Why the horror of "Jaws" still works on me (part two: the novel)
SPOILERS AHEAD - if you haven't read the novel...
Peter Benchley was a writer trying to make a living off of his art for years. He had an agent and that agent was able to get in touch with a publisher and present a number of ideas Benchley had indicated he thought would make good books. One of them was about his obsession when it came to sharks. He had spent much of his youth obsessed with learning all about sharks and things related to the sea. The publisher assumed he was a shark expert, loved the idea of the book and told the agent that was the novel he wanted to publish.
Benchley knew about the incident where a shark visited the Jersey Shore in 1916. At the time, it was thought that this confirmed the idea of the "rogue shark," which was the theory that a solitary shark might suddenly "get a taste" for human flesh and blood. They would wander into areas where people swam and "attack" bathers and once they discovered that beach areas had plenty of nice pink food, they would stay there. This is a theory that has since been dis-proven and these days it's thought that it was likely two sharks attacking that Jersey Shore since several attacks took place up a freshwater river - meaning it was probably a bull shark and not a great white.
However, none of this was known then. Benchley simply thought - what if one of those great white's got into a beach area near Long Island and then wouldn't got away. One of those towns that required summer tourism to exist. This was the start of the novel JAWS. Almost as soon as he turned in a draft, his agent saw the potential for this to be a movie and started shopping it around and soon a young up and coming director named Stephen Spielberg picked it up and turned it into the best-selling movie of all time at that time.
But does the novel still work? What is it about the novel that works for me? Let's take a look.
The plot is that the town of Amity is a resort town near Long Island, New York. Chief Martin Brody has left his job in New York and moved there with his wife and family for an easier life. His wife is disillusioned by this new life and not happy. Then, a young girl named Chrissie Watkins is brutally attacked while skinny dipping one night and her remains wash up on shore and the town knows a great white shark is now in town.
Chief Brody wants to shut down the beaches. They mayor is adamant against that. He tells Brody this is because the town needs the tourist dollars. What Brody doesn't know is that the town is in deep with the mafia who has invested heavily in the town, particularly in real estate. They need the beaches to stay open and the mayor is in deep.
Soon, the local newspaper man calls a man named Matt Hooper to town to help with the shark. A young boy is brutally killed right in front of much of the town at the beach. Brody's wife recognizes Matt Hooper as the brother of the man she dated in college and ends up having a one night torrid affair with the young man, which Brody immediately suspects. Out of desperation, the town hires local fisherman Quint to hunt the shark.
Brody and Hooper join the hunt and they head out and cannot find the fish. Hooper is shocked at Quint's willingness to break laws to hunt sharks like disemboweling a live blue shark as bait or using an illegally fished dolphin fetus for bait, as well. Tensions rise as Brody confronts Hooper about the affair he suspects and tries to strangle Hooper.
They head in and out over the course of several days, but cannot find or harpoon the shark. One time they head out and bring a shark cage with them and Hooper tries to use a Bang Stick to kill the shark, but the shark attacks and kills Hooper.
Brody and Quint head out on the last day and Quint succeeds in harpooning the shark, attaching barrels to try and slow it down and kill it. The shark seems unstoppable and Quint becomes more and more obsessed, finally striking the fish once more, only for the line attached to the harpoon to wrap around his leg and pull him over. He drowns.
Brody is left floating on the ocean on a seat cushion and sees the barrels attached to the great white heading right for him. He closes his eyes and readies himself for death only for the shark to die from its wounds suddenly and sink to the bottom.
There is very little humor in this book. In fact, there are hardly any sympathetic characters at all. The mayor is corrupt. Brody is a bit of a jerk and he and his wife are miserable in their new lives. His wife cheats on him. Quint is basically Captain Ahab. The fact Benchley manages to tell this tale and make you care despite the fact the people in this story are so awful shows you how really great of a writer he was.
The horror works because Benchley gets into the heart of the shark. We see much of the world through its eyes and the graphic and intense descriptions of the shark attacks are truly edge-of-your-seat terrifying. The book is also action-packed, with the scenes of the shark hunting at the end lending terror and excitement to the novel.
There are so many sub-plots in this novel that are done away with in the movie.
- The mayor is linked to the mafia and that's why he keeps the beaches open - Brody's wife has a torrid and graphic affair with Hooper - Brody is a bit of a jerk and not quite a sympathetic or as much of a lost puppy as he is in the movie. - Quint is even more of a lunatic in the novel than the movie and is willing to do horrible things to get the sharks he wants to hunt - Hooper dies in the novel - The hunt for the shark takes place over days and the shark hunters return to shore repeatedly. - The newspaperman who has a small roll in the movie is a serious and main character here and probably the one who has the least negative feel to himself. - The shark just up and dies without the dramatic explosion of the movie
The book surprised everyone, particularly Benchley. However, the result of this was that people turned up their fear of sharks to insane levels. Jaws made sharks so hated that it soon became acceptable for them to be hunted, culled, killed, and feared. In fact, we know that this is not a good thing. Benchley spent the last part of his career writing books and trying to do things to change back the minds of people who grew to fear sharks thanks to his books - to little avail.
At the same time, the book was one of the best selling in the 70s and still sells. It turned into one of the biggest money-making movies of all time and started the idea of a summer blockbuster movie. It changed the world of books, horror, and film.
My latest novel is S.P.I.D.A.R. and it's inspired by Jaws and features nature run amok. The town of
Whittier has to fight genetically engineered spiders and the fate of the entire world is in the balance. Get it today at Amazon.