Jaws - Peter Benchley

It's hard in current times to separate the blockbuster book Jaws from the blockbuster movie. It's important to keep in mind that these are two completely separate entities, and that each spawned a legend on its own. Yes, in 1975 there was the first ever summer blockbuster movie, directed by Steven Spielburg, the first ever to earn $100 million. It was a story about a killer shark, involving heroic men, panicked townsfolk, and a quest to kill the monster. But before that, in 1974, was a book which - while generally similar - had a plot and following all its own.

Jaws, the book by Peter Benchley, was on the top selling list for 44 weeks and has become one of the top selling books of all time. If you look at other books on this list, you'll realize they are not there because of their literary value, usually :) Pretty much every book on the list is full of sex, violence, humans being nasty to each other, and more sex. Jaws is no exception. Sure, part of it is about a shark - and as an avid fan of Moby Dick, I see a lot of similarities in there. I'm sure term papers have been written about the shark representing X and Quint being Ahab. But that's not what draws in the interest of most readers. It's the more immediate issues that get the pages turning - those we see in human nature.

In the book, you have the typical, idyllic small town, a quiet corner of Long Island, New York. The townsfolk all have to cling to each other to survive the empty winters, earning their money as quickly as they can when the summer folk roll in. They make this clear in the beginning of the book, where they talk about driving out a pair of carpenters who give the town a bad name. They need to keep their world quiet and peaceful.

[SPOILER ALERTS]

However, underneath this quiet picture-perfect world, everything is all wrong. It's Peyton Place all over again. The cop's wife decides to sleep with Hopper, the shark expert, as a lark. The mayor is neck-deep with the mob and desperately needs the beaches to open to not be beaten up, or worse. Everybody drinks like a fish. The town's lesbian is promoting drugs. There's talk of the "fish" being divine retribution for the town's ills. By the end of the story, the fish hunters are half believing it to be true. When the shark is finally killed, it is not in a great, heroic action - but rather a whisper - the shark sliding into death, with only Chief Brody left alive to watch. And then he slowly swims his way back to shore, alone.

You can see why this needed to be changed for a blockbuster audience. This wasn't a triumphant "team of men vanquish evil foe! Women rejoice when they return to land!" story. Heck, in the book, there weren't really any humans who you felt *were* worth saving from the teeth of the shark. But that was part of the point. The shark did what it did to survive, without really thinking about it. The humans in the story were the same way. The mayor didn't want to get in bed with the mob, but he had to in order to save his wife's life. The chief didn't want his wife to be miserable - he did the best for her that he could. But his small-town life just wasn't what she wanted, and he helplessly watched her sink into despair every summer. Quint didn't like randomly killing sharks, but that is what his clients wanted, and they paid his fees to get him money. Brody and his family have to go for whatever's on sale for the week to stay fed, and several people in town can't even eat that much. When things get tough, they begin to turn on each other, much like the sharks do in the story.

It's not "uplifting" reading. Where the movie leaves you with the feeling of "Hurrah! We kicked shark butt!" the book leaves you with the feeling of "We barely got out of that one, and things really aren't that much better than before." Brody knows his wife cheated and hopes she won't again, now that her lover is dead. The mayor slinks out of town with his wife. Various people are dead. The newspaper editor has printed a full coverage of what has happened, which might doom the town to a slow, lingering death. Certainly the summer people won't come back, and without that influx of money, the town might not survive through the winter. Just as Quint's body hung in the half life between the surface and the depths, now the town is stuck there too, in the limbo between life and death. It really is a poetic story and, again, has many similarities to Moby Dick. But it isn't the movie.

I didn't "like" several of the characters here - but that's true with most of the books in the top selling books of all time listing. The characters are extremely flawed. That seems to be what people like to read about. Maybe it's the same reason that some people watch Jerry Springer - when they see these drastically flawed people, they feel a little better about their own non-perfect lives. When we read about Brody's wife hopping into bed with Hopper only days after meeting him, we think to ourselves, "well at least I'm not THAT bad." The vivid descriptions of the sexual fantasies, along with the voyeristic details of half-chewed bodies adds to the adrenaline. Again, it seems to be par for the course for books on the top selling list.

Certainly a book to read at least once, just as Jaws is a movie to see at least once, to understand so many references in our modern culture. Just the music alone from that movie shows up all over the place. But remember that it is a different entity from the movie. Think of it as a related theme - but its own unique item.

Buy Jaws from Amazon.com




Other Notes:
Peter Benchley actually was a chorus girl on Broadway, and wrote much of the goings-on in New York's theater district from her own experiences.

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