22 January 2014

Jaws, Peter Benchley 1974

I first read Benchley's book immediately after watching the Spielberg blockbuster at a cinema in 1974 (twice in the same week). Forty years later I have just listened to the 2009 BBC America audio book narrated by Erik Steele, and it still feels strong. I understand that the author had a good deal of advice on changing the mood of the novel so it is unlikely there was a eureka moment as he penned the words 'the end'. However when film producers read the final draft they bought the movie rights before the book had even been published.
In Amity Benchley nicely creates the small town feel of a beach resort which relies on summer visitors for its existence. Police Chief Martin Brody is soon in disagreement with Mayor Larry Vaughan over the appropriate action to take after a series of fatal shark attacks on bathers. Brody wants to close the beaches on safety grounds but knows Amity will suffer if summer tourist dollars don't arrive. This dilemma becomes as important an issue as the shark attacks themselves and is the subject of much debate. Benchley goes into detail over the Mayor's financial reasons for keeping the beaches open, hinting at blackmail by powerful property investors.
Oceanographic scientist Matt Hooper arrives on scene to advise and identifies the predator as a Great White. Over dinner with the Brodys he falls for the charms of Ellen Brody and a romantic sub plot plays out. They have a liaison at a motel and this sets up suspicion and friction between Brody and Hooper. At last the town decides to hire game fisherman Quint to hunt the shark.
The final quarter of the novel is set aboard The Orca with Brody and Hooper acting as unlikely deckhands for the colourful and testy Quint. The shark is a formidable adversary, taking on human attributes of persistence and revenge and appearing to outwit its hunters. After a series of titanic struggles the shark is killed, though not without loss of human life.
The film is significantly more successful because it strips out sub plots and shadowy financial motives and reduces the cast to bare essentials. The characters are more likeable, and relationships are realistically portrayed. Casting was of course sublime with Scheider, Shaw and Dreyfuss outstanding in their roles. Putting the lame animatronics aside, it is hard to imagine any twenty-first century re-make coming even close. Jaws the movie is a perfect example of how a more complex story can be distilled into ninety minutes of potent drama.
I can't disguise my love of the film, and if pressed will recite large passages of dialogue verbatim. Nonetheless Jaws the novel is an exciting read with enough subtext and motives to stand tall.


gel said...

I saw the movie on a date on the night before all of my wisdom teeth were pulled (2 impacted ones). My friends made neverending jokes about my jaws....hope you and family r doing well.

Perfect Virgo said...

Great casting, superb acting, and an excellent screenplay. This is one of my all time favourites. Even the lame animatronic shark has a certain charm from this distance in time.

We're good thanks, and I hpoe you're well on the mend now.