Seek the Original: Jaws

72.9% of everything Hollywood does is adapted from a book, or short story, or comic. Never settle for an adaptation. Seek the original!

by Peter Benchley

You'd think a book rumored to be about a giant shark killing people would be bloody and violent, right?

I didn't expect it to be mostly about local town politics. You see, in this small town of Amity, Long Island, tourism is the lifeblood of the economy. For just one season a year, the beaches attract vacationers who pump a lot of money into the small town with only 1,000 permanent residents. Their survival depends on tourism.

So when a shark kills three people, nobody is all that horrified at their deaths. They're much more concerned about the cost of closing the beaches, and what the reputation of a killer shark in the water will do to the town's image, and if tourists will cease to come there ever again.

This is mostly what the book is about. Local politicians and businessmen struggling to keep the killings secret so as not to scare away the tourists. Then they go against caution to reopen the beaches as soon as possible so they can catch the start of vacation season and try to make enough money to survive the rest of the year.

There's also a subplot involving Ellen (the police chief's wife) and Hooper (the marine biologist). Ellen is a depressed housewife who wants to break out of her dull, unhappy life and go back to the days gone by when she was free and happy. So she gets in bed with Hooper.

This should be interesting, but the way she goes about it is rather stupid. She invites him to lunch one rainy day, and out of the blue they start talking about their sexual fantasies. Just like that, only the second conversation they have in private, Ellen tells him she has a rape fantasy...

Rape. Fantasy. Ok, ok, I get that people can be into some weird stuff, but this is... I didn't find it endearing or erotic. Just creepy. Almost offensive.

Then he walks her through one of his fantasies! If they were old friends I could see this happening, but they literally just met! This is the second conversation they've had! What the hell opened the gates?? It's so matter-of-fact and uncalled for, and it goes on for pages and pages!

This is the majority of the book! Bickering among the townspeople to keep the beaches open for the tourists, and Ellen's affair. The book is supposed to be about a shark eating people, isn't it? Far be it from me to dis a book for NOT being a typical monster story, but come on. When the book is all about politics and rape fantasy, it's hard to be scared.

Finally in part three we get Brody (the police chief), Hooper (the shark expert) and some shady fisherman to whom we are only introduced at the 2/3 mark (Quint), on a boat hunting the shark.

They spend a few days on the water, the shark teases them, then finally Hooper gets a shark cage and dives in to get a better look at the shark... and maybe to draw him close for a kill. The shark breaks through the bars and kills Hooper.

I didn't see that coming. I assumed Brody and Hooper would bicker about Ellen, egos would clash, metaphorical cocks would be compared, and then finally the shark would attack the boat and Brody and Hooper must cooperate to kill the shark and make it home alive.

But to my surprise Hooper is killed. Now Quint and Brody take on the shark alone. The monster fish must have read Moby Dick, for it starts attacking the boat.

It's what the entire book should have been, but instead it wastes two-thirds of the pagecount on local politics, squabbling about money, and a desperate housewife. The whole shark thing is underplayed while the petty drama is overplayed. It's only in part 3 that things actually get good, and even then the book ends with no real resolution to the housewife plot, or Amity's politics. For all that buildup, we're not told how Amity itself fares after the shark incident.

I was disappointed. Then again, I'm reading this some 40 years after it was published. It's likely every story since has followed Jaws' example. I expected it to be a pulpy monster story. I was actually hoping for that. At least it would be exciting. Local politics is not. Practical and realistic as it would be to a town such as Amity, it's not interesting. The book isn't terrible, but I didn't enjoy it.

Compare that to...

Jaws (1975)
starring Roy Schneider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss

It's unfair to judge this movie as compared to the book because it's a creative work all to itself, as Peter Benchley helped write the screenplay. Really, I'd call the movie all the good parts of the book with none of the fluff to slow it down. The city politics are pushed to the background, the plot of the Mayor's ties to the mob buying up real estate while prices are cheap and then reselling it for profit later is gone, and the desperate housewife subplot is omitted as well.

The first hour of the film follows the original story somewhat closely. Shark attacks, Chief Brody wants to close the beaches, but the political and business powers want to keep them open for the sake of the tourism. When a kid is eaten by the shark in full view of the entire town, all the fishermen go on a mass shark hunt. They bring back a shark all right, but it's not the one that killed the woman and the kid.

Brody wants to close the beach, but of course the local powers that be disagree. They want to keep the tourists coming. It's not until there's another death in front of the whole town that the mayor realizes there's a serious problem. He hires Quint to kill the shark, and this comprises the final hour of the film. Hunting the shark.

It's actually an improvement. Without a real estate subplot and an affair clogging the plot, the shark attacks happen in quick succession, which keeps things moving. In the book they do nothing but slow things down and spread out the attacks way too far apart. It makes more sense for the town to react by going on a mass shark hunt. It's not done in the book, but it should have been.

In the movie, we get to know Quint a little better. His story implies why he's so obsessed with hunting sharks. He served in the Navy, his ship was torpedoed, and while lost at sea he watched hundreds of his crewmen eaten by sharks. It's pretty vivid, and it's not done in the book. Quint has no history in the original story. He's just a fisherman.

The only real flaw in the movie is... the shark itself. Even in the 70's everyone thought the shark looked fake, but nonetheless they were still scared of it. It's only noticeable during the film's last five minutes, when the shark is out of the water. It's jarring and laughable, but in spite of that, the final confrontation is greatly improved compared to how the book ends. In the book, Brody is more or less just along for the ride. He doesn't kill the shark. It simply dies from the wounds Quint inflicted on it previously. He doesn't really do much in the book, surviving by mere luck instead of deserving to. In the movie, he's an active character, and he does kill the shark. It's contrived, but it's spectacular!

I think the movie is a huge improvement over the story. It cuts the fluff and keeps the focus on the shark, where it belongs.

Of course we know now that sharks don't behave this way. They don't ram their way through steel cages just to eat divers, they don't go around sinking boats, and they don't eat everything in sight. Both the book and the movie portray sharks as mindless eating machines, which definitely did their image no favors. Thankfully we have a little more information regarding just what sharks are and how they behave these days.

For example, we know sharks are selective about what they eat. They've been observed to take a bite of something, hang back, decide if they like it, then either go in for the kill or swim away. I think most of the damage this movie did is now undone and we're free to enjoy a monster movie for what it is, not to assume this represents typical shark behavior. It's a monster movie. Nothing more.

This was the first time I'd seen it, and I watched it after I read the book. I didn't like the book too much, but the movie was pretty good.


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