JAWS: 45 Years As A Best-Seller

The summer is at last upon us, and as LA finally gets the higher temps we’ve been waiting for, I thought it was a great time to review the ultimate summer book, one which is perfectly easy – and perfectly appropriate – to read on the beach.

45 years ago, this small novel was released by a first time author who, though he came from great lineage when it came to literature, did not cause a stir upon the release of his first novel.  Rather, the stir would come later.

The novel was JAWS.

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The original hardback cover for JAWS.

The author was Peter Benchley, and when the hardback was released in 1974, it would spend 44 weeks on the NYTimes bestseller list.

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Peter Benchley in 1974.

It’s no secret that JAWS the movie is based on a novel of the same name. Peter Benchley, the book’s author, came from a long line of writers.  His dad was Nathaniel and his grandad was Robert, both of whom were highly respected humorists.  Peter was well educated, got his start writing some articles, and then in the early 70s decided he wanted to write a fictional account based on the New Jersey Shark Attacks in 1916.  He found a publisher who agreed to pay him “a couple of dollars” to write that story, and Peter went to work.

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Front page of a newspaper sensationalizing the 1916 shark attacks.

The novel has been dismissed as cheap pulp fiction, filled the blood and violence and the necessary sex scenes a novel like that would need in order to sell any copies.  Is JAWS the novel really that bad?  Is it really just forgettable trash?  While the novel does have some forgettable sections, it is ultimately a really suspenseful story, and well-told at that.

Benchley wastes no time in introducing us to the shark, doing so right away in the first chapter.  And then we meet the first victim, who we will come to know as Christine Watkins.  The attack is sparsely and tautly written.  You almost have to read it a couple times before you realize what has happened.  Contrary to Stephen King, who relishes words and the suspense he can build with them, Benchley still has a journalistic style to his writing here that keeps him from giving the reader too much detail.  Rather, he settles for just enough.  And the result is we want more.

Next we meet Amity Police Chief Martin Brody and his rookie officer Len Hendricks.  Brody is married to Ellen, who, though she is married to Martin and has three boys, she is melancholy at this life of a small town police chief.  She longs for her old life, when she was rich, when she used to spend summers on Amity.  Once she became a year-round resident, she lost all her money. This is the polar opposite of the Ellen Brody we see in the movie, who is warm and kind. 

When Brody discovers Christine Watkins was killed by a shark, he immediately wants to close the beaches.  But the town mayor, Larry Vaughan, who also rents real estate on the island along with his partners, and the editor of the local newspaper, Harry Meadows, pressure him to keep them open.  Meadows won’t even run the story of the shark attack in his paper.  He’s been told to bury it.

Of course, with the beaches still open, the sharks takes two more victims.  One of them being young Alex Kintner, whose name was obviously kept for the movie, and then, as Brody is figuring out how to handle this death, the shark takes another, older man further up the beach. 

Just like the first attack, Alex’s death is fast-paced and tautly written, with only enough on the page to make us want more.

Suddenly, the problem Amity wanted to keep quiet is all over the newspapers on the East Coast.  Meadows calls his friend Matt Hooper, who works at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.  When we meet Hooper, he immediately comes across as younger and cockier, and much more arrogant, than Richard Dreyfuss.  At once, he and Brody have an adversarial relationship.  When Brody mentions Hooper’s name to Ellen that night at home, she asks if his first name is David.  She used to date a David Hooper…

The book is divided into three parts, and this ends Part One.

Part Two begins with Ellen bumping into Matt Hooper.  At once, she wants to throw a dinner party, and when she brings the idea up to Brody, he is at once on guard. 

The dinner party is one of the better scenes in the novel, even though it has nothing to do with the shark.  While we can argue those scenes are all among the best, this dinner party scene deserves to stand up there with them.  There’s a lot of back and forth between Hooper and Ellen, and Brody knows there is something between the two of them, even if he can’t put his finger on quite what it is.  As the alcohol flows, the tempers flare until finally the party is over and Ellen is mad at Brody for ruining the whole evening.

The emotional drama is intriguing all throughout this scene, as is the verbal abuse, which is no doubt fueled by the alcohol.  It’s very reminiscent of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  I know this sounds crazy, but Benchley was well-educated, and he would have been quite aware of Edward Albee’s 1962 play.  And it doesn’t hurt that Mike Nichols directed the movie adaptation in 1966.

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It may be a reach, but Benchley knew what he was doing when he wrote this scene.  He strove to reach the levels Albee did in his Virginia Woolf, and if Benchley did not succeed entirely, he succeeded enough.  It’s way more of a mature scene than you expect in a lurid, trashy novel about a fish.

The next day, Ellen calls Hooper for lunch.  He was going to go search the water for the shark, but since it’s raining, he can’t. They meet for lunch, and discuss how they would have an affair, and then they go to a hotel and Ellen, wanting to get something back from her girlhood, has sex with Hooper.  In the novel, we get all the dialogue leading up to the sex, but the sex scene itself is recounted in Ellen’s memory, after it’s all over.  Brody gets home, and he wonders where she had been all day.  He wonders the same about Hooper.

If there is a part that can be cut from the novel, obviously, this is the part.  It doesn’t benefit much from this subplot, and Spielberg was wise to eschew it.  Mostly, it adds some tension in the third part of the novel, which is entirely dedicated to the three of them hunting the shark.

At last, the Fourth of July comes.  Brody is pressured into opening the beaches by Vaughan and some of the town council.  He relents, but says he is going to maintain a subtle police presence on the beaches.  During the meeting, Brody gets a call from Meadows.  Earlier he had asked Meadows to look into Vaughan’s business partners, and here we find out they are, how shall we say, “family men.”

Vaughan agrees to Brody being subtle on the beach, but when Brody gets home, Ellen is in tears.  A man pulled up to the house before he got home, picked up the youngest son’s cat, said to the kid, “Tell your old man to be subtle.” 

And then he twisted the cat’s neck all the way around until it cracked and the cat died.

Moreso than in the movie, Amity is deeply feeling the effects of not having all the summer people there.  Business are having to lay off employees.  Others won’t be able to stay open if it continues like this.  It feels much more dire than it did in the movie.

The Fourth of July is a much smaller event in the book than in the movie.  Hardly anyone is there.  A kid is dared to swim out 100 yards for $10.  He does so, and then on his way back in, Hooper, who is out on the water in the boat, sees something heading for the kid.  It’s the shark.  The kid barely makes it back to the beach safely.  Brody forces Vaughan to relent, and they agree to hire someone to kill the shark.  Meadows mentions Quint, who has been introduced very briefly earlier.  After all the details are arranged, the three of them, Brody, Quint and Hooper agree to set out to kill the shark.

Part Three begins with the first day of the hunt.  Nothing happens except for Hooper and Brody getting in a fight, which makes Quint laugh, as he had been waiting for that to happen since they left the dock.  And then, after nothing has happened at all, they go home for the night.

This is another big change from the movie.  Quint offers reasons in the novel about why they won’t stay out hunting at night, and though it is plausible, keeping them out there at night in the movie isolates them from everyone else.  They are all alone.  And we feel their alone-ness.

They see the shark on the second day, and on the third day he brings his shark cage.  When he uses it to dive, the shark slams the cage and he is killed.  On the fourth day, it’s personal.  Quint and Brody set out alone to kill the shark, and as it is pulling away after attacking the boat, Quint’s foot gets caught in rope and he is pulled under.  He drowns and dies.

Which leaves Brody all alone, clinging to a cushion as the shark charges the sinking boat.  When the shark is two feet away, it simply stops and dies.  It’s hurt from being stuck with so many harpoons and tired from dragging three barrels behind it.  And it just dies.

After which Brody simply kicks to the shore and the novel ends.

It’s not at all the crowd-pleaser Spielberg gave us in the movie, however it is much more realistic.

So while JAWS the novel will never go down in history as great art, it is definitely worth being added to any summer reading list.

Especially if a beach and a beer are nearby.

And in case you never knew, Peter Benchley even manages to show up in the movie JAWS as a reporter in the Fourth of July beach scene.

(A quick word about the novelizations of JAWS 2 and JAWS: The Revenge, both by Hank Searls.  What’s a novelization?  When an author is hired to turn a screenplay into a novel.  They novelize it.  Usually, a script runs between 90-120 pages.  A novel is usually longer, so the author has to add a lot more stuff to it.  With JAWS 2, Searls is not quite as successful at making a good novel.  But with JAWS: The Revenge, he throws into the mix a vicious drug lord on the island and makes Hoagie an undercover DEA agent.  It is ALL FUN and a way better time than the movie.)

See you at the beach this summer, but maybe not in the water.

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