Jaws, by Peter Benchley

Over ten years later, I still remember watching Jaws for the first time: sitting in my family’s basement, watching the movie on a 50-inch screen, in the dark, scrambling back in my seat when the shark first emerged from the ocean. I’ve since watched it dozens of times, and only now have I read the book that inspired the film. Steven Spielberg, who directed the film, simplified the book a great deal, and I can see why.

Jaws: A Novel by Peter Benchley, Paperback | Barnes & Noble®

One night, in the Long Island beach city of Amity, a woman named Chrissie Watkins is killed by a rogue shark. Chief of Police Martin Brody wants to close the beaches, even though doing so would pretty much cripple Amity’s summer economy and destroy the town’s winter preparations. The mayor and local news reporter desperately want to keep quiet about the shark, which backfires when more people get killed. Desperate, the town hires local shark hunter Quint and marine biologist Matt Hooper to join Brody on an expedition to finally kill the shark.

While the film version of Jaws is a near-perfect thriller story, the book moves much more slowly. Much time is spent establishing the people and economy of Amity, so you get a good sense of the characters and their desperate situation. After all, if they don’t do something about the shark, they’re likely to go on unemployment and struggle through the winter.

For brief periods you get the full histories of minor characters, almost unprompted. For instance, Ellen, Brody’s wife, once goes to the post office, and you suddenly get the postmistress’s life story. While I don’t mind the story itself, we’d get to the point of Ellen’s visit with less detail.

Also unlike the movie, there is a lot of tension among the cast. Most surprising is that Brody and Ellen, a perfectly happy married couple in the film, are nursing an undercurrent of tension here. Ellen is nostalgic for her life before her marriage and children, while Brody is just trying to keep Amity together during the shark panic.

In the film, Brody, Quint, and Hooper are comrades, working together to catch the shark. One of my favorite bits in the movie is the boat cabin scene, where they exchange stories of their scars, drunkenly sing tavern songs, and Quint shares the harrowing story of his escape from the USS Indianapolis wreck.

In the book, however, even these guys have their share of tension, particularly since Hooper and Ellen are having an extramarital affair and Ellen is on a crusade to re-establish herself. Honestly, I checked out during those parts. I came here for a story about everyday men fighting a killer shark, not An Affair to Remember intercut with shark attacks.

There’s a particularly disgusting scene where Ellen discusses her fantasies of rape with Hooper, who goads her on about them. That’s wrong on so many counts, starting with the fact that Hooper knows he is encouraging an affair with his coworker. And do we seriously have to know Hooper’s sexual fantasies when there is a killer shark out there??

Needless to say, Hooper is a much more likable character in the movie, whose explanations about shark biology are among the most riveting dialogue in the film. I just think it detracts from the overall tension when the three main leads are against each other.

Maybe having that tension between Brody and Hooper would make it much harder to focus on killing the shark. Maybe I did want to know about Hooper’s tragic childhood like we get to know Brody’s.

But still, I’m not fond of horror stories where the characters are complete bitches to each other. If they act like that, I’m just waiting for the slasher to off them. If they’re friends and actually treat each other with respect, I am that much more invested because I don’t want to see such a tight group of friends torn apart. I mean, they’re up against a killer shark! There’s no time to be bitching about who slept with whose wife.

Make no mistake, I was still invested in their expedition, but I thought good-natured banter and camaraderie would have been much better.

On top of all this…there is also a conspiracy involving Amity’s city council and the Mafia, explained in a drawn-out meeting scene that goes on forever.

And the whole time, I’m thinking, “Where the hell is that shark?!”

Spielberg cut these subplots from the movie as he felt that they made the characters unlikable. While he’s right, I think they also cluttered up the central story of a shark nearly devastating a beach town’s economy. The shark almost goes forgotten for a large part of the book, which is frustrating in a book called Jaws.

For all my moaning, that does not mean that the book, as a whole, is not good. 

The opening scene, which became one of the most iconic film openings ever, is incredible! It’s chilling to watch Chrissie slowly realize what’s in the water beneath her and every second up until her death doesn’t allow you room to breathe.

In fact, all the scenes featuring the shark are great! The shark is described with such menace that you can see why so many people were scared of the ocean. Or, more sadly, why so many people were quick to paint sharks—not just great whites, but all sharks—as man-eating monsters.

With the exception of Brody and Quint, none of the other characters were that interesting or likable. After all, Brody carries the brunt of the book’s emotional gravity, and Quint’s near-caricature sea captain persona is so fascinating to watch.

In my whole life, I’ve only ever found one movie that was better than its book, but I think I’ve found the second case of that. Spielberg and his crew really cleaned up the story and characters, making every character memorable and likable, and turning an already-menacing shark into one of film’s greatest, scariest villains. I’ll give Peter Benchley credit for basically writing the 20th century Moby Dick, but the Jaws film will probably remain far more legendary.  

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