by Hank Searls
238 pages, Pan Books
Review by Pat Black
I’ve written at exhausting length about Jaws. My reviews have been… twenty-footers, would you say, Quint?
Ah. Twenty-five. Three tonnes of ‘em. You know best.
So it’s taken a surprisingly long time for me to get around to this novelisation of the sequel to Steven Spielberg and Peter Benchley’s shark sandwich. Jaws 2, directed by Jeannot Szwarc, came out three years after the original and did well at the box office, though its reviews are mixed at best. I’m an unapologetic defender of this squalus sequelus; it’s a fine thriller in its own right, and if it existed on its own then it’d be acknowledged as such. Its big problem is that it had the misfortune to follow the greatest movie ever made.
Turning the evolution of its piscine predecessor snout-to-tail, Jaws 2 existed as a film script first, before making the translation to the page. The book is an adaptation of a screenplay by Dorothy Tristan and Howard Sackler, who carried out uncredited work on the first movie and is most famous for The Great White Hope (I’ve always wondered… did he get his Jaws gigs as a joke, or is that almighty pun a coincidence?).
That screenplay was a very early version of the movie you know. Carl Gottlieb’s shooting script bears little relation to the story we read in this book. The film incorporated a few elements from Sackler and Tristan’s original draft; but by and large, with this novel, you’re swimming in the dark.
Our shark wrangler, Hank Searls, is an established author of thrillers and adventure novels with a nautical or aviation theme. He works hard to create an actual novel, with backstories, extra scenes and credible internal worlds. It holds water on its own as a piece of prose, and is not just the hack job built around the spine of the screenplay it could have been.
One curious pleasure in this novel comes from a paradoxical intertextuality that runs parallel to the movie version and Benchley’s original novel. This should not work, but by and large it does. I’d say it is more of a natural sequel to Benchley’s novel than Spielberg’s movie – but on occasion the two elements elide.
The basic plot is the same: another giant killer shark appears off Amity Island. Martin Brody, the police chief, is the man to stop the second sharkocalypse. But there are intriguing differences between book and film.
The most startling contrast is that, while it features even more carnage than Benchley’s original, hardly anyone knows there’s another shark at large off the beaches until the very end. Only its victims are in on the secret, in the moments before they get chomped. In the course of a 238-page book, Brody only discovers on page 212 that he has another great white problem.
Similarly, in the film, Brody encounters the shark for the first time off Cable Junction, prior to carrying out some emergency root canal treatment with a giant electrical cable. But he’s aware from the very first that there’s another shark on the loose – a marked contrast to every other character, who think he’s a couple of pickles short of a fish supper.
For me, the most intriguing element of the movie is when Roy Scheider’s likeable family man starts to lose the plot after the first couple of disappearances. Given what he went through in the first story, you could forgive him for being a bit jumpy at every bobbing beer can he sees in the water. However, his sharktennae are a wee bit too sensitive, and soon he is running through the surf, firing his handgun at shadows, terrifying bathers and generally making a great white prick of himself. He sees sharks all over the shop. You wonder if someone perhaps stuck a mini-fin to his binocular lens.
Viewers know Brody is bang on the money – but no-one else does. He is treated as a dangerous crank and finally sacked as police chief, a scene I found as difficult to watch as any shark buffet. He’s a good man, and he’s on the right lines; but no-one believes him.
The original premise, as explored in Searls’ novel, follows a different channel. Here, Brody never suspects shark play, even when people start dying. As in the movie, the two missing divers take a picture which is sharkbombed an instant before they are turned into hors d’oeuvre. Their camera is recovered, with the film developed by a snarky local pharmacist. He sees the clear image of the shark tying a napkin around its neck before tucking in. The developer then decides to keep the images to himself, thanks to some blackmail shenanigans regarding property which he wants to exploit.
“The original shark isn’t dead!” this nasty piece of work sneers. “Brody lied! He didn’t kill it! It’s still here!”
This is far less affecting than the notion of the chief of police cracking up and seeing the shark everywhere, when no-one else does. However, although Brody doesn’t suffer so much in the book, it was disturbing to imagine that people might think Brody lied, regardless of his later heroics. This scenario is repeated by several people - and Brody himself. It is never resolved. By the end of this book, Brody might still doubt that he ever watched the first shark die.
This brings us into conflict with the movie version of Jaws – not only did Bruce end up as shark salsa thanks to a magic exploding Scuba tank (which doesn’t leave much room for interpretation), but there was a witness to Brody’s heroics: Matt Hooper.
As you probably know, the kooky, funny nerd as played by Richard Dreyfuss bears no relation to Matt Hooper in Benchley’s original novel. The Hooper of the book is a six-foot, blond, Ivy League snob; even worse, he has a fling with Brody’s wife, which I suppose makes us feel a bit better about him being eaten alive. In the movie, of course, Hooper the good guy escapes with his life. Searls never refers to Hooper as being still alive in the book, but surely Brody knows he’d corroborate his story if so. Searls ducks the question completely.
Searls never directly refers to how the original shark actually died. We can guess that his main source is the Benchley novel, as it does hint towards Brody suspecting that Hooper and his wife were carrying on. I suspect Searls favours the shark’s eerie evanescence in the novel. Pinpricked with Quint’s harpoons, the fish is finally worn down and appears to drown just before it can grind the chief into Brodymince… Leaving us with a suspicion that it’s still out there.
But there’s another reference in the Jaws 2 novel to Brody’s eldest son, Mike, having been traumatised by “the man on the raft” who was killed before his eyes. This is a complete muddle. The “raft” part refers to the little boy who was so memorably chomped in both film and book; but the traumatic episode Searls refers to is surely the chap knocked off his boat in the estuary (think: severed leg, white trainer and sock). This is something that only happened in the movie. So either Searls is hedging his bets and mingling both movie and book… Or, as I strongly suspect, Searls did not see the original Jaws movie before he wrote this novel.
That seems hard to believe these days, when you can own a pristine copy of the film in hardly any time at all, and for relatively little money. But in the mid-70s, VCRs would have been rare, and your only chance of revisiting a movie was if it was re-released in the cinema or shown on TV; I know it took six years for Jaws to be shown on terrestrial television in the UK. So, Searls might have had to make do with Benchley’s novel for his research, plus whatever clues were to be found in the Sackler/Tristan screenplay.
This hermeneutic confusion is especially apparent in the plotting. It follows the course of Benchley’s novel in that it has a bit more fishy business on its mind than simple shark thrills. As in Benchley’s book, the real estate concerns of Amity are a main driver of the plot; regrettably, the gangsters who threaten the mayor and Brody are also back. A new casino is coming to town, and it’s seen as a great chance for the town’s house prices to recover from the effects of what is referred to by everyone as The Trouble. Unfortunately, it’s backed by the mob.
I hated this tacked-on stuff in the original Jaws novel. House prices? Gangsters? Sales figures? Bad sex? Steven Spielberg was wise to cut it and focus on the shark. But, capricious critter I am, I was happier with the sub-plots this time around; they let us spend time with Brody and his family, characters who we’ve come to know and love through repeated screenings.
In fact, the shark is almost incidental to this book, occasionally munching people but doing so undetected. Its actions are misinterpreted. First of all, the two divers have vanished, as in the movie. This is written off as, of course, a boating accident. Then there’s the water-skiing scene – explosive conclusion included. This incident forms the centrepiece of a more realistic delusion from Brody, after he comes across a boorish cop on holiday who’s been shooting at a seal on the beach. Brody comes up with a theory that this trigger-happy pillock killed the waterskiers by firing a stray bullet through their boat’s petrol tank, triggering an explosion. In fact, the guy on the boat fired a flare through his own petrol tank, in a panic as the shark attacks, having watched it swallow his wife.
This false premise becomes an obsession with Brody which brings him into conflict with the mob, as well as the casino’s backers on Amity council. Even when he’s proven wrong, Brody refuses to back down, bringing the gunman to book for shooting at the seal. It’s comical to think of the shark going about its business and even swimming off scot-free, thanks to Brody unwittingly running interference thanks to an animal rights squabble.
Brody’s wife is a flirt in this book, giving her an added dimension she lacks on-screen (much as I love Lorraine Gary’s performance). She teases Harry Meadows, the heavy-duty newspaper editor, hinting that he might have a chance with her if he drops some weight. She is also suspiciously keen on a rugged Navy pilot, much to Brody’s irritation. However, Peterson, the up-and-coming town official who is held up as a possible romantic rival for Brody in the movie, is someone the chief gets on with in the book. In fact, it seems that Brody might be at risk of straying, as he forms a friendship with a glamorous forensic investigator who looks into the waterskiers’ deaths.
The name Daisy Whicker resurfaces, which made me smile; Ms Whicker is the girl supposedly set up with Hooper at the Brodys’ disastrous dinner party in Benchley’s Jaws. When Hooper is squiring Brody’s missus, he gives the police chief an alibi of having spent the day with Daisy Whicker. Except, the story doesn’t check out, as…der-dunnnn! It turns out Daisy Whicker is a lesbian. Gasp!
Shark scenes are the meat and bones of this book, and Searls’ execution of these are fantastic. The sudden terror of the thing appearing is beautifully done. What makes it worse is that, they have it in the back of their minds that The Trouble took place a few years back, and get a sudden inkling all is not well, before all is most definitely not well.
Searls doesn’t just exploit humans in peril; he also makes good use of the surrounding natural world, featuring “the White” (not “the great fish” this time) chasing and eating wildlife. We also see the wider ecosystem’s terrified reaction to the super-predator; schools of fish appearing where they shouldn’t, seals popping up on beaches and what have you. The shark’s natural prey includes these seals as well as a Navy-trained dolphin. These scenes were bleakly realistic and unsentimental.
Searls even gives his shark a motive for her Pac-Mannish behaviour; she’s pregnant, and driven mad with hunger before she gives birth to three pups. In Benchley’s Jaws, the fish was an almost supernatural entity, a clear nod towards Moby-Dick, as well as a great big metaphor for a corrupt America. There’s a more Freudian reading, put forward by Easy Riders, Raging Bulls author Peter Biskind, which imagines the shark as a “marauding penis”, a reflection of the lusts of Amity’s land-lubbing population.
My own take on Benchley’s beast is that it represents the seven deadly sins, visited upon small town America in the decade when the US confronted its own dark heart as never before. Crudely put, Jaws is Richard Nixon.
Searls is more in tune with the natural world and the business of humans interacting with it. While his oceanic menace seems less near-mythical than Benchley’s, it’s easier to believe as a living, breathing animal, familiar to us from TV documentaries.
The book builds to a climax that’s close in execution to the movie, as Brody drives a boat out to rendezvous with the children of Amity as they take part in a sailing regatta threatened by fog. This teenagers-in-peril angle isn’t the centrepiece of the book, as it is in the movie. Right up until the diving instructor he’s sailing with gets nommed in front of him, Brody has no idea that he’s puttering into shark trouble rather than attending a series of simple boating accidents. He does get the odd sharky shiver, but dismisses his instincts. “Nah. It couldn’t happen here… Not again.”
Bits and pieces of the book don’t work. Brody’s meltdown in the movie is much more compelling, as is his ultimate redemption when he is proven right. Here, he misses all the clues, and just kind of shows up to sort things out. The water-skiing nightmare and the helicopter crunch are present, but the rest of the attacks were totally new to my eyes – you don’t see the kid being nutted into the boat, nor do you see the movie’s most upsetting death, when motherly Margie is gulped down in one.
Anyone who wanted more out of Peter Benchley’s cod-Godfather gangster sub-plot will be more satisfied with Searls’ take on it; there is gunplay in this book as big-shot “Shuffles” Moscotti comes into conflict with Brody’s boy-scout copper. I’m not sure it worked – Italian American gangsters not created by Italian Americans tend to be laughable creations, verging on parody - but Searls deserves credit for humanising his mafioso, and spending time in their heads. Benchley simply drew a comic strip.
Jaws 2 was like a dip in a nice warm bath. Stripped of a sense of direct threat and dread, the shark circles Amity with almost complete impunity until Brody blunders in at the end.
It’s only doing what comes naturally. What a shame the beast must die.
Hank Searls was handed another great white gig after this one – the novelisation of Jaws: The Revenge in 1987. I’m sure that’ll come to a Squawk near you soon… But the man has a job of work on his hands to make sense of that fish-on-a-Death-Wish turkey.