March 20, 2010


by Peter Benchley
336 pages, Pan, 2004

Say Aaaaaah! by Pat Black

In the 1970s, when a tall, thin, somewhat gangly speechwriter called Peter Benchley began to pen a story about a fish that bites people, he could scarcely have dreamed of the cultural monster he would unleash on the world. Jaws, his classic tale of a man-eating shark that terrorises a seaside resort on the east coast of America, is seemingly ingrained in the DNA of today’s writers and film-makers.

The idea has an almost mythical pull to it, sucking the reader in much like the near-supernatural fish lurking beneath the covers does with swimmers. Maybe it’s something to do with the exploitation of primal fears; of deep water, of the unknown, of being eaten alive by something monstrous lingering just out of reach of human perception - until the moment it strikes.

Or maybe it’s that bloody music. There is probably a phobia connected to the feeling those simple notes trigger in us, totally independent of being in the water and anxious about sharks. Cellophobia, maybe?

After a lifetime of TV repeats and VHS viewings, I finally saw Jaws on the big screen at an event marking the 30th anniversary of its release. The organisers had promised that they’d use an original print, a celluloid relic from the disco era. But a problem with the audio meant they had to screen the DVD instead.

I was disappointed, having looked forward to a crumbly print criss-crossed with pubes and static-plagued screams cutting out on us (much as they would in real life if a giant stickleback bit your head off). I’d wanted a little flavour of old cinemas: rancid hotdogs, to be specific. Och well.

But I was surprised by how many laughs and screams there were in the cinema that day. After all, everyone’s bloody seen Jaws. I shouldn’t like to discover how many times I’ve watched it; it’s probably on a par with that girl you almost certainly know who likes Dirty Dancing just that wee bit too much. Or the male equivalent, in denial about those new Star Wars movies. So I was well-schooled in all the jump moments – beat-perfect – but plenty of people had forgotten about them. Sure, everyone tensed up for the head-in-the-boat scene, but loads of folk had forgotten about the part where the fish bursts through the window of the sinking Orca, with little bits of Quint hanging from its teeth in pinkish shreds. Just like they gasped when they first saw the creature’s head, gliding beneath the surface as it pulls the poor man in the rowing boat to his gory doom.

After all these years. Still got it!

But aside from the shrieks heralding the steak-knife choppy bitey deaths, what most moved me were the laughs, responses to little character moments from the cast (which is wonderful even down to the bit-part players), on-the-nail observations of life. The guy complaining about “cats parking in my yard” while our hero, Chief Brody, freaks out at the false alarms in the background. The fishermen who think they’ve caught the real killer shark, chiding Hooper as he takes bite radius measurements. The astoundingly crap junior brass band. And the mayor, Murray Hamilton’s wonderfully slimy politician. I’ve read a few times that Steven Spielberg was painfully shy and naive when he made this film. Looking at the results, I think there is a lot we can all learn from that young man if that was the case.

And this brings us to an intriguing conundrum. The movie – one of the best ever made – is tattooed on the collective consciousness; but how much does its success really owe to the man who created the story, the late Mr Benchley? If there had been no movie, would we even remember Jaws today?

I once read an abridged version of the novel when I was 11. It had a wonderful picture on the cover of the shark banking through dark water, a trail of blood curling from either side of its mouth. I’m delighted to see a very similar cover gracing the adult book today on Amazon; if anything, the 30th anniversary edition displays a more comical squalus than before, coming on like a piscene Barney the dinosaur with a purplish colouring on its back. There’s also an even gaudier blood trail. Where is this claret coming from? I ask myself. Did the shark have some wisdom teeth removed? Was applying lip gloss with fins too big a challenge underwater? Or was it eating spaghetti bolognese? I tend to get in a similar mess with that at home (and always, it seems, when I’m wearing white).

But the cover on the first edition of Jaws is far creepier. The composition is the same as the classic movie poster, except the dominant colour is black. There’s no sign of the surface of the sea, just a little naked woman swimming along the top and a ghostly white leviathan rising toward her. It has no teeth on show; no fins, no black eyes, no gills, no nostrils. None of the classic ingredients, nothing that you would draw if someone asked you to sketch a shark. Just an ugly downturned mouth, more like a ray’s.

One can read too much into these things of course – a shark is sometimes just a shark – but it seems like an unmistakably phallic image to me. Have a look at this cover on Wikipedia and decide for yourself.

John Cleese’s Basil can be seen reading this book in bed in an episode of Fawlty Towers, prior to another savaging from the formidable Sybil. I don’t think that’s an accident either. This is a book preoccupied with sex ¬¬¬– Jeez Louise, I never thought I would type those words – whereas the movie is curiously denuded of it. We’ll come to that later.

The story is almost identical to the film for the opening few chapters: girl is eaten, little kid is eaten. Spielberg was wise to keep these elements in. You know you are not safe in this story if women and children are first to go; in the film, a dog is added to the menu, too. (“Pippet! Here, Pippet!”)

That first scene in the movie is so vivid it almost seems like something we actually experienced. The music, that appalling screaming, the unseen monster; you don’t need to be reminded. In the book, we start off with a description of the fish’s movements, and a curiously beautiful image as it moves through the dark water; the little luminescent creatures of the deep casting a “mantle of sparks” over its body as it appears from god knows where, to carry out its awful work.

Spielberg’s ahead when it comes to this opening. He leaves everything to the imagination, whereas Benchley colours in the wounds for us. “She knew that the warmth pumping over her hand was her own blood,” indeed. The decision to cloak things is made easy for the movie as, laughably, it was shooting for a general audience. Astonishing as it seems, Jaws was a PG release. Though I feel obliged to point out that in the cleaned-up print of recent DVD reissues, you can clearly see the girl’s muff as the shark closes in.

So the plot of the book and the film are largely in tandem with the exception of several key areas; one is the affair which springs up (‘blossoms’ is the wrong word; fungi don’t do that) between Hooper the oceanographer and Chief Brody’s wife, Ellen. Then there’s a Mafia sub-plot, inexplicably linking the depredations of a member of the elasmobranch family to organised crime.

Another contrast is more fundamental; the characters themselves. The names are the same but the features have been altered to protect the guilty.

And finally, there’s the conclusion. There’s no pyrotechnic fish at the end of this novel.

It wasn’t just the fact of the affair between Hooper and Ellen that annoyed me, so much as the idea that the family unit which is so well drawn in the movie could be so effortlessly destroyed on the page. That this maternal, supportive figure in Ellen could be made so flighty and shallow. Then there’s Hooper; in the book he’s a smart arse, privileged and attractive and simply from a different world to the more streetwise Brody. The police chief suffers appalling (if well-founded) jealousy over the idea that Hooper and his wife got it on behind his back. This forms a key tension of the book, but it isn’t good tension; we should be worrying about the mincing machine lurking beneath the Orca, but end up being more discomfited by the simmering tension between these two apparent allies.

And the sex itself is hard to digest – neither erotic nor titillating, failing by the standards of most bog-standard airport page-turners. In flashback, Ellen recalls Hooper banging away above her, his teeth bared (you see what I did there?), “almost as if she wasn’t there”. The seduction is even worse, with an attempt at dirty talk that makes me think of two lapsed virgins chatting in a bar, dialogue so crass that I had to put the book down to stop myself biting it.

Later on, as she plods guiltily into the family home, she slips her underwear into the washing basket and declares herself “a woman of the world”. It’s tawdry, something that’s meant to give us a bit of a thrill but fails; reminiscent of the shagging at the start of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather where Sonny’s natural gifts are so abundantly described. You remember it, despite yourself.

Maybe Benchley meant to depict adultery in this way, as something to offend our sensibilities. A vignette essaying the dangers of indulging in fantasies, highlighting the guilt, damage and disappointment it is bound to produce. But such nobility sinks without trace beneath the pages of a giant shark thriller.

Another parallel with The Godfather is in the book’s insistence on a Cosa Nostra plotline. The mayor doesn’t just want to keep the beaches open (in spite of the shark buffet this promises) simply to save the local businesses from financial disaster; no, he has to because the Mafia are leaning on him, see? It’s lazy, almost tacked-on. We barely see any gangsterism other than some totally unnecessary cat vandalism chez Brody carried out off-page by cartoonish types in black hats.

This is a waste of time. Valuable shark time.

Spielberg wisely did away with all these adult concerns; it’s clutter. As Benchley admitted in a documentary: “They said, ‘we don’t want the gangster scenes and the sex – get rid of it. This is an A to B adventure movie, period.”

Perhaps Benchley wanted to reflect the grubbier preoccupations of the decade. The mayor represents Watergate; the shagging represents the mass-market profitability of pornography; the idea of a seaside town in decline reflects the economic difficulties of the era (Christ, Benchley should have checked out Blackpool any given Bank Holiday); and the Mafia plotline represents the popularity of The Godfather, which hit cinemas a good two years before Jaws was published. You half-expect one of Brody’s children to become possessed by Satan before the end, gouting pea soup and obscenities from a spinning-top head. And who knows - had Jaws been published a year later, one of them might well have.

When I first read the novel in full, I didn’t recognise the characters I knew and loved from the movie. Whereas Roy Scheider’s Brody is cantankerous on screen, this is because he’s a dedicated father and policeman who simply wants to protect people and is frustrated by any obstacles that appear in his way. The chief might be a bit of a grump, but it’s hard to pinpoint a scene in the film where this isn’t justified.

In the book, he is simply sour. This is best illustrated by a bizarre scene which feels like it belongs in another novel: the dinner party. In an effort to rebuild a social life, his wife throws a little shindig at their house, where Brody proceeds to get horribly pissed, gets out of his depth with Ellen’s culinary efforts, shouts and bawls, snarls at Hooper and the girl he has been partnered with (a hippy type who turns out to be a lesbian), clears out the house and makes damned sure his wife cries.

He is that tragic thing: a bitter, emotionally distant man in his forties without the opportunity to embark on a mid-life crisis. The shark might be the best thing that’s happened to him in years. You can understand why Ellen - a former belle of the ball who could have done anything with her life, but chose to marry a local copper - looks elsewhere for affection.

Hooper is unrecognisable. There’s no sign of Richard Dreyfuss’s somewhat smug but always funny and child-like kook; in his place is this over-achieving playboy, a toothsome, tanned six-footer who Ellen Brody simply can’t resist. The ugly thing about this character is that I found myself seeing him through Martin Brody’s fish-eye lens. He’s an affluent, handsome, supercilious guy without a care in the world, a Porsche in the garage and an alligator on his polo shirt; Brody’s hard-working flatfoot burns with jealousy. And that envy is not always focused on what Brody suspects - but never knows - went on with Ellen behind his back.

And then I came back to myself: assuming he never knows about the affair other than a paranoid suspicion, why should the chief be so bothered about this man? Shouldn’t Brody be focused on his family and the citizens he is paid to protect, instead of getting into a pissing contest with some preppy speedboat owner? What age is he, anyway?

And so to Quint. No first name listed in the phone book; that was cute. The rest of it, less so.

There’s a lot of the novel’s Quint in Robert Shaw’s portrayal, but there’s no sign of that mania and twinkly-eyed charm on the page; essentially, what draws us to the character in the first place, and makes us feel aggrieved when he ends up as sushi. The dinner-table bonding scene and the USS Indiannapolis speech aren’t to be found in the book either, and our hearts ache for these omissions. Benchley’s Quint is a steely-eyed war veteran, who may or may not have been involved in unpleasant things in the past. But what is beyond question is that he now takes part in unpleasant things in the present, such as slitting an ickle shark’s belly open then dumping it in the sea to eat itself, precipitating a feeding frenzy, all for a “watch this!” thrill for Brody and Hooper (and, I suppose, us). Later, he uses a dolphin embryo as bait for the shark when it gets too clever for his hooks and lines. Quint cackles at Brody and Hooper’s on-deck confrontation over Ellen (a queasy encounter without catharsis), shows almost scant regard for death, is an emotionless block of wood and is, in all frankness, as much of a total prick as his shipmates as they sail out to do battle with the beast.

I’m paraphrasing several commentators here, but you truly are rooting for the shark by the time this compelling confrontation kicks into gear at sea. At least it is true to its nature.

Characterisation is the movie’s great strength, and the decision to fillet Benchley’s creations was spot-on. In place of Brody the Grouch, we have Brody the Family Man, making him an instantaneously likeable guy. Roy Scheider’s performance gives us one of cinema’s great father figures, on a par with Atticus Finch or The Champ. Hooper is still rich, but cheeky and likeable; the idea that he has money is still there, but there’s no conflict with Brody; just with Quint, which is where it needs to be. Lots of the humour in the film flows from this Hooper (apparently the cup-crushing contest with Quint was all Spielberg’s idea). Shaw’s Quint – still too hard for first names – is just as much of an enigma, but he’s rounded out into one with motive, hiding a scar that would break most people. Ellen’s wonderful on screen too, from “you wanna get drunk and fool around?” to that sprint away from the dock at the start of the third act, as the Orca sails into the shark’s mouth.

So the movie’s well ahead on points. The novel’s on the ropes. Even the trainers are telling it to stay down next time.

But the end of the book is where the scores start to even up in favour of Benchley. The author, who is credited with the first screenplay, was apparently annoyed by the Hollywood conclusion featuring a shark tsunami via a shot-in-a-million from Chief Brody. According to scientists and pedants, a bullet penetrating a Scuba tank in a shark’s mouth wouldn’t have created a massive incendiary blast wave, but would have propelled the canister out of side of the thing’s body. Killing it - but not quite so sluttishly.

Benchley thought Spielberg’s ending was ludicrous, but the young director reasoned that he would have the audience so firmly enfolded in the palm of his hand by this point that he could get away with it. He was right, too. We never pause to think about what we’re seeing; not entirely coincidentally, the conclusion is when the mechanical shark looks the silliest.

But I suspect the real reason for this change in ending is that the climax to Jaws the novel is grim, dark and an unsubtle nod to Moby Dick. Spielberg wanted the audience up out of their seats, cheering, and that works for cinema. Writers have a harder time convincing their readers, having to fit in a thrilling finish without resorting to smoke and mirrors and rousing fanfares.

In Benchley’s vision, Hooper doesn’t make it out of the shark cage alive. From there, Quint suddenly develops motivation, monotoning that he is “going to have that fish”. Brody, out of a sense of nobility not entirely at odds with his actions, agrees to go with him on one last shark hunt. But the beast turns the screw, and the boat starts to sink. As it does so, Quint’s leg gets snarled up in a harpoon rope attached to the fish and, in an Ahab-like fashion, he is drawn into the deep by his quarry. Brody the non-swimmer, clinging to a seat cushion, can only await his diced fate as the shark circles back around and closes in. But just before it can help itself to a Brody Bite, the beast begins to sink, exhausted by the barrels sticking out of it, to die in the deep thanks to a lack of oxygen moving through its gills. Or to return to hell, with Quint trailing in its wake.

I think this is a cool ending. And Benchley was right about the Scuba tank thing.

Where we must also praise Benchley is in his restraint. Spielberg is given a lot of credit for hiding the monster from us, generating suspense. (Who could forget the detached pier suddenly swinging around and chasing the man who tries to catch it with a joint of beef on a chain?) But I suspect this had a lot to do with the fact that his mechanical shark refused to function in salt water for most of the shoot, forcing some improvisation and trickery. The film works in spite of the fake fish, not because of it, and owes a lot to the razor sharp editing of Verna Fields.

But this “absence of shark” effect is also present in the book. There’s a chapter (which became the head-out-the-boat section of the film) where Chief Brody and his deputy discover the abandoned boat of victim number four, Ben Gardner. It’s pretty clear from the damage to the hull what has become of Ben, and there’s a wonderful scene where the chief dangles his deputy over the side of the ship to dislodge a tooth. “If that shark came along right now, he could grab me out of your arms, couldn’t he?” Deputy Hendricks says, several steps behind the readers. No such jump-scare happens, of course, but the fish is unpleasantly omni-present in your mind by now. This is the second of two deaths which occur “off-page” in the book – the other being a second-hand recounting of a fatal attack on a 65-year-old man, torn to pieces in the surf moments after the little boy dies. And there’s also a fine scene where Brody leaps into the shallow water to pull out a young lad who has been dared to swim by his friends for 10 dollars, narrowly avoiding becoming lunch for the lurking shark. All we are shown is a fin; but it’s enough.

So we get all the stress, and our imaginations run riot - but there’s no sign of the fish after its first couple of forays into Amity Island beach life until the great shark hunt begins. It’s clear that Benchley understood we can have too much of a good thing. We can never be sure if Spielberg was aiming to replicate this in his own less-is-more approach, but the connection is there to be made. Every scene where the shark does appear is electrifying, and our anticipation keeps us turning the pages. The author has skilfully employed a very simple device: let them take the bait, and keep them coming back for more.

Because no matter what we might think about the directions he takes, Benchley knows how to keep a story moving. There’s a brilliant blurb on the back of an old edition of the book that I got from a second-hand store, stating: “Pick up Jaws before midnight, read the first five pages, and I guarantee you’ll be putting it down, breathless and stunned, as dawn is breaking the next day.” It certainly is a rollicking thriller, with a great command of tension and threat which Spielberg did well to mimic in the shark hunting scenes. Jaws is a page-turner, as sleek and efficient as the creature it depicts.

Which brings us to my final point in defence of Benchley, a man who you sense grew to regret the monster he created. Before Jaws came out, the great white shark was a very rarely-seen creature. Apart from some footage from Ron and Valerie Taylor and the documentary Blue Water, White Death, I suspect the public weren’t fully aware that this wonderful creature roamed the seas. A far cry from today, with Shark Week, cage diving trips and hundreds of documentaries guaranteeing us shark porn by the chum-bucketload.

But once Jaws had come out, it appears that every sports fisherman in the world wanted to have a piece of this monster, with a nice set of choppers to put above the mantelpiece. Many commentators have claimed that the movie was not a good thing for the animal’s profile, or its chances of survival. Benchley, a Scuba diving enthusiast with a passion for sea life, must have been horrified at this notion.

But I would argue that rather than placing the white shark under sentence of death, Jaws actually succeeded in popularising the animal, so much so that it inspires awe and admiration. In the 1970s, ideas of conservation weren’t as sophisticated as they are now. We are far better educated about these creatures today, and children tend to love them, not fear them – just look at the excitement apparent at any public aquarium.

Also, witness the character of Hooper in the film; this nature expert is unequivocal – the shark must die. He shares a little bit of the novelised Hooper’s enthusiasm, all the same; that version also displays a giddy excitement when he first encounters the fish. He even passes up a chance to kill it with a “bang stick” underwater shotgun as it swims past him in the cage, choosing instead to take some video footage.


So while it’s still one scary beast, times and attitudes have changed. Every fatal shark attack on a human is met with understandable horror, but people are no longer quite so determined to get out in boats and chase the monster as they once were. A story that really affected me a few years back concerned a young man in Australia who was out in the water with some friends, close to shore. He was being towed behind their boat in a rubber ring, hanging on while it tore across the surface. Not one, but two white sharks took an interest in the commotion going on above them; there was nothing left of this poor lad once they’d finished with him. His father gave a very noble quote to the press, saying that his son had loved the sea, and had also loved sharks; and that people should not be quick to condemn an animal simply because it does what comes naturally to it, while we intrude upon its natural territory.

Up until the end of his life, Benchley was a tireless campaigner for shark conservation. He took some satisfaction in the fact that whatever damage Jaws might have done to the reputation of sharks, it has, over time, repaired it by inspiring fascination and affection for the animal across the generations. And we are more certain than ever before of the harm that over-fishing can do to the environment, and of the importance of these fish in the food chain.

If we should appear in that food chain now and again, perhaps we shouldn’t get too angry about it. Ultimately, these creatures have far more to fear from us than we do from them. They die in their millions every year thanks in no small part to the obscene practice of finning – cutting off the dorsal fins to provide ingredients for soup, then dumping the still-living animals back into the water to expire. If you want to see a true horror movie, you could do worse than look up footage of this.

At any rate, it might give you something to think about the next time you’re swimming in the sea, just a little but further out than you’re comfortable with. And you hear a very familiar couple of notes playing in your mind.


  1. Wow. What an amazing piece of writing. Not just a book review but an in-depth commentary on the cultural importance of "Jaws". I got round to reading the book for the first time last year and was pleasantly surprised by it.
    You've outdone yourself, Mr Black. I salute you!
    And yes, you can see muff on the DVD version. How that one got past the censors, I don't know.

  2. Many thanks Hereward, it was a pleasure to write... although, I'm getting vertigo just after having scrolled through it!


  3. Many thanks Hereward, it was a pleasure to write... although, I'm getting vertigo just after having scrolled through it!