Jaws. Book versus Film

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Jaws‘The book is better’ is a well rehearsed librarian’s film review. Well usually the book is better, but in this case, ‘Jaws’ is the original summer block busting film and a watershed (pardon the pun) in cinema history. You can’t turn on the television these days without ‘Jaws’ or the sequels being screened on one station or another. Everybody can quote the lines, wear the t-shirt, and play the theme tune on the piano. But what of the book from which it originated?

To some extent the success of the film resulted in the book being eclipsed and latterly somewhat dismissed. But the novel sold 5.5 million copies in USA by the time the film was even released. Written by Peter Benchley, published in February 1974, ‘Jaws’ spent 44 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. The film rights to the book were bought before it was even published, with the film directed by Steven Spielberg shot and released shortly after in June 1975. So it’s got to be worth a read right?

Film

The characters are recognisable from the film, but differ in many regards.  Similarly the story varies on major areas of plotline, not least who survives to tell the tale, and the fate of the fish. The story is pretty much akin to the film - a great white shark is dining on bathers off the coast of Amity a seaside resort town, Long Island, New York.

JawsThe local police chief tries to temporarily close the beaches to keep bathers from harm, and figure a way to deal with the shark. He finds there are more slippery fish to deal with on land than the one in the water. Particularly in wrangling corrupt Mayor Vaughan and his selectmen who want to retain those tourist dollars and keep the beaches open for financial health of Amity.

The chief must hire Quint and Hooper’s expertise, leave his wife and kids, and take to the seas to deal with his community’s pest control issues. So far so familiar, but there are key differences which make this an edgier take than the film, and may for some, be unpalatable.

Chief Martin Brody born and bred in Amity is a blue collar cop, wary of the well healed out of towners who invade the island every summer.  He is a man of duty and pragmatism in service to his community. Quite a lot of the films lighter moments are channelled through Spielberg’s chief Brody. But Benchley’s Brody is sullen; he wears his working class roots in earnest, his police stripes with great pride, and his authority with dedication. Benchley’s Brody is wracked with self doubt and insecurities about his worth and potency. He is driven by a will to prove his value and protect those around him.

Book

book titleBook version Ellen Brody is a different fish to the film version Ellen Brody. Benchley’s Ellen Body is to an extent a trophy wife. She’s a step up for Brody from his own people. She’s missing her life before marriage and children. She fears she settled for Martin Brody. Her need to feel vital sees her turn sexual predator, her flirtations leading to subsequent infidelity that will either drive her away from or back into her husband’s arms. She’s not the Spielbergian archetypical Mom and certainly won’t be offering anyone coffee ice-cream.

Mayor Larry Vaughan is willing to sacrifice consumers to keep beaches and business open. Exploiting the coastal environment in which he exists, he maintains devotion to the almighty dollar. Benchley doesn’t give Vaughan a moment of humanity – he’s not a crazy anchor motifed suit wearing caricature. There is no ‘My kids were on that beach too’ moment of redemption here. Vaughan is the villain. In fact it transpires in the book Vaughan is actually protecting a real estate deal with mafia investment. To Mayor Vaughan the shark is an economic problem, not a public health issue. Benchley’s Mayor Larry Vaughan is the manifestation of rogue materialism. Vaughan eventually cuts his losses and does a runner.

Ichthyologist Matt Hooper is a charmless man. He is a rich graduate, slick, egotistical and unlikable. He is a man of science, but conversely not a man of reason. Potentially he may be able to control nature, but as we see he cannot even curb his own desires. His dalliance with another man’s wife, in satisfying his lust and realising his blinkered selfish will, is a harbinger of wherein lies his fate. His scientific equipment and college earned education are all there is between him and the shark. There is no bottle of red and white wine, this Hooper doesn’t care about anyone except himself.

Quint is a professional shark hunter the skipper on a small vessel called the Orca. Quint is the indigenous sage. He knows things about his local environment. He has learned through experience not books. Quint though is driven by his will to conquer and master all he surveys. He uses instinct and brute force. Quint in the book is particularly cruel and nihilistic- a harpoon too far in the books case. (I have to say at this point that Robert Shaw’s ‘Indianapolis Speech’ is the best scene in ‘Jaws’ bar none, maybe even the best film monologue ever. ‘So eleven hundred men went in the water, 316 men came out, the sharks took the rest, June the 29th 1945. Anyway, we delivered the bomb’. But Benchley didn’t write it).

The shark is dispassionate, a cold eyed monster, with no anthropomorphic traits, its motivation is pure survival. The shark can be read as anti-capitalist allegory, the shark as a basic threat to profit that must be eradicated. Or the shark may represent the unpredictable force/ mans primal fear of nature. Or some sort of castration symbolism and comment on modern manhood. Or whatever you’re having with your chips and mushy peas. The shark in the book ‘Jaws’ doesn’t have the same fate as the film.

The shark hunting in the book is a matter of livelihood, and prestige.  The relationship between the men on the Orca is tense and terse – ego reigns. They do not get along and seem to really hate each other. There is no bonhomie, no joining together. They are all motivated by separate drives. If they just put aside ego and operated as a collective, for the greater good, they might stand a better chance of survival. But with this individualism - who lives, who dies is unpredictable – can they redeem themselves?

Book versus film

JawsSo why bother with the book if the film is so good? Well the book is a solid page turner and a great summer read. It is a rawer take on all scores than the film. ‘Jaws’ can be read in COVID-19 days as a teaching on the pandemic, the economy, on political mistrust. A basic indiscriminate force of nature threatens death upon a society already beset by problems. Politicians protect the economy ahead of public health. Business as usual reigns in the hopes the contagion will kill only a few in its lifetime and burn itself out.

Alright it may be regarded as a dime store read but it actually has a literary lineage. ‘Jaws’ greatly resembles Henrik Ibsen’s play ‘An Enemy of the People’ in which the mayor of a small spa town copes with a water contamination that might drive away the tourists and the town’s chance of survival. The comparisons to Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’ too are inevitable, with the pursuit at all costs of a large fish. And it’s not so far-fetched as you’d imagine either - the book is reminiscent of the Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916, where fatalities numbered 4, and 1 seriously injured by a bull shark.

‘What had once seemed shallow and tedious now loomed in memory like paradise’, Peter Benchley.

Submitted by Sleeve Notes Drumcondra Library.

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