“Sharks have everything a scientist dreams of. They’re beautiful―How beautiful they are! They’re like an impossibly perfect piece of machinery. They’re as graceful as any bird. They’re as mysterious as any animal on earth. No one knows for sure how long they live or what impulses―except for hunger―they respond to. There are more than two hundred and fifty species of shark, and everyone is different from every other.”
The character of Matt Hooper from the novel “Jaws.”
Peter Benchley was born on May 8, 1940. During the course of his life, before he passed away on February 11, 2006 from Pulmonary Fibrosis, which is a scarring of the lungs, he made the most of his time. Benchley graduated from Harvard; worked as a journalist for the Washington Post; was the editor of Newsweek; authored a number of books; and for many years prior to his death, he worked as a marine conservationist. The one aspect of his life that he is best remembered for is his first novel “Jaws.’’ The book was published by Doubleday in February 1974 and sold over five million copies in its first year. The novel spent forty weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
The following summer “Jaws” the movie premiered on June 20, 1975 and became the first ever summer blockbuster. The film was viewed in theaters by approximately 67,000,000 people. Parts adventure, horror and thriller, “Jaws” was directed by a then unknown Steven Spielberg (Raiders of the Lost Ark). He more than likely didn’t imagine at the time, that he would go onto win three Oscars, as well as every other award of note pertaining to cinema. Benchley co-wrote the screenplay for the film with Emmy winner Carl Gottlieb (The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour). Benchley and Gottlieb received Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations for their work on “Jaws.” The two men would lose out on both awards to two time Oscar winner Bo Goldman and Oscar winner Lawrence Hauben for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” which was based off of Ken Kesey’s novel of the same name. “Jaws” won three Oscars at the 48th Academy Awards in 1976: Best Sound; Best Film Editing; and Best Music Original / Dramatic Score which was composed by five time Oscar winner, the incomparable John Williams (Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope). (As an aside: The portion of Williams’ score that announced the arrival of the shark added to the viewer’s terror and became an iconic and, probably, universally recognized piece of the score.) The film was also nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture; “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” won.
I’ve seen “Jaws” numerous times, but up until recently I had never read the novel the film was based on. While I was reading, I learned, as have many others from things I’ve read, that there were a number of differences between the book and the film. In a Random House reissue of “Jaws,” Benchley addresses the differences. He originally wrote a draft of the screenplay that included a good deal more of the book, but was told by the producers to cut those portions out and focus more on the thriller aspect of the novel.
The novel opens in the waters off of Amity, New York, which is a seaside town off the coast of Long Island. In the film, Amity is an island by itself off the coast of New England. The great white shark that will come to cause death, terror and financial ruin, is moving through the water. As in the movie, the shark will soon claim its first victim. Chrissie Watkins is a young woman who is being pursued in a fun manner on the beach by her drunken date. She decides to go for a late night swim. Her date falls asleep on the beach, but even if he were awake, there would have been nothing he could’ve done to save her. He more than likely would have also wound up being killed. (As an aside: Actress Susan Backlinie played the role of Chrissie Watkins in the film).
The next morning the sheriff’s department is alerted to Watkins disappearance. The department is headed by Amity native, Martin Brody. In the film Brody, is not a local, but someone who grew up in New York City. In the movie Brody is portrayed by two time Oscar nominee Roy Scheider (The French Connection). Brody’s wife Ellen, unlike Martin, grew up in a life of wealth and privilege. She used to visit Amity during the summers of her youth, never imagining that she would become a year round town resident. In the film, the character is played by Lorraine Gary (Jaws 2). Having read the novel, Gary was disappointed with a number of portions that were excluded from the screenplay, because one rather large portion of the book that dealt with her character, that was removed, greatly reduced her screen time.
Brody is in charge of whether or not the beaches will be closed after the shark attack. With the upcoming July 4th weekend, closing the beaches would be detrimental to the town’s economic survival, because the summer crowd is what helps to keep the town running year round. Mayor Vaughn especially wants the beaches to remain open. When another shark attack occurs, Brody has had enough and closes the beaches. An ichthyologist, someone who studies fish, named Hooper is called in to help. He intends to take pictures and learn more about the shark. In the film the role of Hooper is portrayed by Oscar winner Richard Dreyfuss (The Goodbye Girl). (As an aside: Mayor Vaughn is played by actor Murray Hamilton in the movie).
Brody is interested in one thing pertaining to the shark and that’s killing it. Desperate, he reaches out to Quint, a frequently swearing, heavy drinking sailor, with the experience and the know how to kill a shark. In “Jaws” the movie, the role of Quint is played by Oscar nominee Robert Shaw (A Man for All Seasons). One of the differences between the novel and film, that stood out to me the most, was that in the book, Quint doesn’t give the speech about the USS Indianapolis. I kept waiting to read Quint’s monologue, in which he discusses how the ship he was on was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine, but that scene was written entirely for the film.
Benchley’s taut, suspense filled and at times terrifying novel, moves seamlessly from one page to the next. The inclusion of the mafia, infidelity on the part of a major character, the death of a certain character that was not expected, as well as how the story concludes, are all aspects of the book that differ it from the film that followed it. If you have never seen the movie version but are readers of thriller and horror stories where the writing is very well done, where it makes you feel as if you’re a part of the story, this is a book you should read. For fans of the film, who’ve never read the novel, this is a book you should thoroughly be able to get invested in.