Weekend before last a Great White was spotted in Stellwagen Bank off Massachusetts Northshore. And like the dutiful New Englanders that we are, we immediately scrounged up a copy of the seminal shark work of the 20th century, Jaws.
It is so hard not to think of the iconic 1975 Steven Spielberg movie when reading Jaws today. It’s supremely difficult to extricate the actors that filled the Top-siders, boots and gun belt in perhaps one of the great American movies while reading Benchley’s source work that became a blockbuster thriller upon publication in 1974.
So as we endeavor to review Jaws, the book, we will be prone to leap back and forth and compare the novel to the movie.
We are sure you all know the plot, but we’ll dive right in and explain that a Great White shark is using the shores off Amity, Long Island as a aquatic buffet, feasting on anyone and everyone who enters the briny water. Islander police chief Martin Brody is faced with problems he is not equipped to handle on two fronts, first the shark menacing the very survival of the island dependent on tourist trade. Second, the possible failure of his once pleasant marriage.
We’re introduced to some vaguely familiar characters, Harry Meadows the newspaper editor, Larry Vaughn, Amity’s mayor. You catch where the movie picked up dabs of color from the book, but its interesting to see how different the tone of the characters are when it comes to island life. In a way the book is more of melodrama, with splashes of terror, than the film version. And it is this melodrama of business intrigue and infidelity that we find distracting and unlikable characters.
Matt Hooper is an Izod wearing beach bum that makes all the women swoon and ignites the libidinous fire in Ellen Brody, the chief’s wife. Benchley created a pair of unsympathetic characters, and yet he pushes Hooper forward into the jaws of the beast- the shark and Brody. And that does provide some interesting tension, between the shark and Brody, you’re not quite sure who’s going to catch the wunderkind ichthyologist first.
By far, the stars of the book (like the movie) are Quint and the shark (or as Benchley called him, ‘the fish.’) These two, relentless hunters, are counterpoints and retain their cores in print and celluloid. Unlike the Brody and Hooper of the book, one a slightly doughy island and the other a lean, sandy haired preppy, Quint was perfectly preserved and easily imagined with the slightly broguish growl of actor Robert Shaw. Let’s face it, Shaw had the best role in the film and the best two legged character in the book was Quint as well.
As for ‘the fish’ this is where Benchley showed off his thriller chops. The description of the stalk and kill by the shark are brilliant, gory and perfect. And as the book progresses the fish shows an almost supernatural, spiteful and vengeful cunning. Is it something other than the primordial impulses? Is it a glimmer of intelligence and will?
Yes, we’ll say it, the movie was better than the book. Why? Well, they are so very different in tone and outcomes. The book is classist struggle, full of nearly inbred New England village life, failed dreams and dead end existence in paradise. And yet the movie is a tighter story, with a diversity of personalities that make each one likable but for dramatically different reasons.
Hooper in the movie is a scruffy, curly haired geek, champion of the slide ruler set but completely unphased by the “work class hero crap” ladled at him like chum from Quint. As for Brody he retains some of that inner professional stoicism of the book, yet is leaner, more boyish and is overall better rounded as a transplanted New Yorker, a fish out of water so to speak.
Finally, Shaw’s scene over dinner, explaining his shark induced mental scars after the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, one of the strongest monologues in movie history.
Overall, you could argue the movie polluted our perception of the book. But in the end, we know that without that book and the strong shark and Quint, the movie wouldn’t have been nearly as good.
Jaws by Peter Benchley was purchased for review by the Boston Book Bums.