between Brody's wife and Hooper.
The three protagonists head out on Quint's boat, the Orca, just once.
Quint is killed when the great white jumps on the back of the boat and he slides into the sharks mouth, not because he gets caught in the line of a harpoon.
Quint tells the story of being on the USS Indianapolis during WWII and this explains his hatred of sharks.
The shark is blown up quickly using a compressed air tank.
The movie gives us very sympathetic characters that we care about. The shark's-eye view of the attacks add suspense and horror. Spielberg proves a master of creating suspense by not showing us much of the shark during most of the film (infamously done because the mechanical shark refused to work for much of the filming). We feel for these people and grow to like the three main characters, even the abrasive and salty Quint.
One of the best scenes in the entire film and one of the best monologues in film history happens while the three men are on the boat hunting the shark. Quint telling about being on the USS Indianapolis during the war which explains why he is how he is and is a devastating and powerful scene.
Peter Benchley famously argued with Spielberg about the ending. He said it was unrealistic. This is true. Mythbusters famously proved that shooting the bottom of a compressed air tank would not cause it to explode that way. However, Spielberg famously told Benchley that if the audience was in the palm of his hands the way he planned and had come with him that far, they'd buy this ending no problem. He turned out to be right and the ending is much more satisfying than the novel.
Of course, there are a lot of scenes that don't really make sense. No shark would attack just one boat over and over again like in the movie and it would be impossible for a shark to crash down on the back end of a boat and calmly wait for food to just drop down into its mouth. Sharks don't work that way.
The scene with Ben Gardner's boat is one of the scariest parts of the movie, but it also makes no sense. How did the shark get to him? How did he get his eye eaten right out of his head, but the rest of his body stays in the boat? Did the shark jump into the boat and stab him to death? It makes no sense, but is so terrifying, it doesn't matter.
Spielberg was a fan of Hitchcock and he uses Hitchcockian methods to create suspense. He keeps the shark hidden. He reveals only what he has to and when the shark is fully revealed, it caused people to jump and scream. It was a masterpiece of horror and suspense.
Jaws works because of the way Spielberg made this movie. The way he made us care and the way he filmed the shark. It all works and creates one of the best examples of suspense and horror and it still works today.
My latest novel is called SPIDAR and it is about nature attacking a small town. The tiny town of Whittier, Alaska is facing an unrelenting and unstoppable horror in the form of thousands of bio-engineered spiders. Available now at Amazon in audiobook, print and Kindle formats. SPIDAR will scare the hell out of you.