By Kirk Curnutt
The novel that scared a generation out of the ocean and inspired everything from Shark Week to Sharknado recently turned forty. Commemorations of Peter Benchley’s Jaws have been as rare as megalodon sightings, however. Ballantine has released a new paperback edition featuring an amusing list of the author’s potential titles (The Grinning Fish, Pisces Redux), and in February an LA fundraiser for Shark Savers/Wildaid performed excerpts promising “an evening of relentless terror (and really awkward sex).” Otherwise, silence.
The reason is obvious. Steven Spielberg’s 1975 adaptation is so totemic that the novel is considered glorified source material, despite selling twenty-million copies. Rare is the commentator who doesn’t harp on its faults, and rarer still the fan who defends it. Critics dismiss the book as “airport literature,” while genre lovers complain it lacks “virtually every single thing that makes the movie great.” Negative perceptions arguably begin with Spielberg himself. Amid the legendary production problems that plagued the making of the movie—pneumatic sharks that didn’t work, uncooperative ocean conditions that tripled the shooting schedule—the director managed to suggest that his biggest obstacle was Benchley’s original narrative: “If we don’t succeed in making this picture better than the book,” he said, “we’re in real trouble.”
It’s unfortunate that Benchley gets so little love. In the mid-seventies book-Jaws didn’t simply inspire a movie but was integral to the overall phenomenon. My mother brought home the hardback months before Spielberg even began filming. As the pre-release hype roiled throughout spring 1975, her ten-year old cobbled together $1.95 for his very own paperback, which featured Roger Kastel’s iconic illustration of a massive beast with a mouthful of stalactites and stalagmites speeding toward a naked woman. (The hardback’s cover was toothless, both literally and figuratively; the shark looks like an index finger with a paper cut aiming to tickle its prey). Shortly after seeing Jaws I owned the soundtrack with John Williams’s ominous dun-dun theme; co-screenwriter Carl Gottlieb’s The Jaws Log, which detailed the torturous filming; and a Jaws beach towel, which made me the envy of the pool, if only briefly.
Obsessed, I collected newspaper and magazine clippings on sharks. Following the loony lead of Mad, Cracked, and Sick, I drew goofy, pun-laden parodies (Paws) and became a connoisseur of gory rip-offs (Grizzly, Orca). My paperback was essential to feeding my frenzy. I managed only three matinees before the movie left town. That was as many times per hour as I probably pored over Benchley’s bloodier passages. The urge to revisit scenes would today send a young fan to YouTube for clips or to Google for GIFs and memes. For a pre-Internet, pre-computer kid, however, rereading was the original refresh and replay. I knew Jaws so inside out I could cite the page number where the legs of the boy my age “were severed at the hips” and “sank, spinning slowly,” and I could flip straight to the bizarre moment when the shark hunter Quint insults his quarry’s penis.
I also detailed differences between the book and movie in my journal. (I was an only child; I had free time). The first change beguiled the beginning writer in me: “[Benchley] didn’t like any of his characters,” Spielberg declared, “so none of them were very likable. He put them in a situation where you were rooting for the shark to eat the people—in alphabetical order.”
The director flattened Benchley’s characters into eminently relatable archetypes: the everyman-cop with a near-fatal fear of water, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider); Quint, the aged fisherman (Robert Shaw); and the cocky scientist, Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss). Their counterparts on the page admittedly lack both their comic relief (Scheider’s famous deadpan “You’re going to need a bigger boat” upon first seeing the shark) and their riveting monologues (especially Quint’s tale of surviving the 1945 sinking of the USS Indianapolis, brilliantly if soddenly delivered by Shaw). Benchley preferred his people perturbing, not heroic. His insecure, snockered Brody belligerently spoils his wife’s dinner party; Hooper beds Mrs. Brody; and for bait Quint uses a dolphin fetus he brags of carving from its mother’s womb.
Despite its armrest-gripping terror, Spielberg’s movie is cathartic because man ultimately conquers nature. Like most audiences, I fist-pumped and cheered when Brody blew the shark to smithereens by exploding an oxygen tank. The book’s battle is less intense and yet more primal. Benchley’s captain hurls his harpoons as Queequeg or Tashtego would instead of firing them from a gun, while Quint’s and Hooper’s deaths are cruelly ironic. Maybe it’s because my friends and I had great fun sneaking ketchup packets into the pool to reenact it, but Shaw’s blood-belching final close-up never haunted me as much as the novel’s Ahab-inspired image of Quint dragged to a watery grave snared in his own harpoon line. Hooper’s fate is even more macabre. As the ichthyologist is turned into a human toothpick Brody attempts an ill-conceived rescue by strafing the water with rifle fire. He manages to miss the shark completely yet land a bullet in Hooper’s neck. Long before reading Melville, I intuited that this was how a naturalistic universe mocked humanity.
Jaws remains a very seventies-novel. I rather like that quality, much as, by contrast, I like that Spielberg’s movie hasn’t aged a day. (Thanks to Deep Blue Sea and Sharknado, we know how un-scary CGI sharks are compared to life-size pneumatic ones). Benchley’s book feels the way the first half of its decade did: amorphous and off-center, dubious of heroes, titillated by dirty talk.
Perhaps I might feel differently if I hadn’t read it on the cusp of adolescence, but Jaws reminds me of how novels attuned me to adult frailties. It’s going overboard to say it exposed me to the sharkish side of humanity, but I could recognize Brody’s resentments, Quint’s unapologetic violence, and Hooper’s sense of sexual entitlement in men I knew. A year after I outgrew my obsession I was berated for entering a community-theater dressing room and discovering a very Mrs. Brody-like friend of my family’s kissing a man I knew wasn’t her husband.
Benchley’s novel certainly made me afraid of the water, but unlike the movie, it did nothing to convince me I was any safer on dry land.
Kirk Curnutt is professor and chair of English at Troy University’s Montgomery, Alabama, campus, where Scott Fitzgerald met Zelda Sayre in 1918. His publications include A Historical Guide to F. Scott Fitzgerald (2004), the novels Breathing Out the Ghost (2008) and Dixie Noir (2009), and Brian Wilson (2012). He is currently at work on a reader’s guide to Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not.