JAWS: On The Page And On The Screen

How Steven Spielberg improved upon Peter Benchley’s best seller.

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“Keep shooting, and make due with what you’ve got”

When the animatronic shark in Jaws malfunctioned while shooting, the effects department asked if they could take a brief break to fix the creature and make it perfect before they finished the movie. That’s when decorated film veteran and longtime producer David Brown stepped in, announcing that filming would not cease for any reason until the feature was completed. He knew very well that slowing down wasn’t an option. Life, like making movies, is a tedious forward movement, an uphill battle. Brown knew this, Spielberg learned it, and audiences rose to cheer for it, as the message of triumph over immeasurable odds in Peter Benchley’s novel inadvertently became the anthem for the film's production. In both intentional and reactionary ways, twenty-six-year-old Steven Spielberg pulled off the rare adaptation which actually exceeds the novel, thus creating a thrilling and vicariously exultant film that still makes people afraid to go in the water. It just happened to take 159 days to shoot.

First and foremost, there would be no Jaws the movie without Jaws the book. It’s an obvious statement, but a necessary one, because it’s worth noting Benchley is a brilliant writer who made a best seller out of the first novel he ever wrote (sold to Universal for $150,000 when Benchley had $300 in his bank account), and it’s also worth saying that Spielberg's elevation of Benchley’s story doesn’t detract from Benchley’s original foundation in any way. Without Benchley, there would be no modern day Moby Dick-esque tale of three brave – or foolish – men who take on a ravenous Great White Shark by themselves on a tiny boat at sea.

Having said that, Spielberg made some key choices with the material he was given. For starters, Spielberg minimized the melodrama and amplified the action. Admittedly, there’s a lot of petty drama in the book. Brody’s an islander who has lived in Amity all his life, but his wife Ellen is one of those rich summer kids whom Brody has come to despise -- a picture-perfect display of unearned wealth and power and snobbish nepotistic aristocracy. Every summer, the out-of-towners come to Amity with big wallets and big plans of baking in the sun. But the way Chief Brody sees it, every summer, he hauls the intoxicated little hoodlums into the police station, one by one, and proudly puts in a call to local reporter Harry Meadows to print the boys’ good family names in the Amity Leader newspaper -- an act of humiliation he believes kids who weren’t born here rightly deserve.

Brody and Ellen have always butted heads when it comes to their backgrounds, but their little skirmishes take on a whole new life when Matt Hooper comes to town – handsome oceanographer and well-to-do rich summer boy with his eyes set on Ellen. Hooper and Ellen actually have an affair in the book, and Brody, who’s already been experiencing trouble in his marriage for quite some time now, is constantly ready to rip the head off of the man he called to help capture the town's shark. It’s hard not to take notice of how immature both men act towards one another in the novel, especially given the fact that people are dropping like flies around them. All they care about is who’s sleeping with who. Even Quint, while watching Hooper and Brody squabble like tiny children on his Orca while out at sea, actually looks at the two men at one point and declares, “What a pair of assholes."

As if Brody and Hooper’s drama weren’t heavy enough, there’s also more than meets the eye when it comes to the Mayor. In both the book and the film, Mayor Larry Vaughn is a thorn in Brody’s side, refusing to close the beaches despite more and more people dying from shark attacks. However, in the novel, the Mayor’s also tied up in illegal activities, and happens to owe a large debt to the New York mafia – a big reason why he wants to keep the beaches open and the money rolling in. Speaking of which, even Hooper wants to keep the beaches open in the book, telling Brody “Nobody’s seen the fish in a week….Not a sign. Then there’s the water. It’s getting warmer every day…great whites prefer cooler water…there’s no reason for that fish to hang around here. I haven’t seen him. The Coast Guard hasn’t seen him...there’s just no reason for him to be here”.

The good news is, Spielberg decided to cut all of these backstories and keep it simple. In place of toxic masculinity, there’s teamwork. Instead of the shark symbolizing all of the suppressed problems in Brody’s marriage violently bubbling to the surface, it’s more of a leviathan in the film -- a beast from the sea tearing apart this quiet little Amity community. It’s now an expedition which requires heroes, and heroes it shall have.

The most drastic and most important change to the story comes at its conclusion. Benchley’s original novel is actually a bit of a downer in the final scene. Brody still manages to overcome the shark, thus giving him the catharsis he seeks, but it’s not exactly done in the same fashion. In the book, the boys battle the shark on the boat, the shark kills Hooper and Quint (dragging Quint down to the bottom in a very Captain Ahab fashion), but not before Quint stabs the fish with a harpoon, and it quietly sinks down to the bottom of the sea.

Symbolically, it’s a beautiful story. Brody has long acknowledged the fish in the same regard that he acknowledges Hooper, as well as the bratty rich teens that spill into town every summer – the fish is the outsider. Metaphorically, it’s the reason for Brody’s failed marriage, and by killing it, he has confronted his issues and won. However, that game is harder to play on a forty-foot-high screen. Spielberg knew he had to blow up the shark.

Of course, when he told Benchley his plans, Benchley looked at the cocky little twenty-six-year-old and grimaced. Sharks don’t swallow diving tanks and explode like a gas-soaked weapons factory when hit with bullets, Benchley argued. But Spielberg didn’t care. He knew that if he had the audience by the tail for the first two hours, they’d believe whatever happened in the next three minutes – and he was right. Benchley offered the premise for one of the greatest cinematic tales ever told, but Spielberg molded it, sculpted it, and fired it up into a relatable story of victory. After all, even after all these years, when people find themselves going up against colossal challenges they often say “You’re going to need a bigger boat” – a line not from the book, but from the movie.

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