15 May 2020

Jaws by Peter Benchley

I only just found out THIS PAST YEAR that Jaws, one of my favourite movies, was adapted from a book while listening to "The Rewatchables" podcast. It was Peter Benchley's first novel and my husband was kind enough to buy me a copy for Christmas. I promised myself I'd read something challenging during this quarantine before allowing myself the treat of this book, but I was practically drooling over it the entire time I read East of Eden.

If you are really dense, Jaws is about a shark. Specifically, it's about a shark that begins attacking swimmers in small summer town on the American east coast called Amity Island. The book was written in the 70's, so there are some elements that feel dated- mainly their safety, political, and shark management strategies. The town's chief of police along with a marine biologist and a famed shark hunter attempt to capture the shark and save the town's prosperity which relies heavily on the summer beaches.

my friend Andrew's 10 year old niece Summer is also obsessed with Jaws and chalked this on her driveway recently - I'm obsessed with it - there is, in my opinion, no better cover art than Jaws

It's really hard for me to think about the book independently of the movie, but each had their own unique high points. The screenplay is quite a bit different than the novel - mainly, a mafia subplot and a romance subplot are both removed. Benchley talks about these choices in the intro and says the production team wanted the movie to be a straight adventure, hence why they cut out those two storylines, and to be honest I found them a bit distracting anyways. 

There are also a few key differences in the sequence of events once the men are out on the water actually hunting the shark. From a straight up plot perspective, I prefer the movie with the one exception of a tiny scene in the book where the cops find the skinny dippers body and vomit. I love when small town cops actually have a real crime and throw up (Fargo, season 1). It's one of my favourite little jokes. 

Cassidy's knees buckled, and as he sank to the sand, he said, 'I think I'm going to be sick.' He put his head down and retched. The stink of vomit reached Brody almost instantly, and he knew he had lost his struggle. 'Join the crowd,' he said, and he vomited too."

THREE ABSOLUTE BABES- Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider, and Richard Dreyfuss as Quint, Brody, and Hooper in the 1975 film adaptation

Where I preferred the book is in the writing and detail. For example, the iconic opening scene where the skinny dipper gets eaten, which is already perfect in the movie, is somehow even better in Benchley's novel (it's perhaps now my favourite opening chapter of any novel). Benchley writes all of the attacks partially from the perspective of the shark and it is so eery and suspenseful and dramatic. For example:

A hundred yards offshore, the fish sensed a change in the sea's rhythm. It did not see the woman, nor yet did it smell her. Running within the length of its body were a series of thin canals, filled with mucus and dotted with nerve endings, and these nerves detected vibrations and signaled the brain. The fish turned toward shore."

Even the shark attack scenes where it's from the perspective of the victims are more dramatic when read:

The boy's last-only-thought was that he had been punched in the stomach. The breath was driven from him in a sudden rush. He had no time to cry out, nor, had he had the time, would he have known what to cry, for he could not see the fish."

You just can't work this level of detail into film, and so even though the movie isn't lacking by not having it, I preferred reading these scenes in the book.

The edition of the book I have has a 30th anniversary foreward written by Peter Benchley, reflecting on writing Jaws and his experience helping with the adaptation. For me, since I know the story really well, this was the most interesting part of reading the book. Since writing Jaws Benchley's invested a lot of time in shark and marine projects and mentions how with his current knowledge he couldn't have possibly written the book. Sharks are just not the human-hungry monsters he writes them to be and the plot isn't very realistic. I don't think it would matter though, everyone seems to know this about sharks and yet we're all still terrified of them.

a picture of the pages of alternate titles they brainstormed

He also shares images of some real notes he provided to the screenplay writers as he was very involved in the adaptation, as well as images showing pages worth of brainstorming on potential alternate titles. It's cool to learn some of the behind the scenes details of projects you love so much. I am also such a sucker for people reflecting on how important other people were in their careers and I loved this subtle line about Spielberg:

Later; we would all find ourselves lucky to be in the hands of a twenty-six year old genius named Steven Spielberg, but nobody had any way of anticipating that at the time."

It made me feel very warm and fuzzy to hear Benchley speak so highly of Spielberg, especially remembering all of the beautiful things Drew Barrymore had to say in her memoir Wildflower about her experience working with him on E.T. and how he changed her life.

Spielberg with his robot shark - a better set photo may not exist

Even if you've seen the movie, the book is worth reading, but I'd highly recommend the edition with the recent forward from Benchley. It's pretty short (~300 pages) so it's not a big commitment if you're truly on the fence. I have personally added more of Benchley's work to my reading list, as well as some of the books that he notes inspired him to write Jaws.

I would definitely not skip the movie and just read the book. If you haven't seen it, add it to your weekend agenda immediately. It is truly a Spielberg masterpiece. The 1970's robot shark that can only move side to side is worth watching for alone. One of my favourite memories with Meg is catching the annual midnight summer "retromania" screening at the Hyland Cinema here in London. I've tried to go every year since she left (excuse me while I go find a bathroom to cry in).

Meg & I in 2015 at the midnight 30th anniversary screening at the Hyland Cinema

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