Like dinosaurs and the solar system, sharks intrigued me at an early age. In fact, I probably watched Jaws (and its sequels) at a too-early age (on TV or video) and that’s been the cause for my unease with swimming. No harm done, really, and my curiosity about sharks has endured.
Jaws, the novel by Peter Benchley, was published in 1974–the same year that I was born. I think I originally read it in high school, so it’s been a good 20 years since I’d read it the first time. Jaws, the movie, was released the next year and is credited as being one of the first summer blockbusters.
It’s a film I watch once every couple of years even though I’m not a particular fan of disaster movies, and I would contend that Jaws has much more in common with disaster flicks than any other kind of horror movie. Every aspect of Jaws is just a little better than all others of its ilk. The dialogue is sharper, shots are lined up in more novel ways, the characters are all more clearly drawn and better acted, and the music and sound design is bar none. It’s also a great lesson in film-making restraint. Bruce the mechanical shark was a bit of a non-starter and forced Steven Spielberg to be very creative with yellow barrels.
The movie is more succinct than the novel. As Benchley mentions in the introduction to the 2005 edition of the novel, he was given the opportunity to write an early screenplay treatment, but was advised that he’d need to cut the romance and Mafia subplots. The characters in the movie fit together better. The interplay between Quint, Hooper, and Brody in the movie is a joy to watch. In the book, all the relationships are more contentious. Brody is more guilt-wracked, Hooper seems more like a hobbyist, and Quint is more…monstrous and he doesn’t come into the picture until the last fourth of the book. Strangely, the movie more easily gives these characters back-stories. The screenwriting elegantly conveys Brody’s alienation from the town and Hooper’s wealthy but somewhat eccentric past. Quint is given the opportunity to put horror into perspective with his past serving on the USS Indianapolis.
The book does a better job of imperiling Amity. In the movie, the mayor comes off as a little too hysterical. The books shows us more of the town and its people. As dangerous as swimming is, closing the beaches affects many, many more lives. There’s more reality to the book, in some ways. The shark’s death, for example, is less spectacular. The ending comes very abruptly, but not unreasonably so. What else is there to say once the foe has been vanquished?