RogerBW's Blog

Jaws, Peter Benchley 16 July 2021

1974 thriller. A huge shark seems to have taken up residence off the tourist beaches at Amity, Long Island…

When I wrote this a few days ago, I had never seen Jaws.

One cannot help being aware of the story in outline, of course, unless one blocks out popular culture with a fervour that I mostly save for advertisement of all kinds, but I'd never actually watched the film. That's now changed, because of Ribbon of Memes, so I thought that before I did I'd read the book from which it was adapted.

And, well, let's be polite and say it's of its time. There's lots of mention of women's breasts (presumably because in 1974 that's a thing authors can do without being put on the Dirty Books Shelf), and a sex scene which feels distinctly irrelevant to the story; everyone is vaguely unhappy but in most cases can't really say why. There are references to "faggots" and "hysterical" women and a black serial rapist none of whose (white) victims will press charges…

And there's a tremendous inverted snobbery which was largely suppressed for the film: this Brody is not an outsider but one of the poor locals, while his wife used to be one of the summer people who have all the money, and she's regretting the change in lifestyle she's made. (Naturally she realises by the end that marrying a Real Man was the right decision after all.) Hooper and Quint very clearly represent a dualism, the man so civilised as to be useless and the man so uncivilised as to be useless, and Brody has to invent something in between those extremes… except that Benchley drops the ball and doesn't make that a reason for his survival. No exploding air tank here, but a much more conventionally 1970s "all is lost and then the enemy dies of wounds inflicted earlier". On the other hand, Quint dies tangled in ropes as the blatant final act of his thoroughly implausible homage to Moby-Dick, and I laughed out loud at that. (Maybe I wasn't supposed to.)

Interestingly, one of the most implausible and widely-imitated bits of the film, the mayor who wants to keep the beaches open at all costs even as it becomes clear that people will die, has an actual motivation here: he's not just a standard faceless evil capitalist, he has a lot of debt to very bad people and if the summer season isn't profitable enough they may become irked with him. (The real-estate scam as presented doesn't really work, but never mind.)

Not by any means a great book, but I'm glad to have had this framing, because now I know what Spielberg had to work with.

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  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 02:26pm on 16 July 2021

    Sounds like the film (which I've seen several times) is rather better than the book. It certainly drops a lot of the dated aspects of the book that you mention, the only mistake on that count being dropping why the mayor kept the beaches open.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 09:21am on 17 July 2021

    Well, the book version is a bit silly. The film tries to make it a balancing of objectives with no good answers, and while that doesn't quite work for me either it at least tries.

  3. Posted by John P at 11:03pm on 19 July 2021

    Books are always better than films. You can swat flies with them.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 09:29am on 20 July 2021

    One of the significant disadvantages of ebooks (it's harder to clean the cover). It's also much less satisfying (and more expensive) to hurl them across the room in disgust.

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