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JAWS: The Novel

Released: February, 1974

Genre: Thriller/Horror

Series: Jaws

Author: Peter Benchley

Reviewer: Comie

Intro: The novel, Jaws, written by Peter Benchley went on to spurn the creation of the definitive summer blockbuster movie that spawned 3 sequels and leave a lasting legacy in the entertainment world for decades to come. What is interesting is that the novel is so drastically different from the film, giving it a unique experience whether it is your first exposure to the franchise or the last. Personally, I had not read the book until the early 2010’s, quite a long time after it was written and after the last sequel had been made. I went into it expecting something that followed the movie relatively closely, but what I found was quite surprising.

Story: In a nutshell, the book does in fact have many of the key moments that were translated to the film. It starts out with Chrissie Watkins’ death, includes Alex Kintner’s death, the journey to find and kill the shark on the open ocean, and the vast majority of characters, there is a lot that was left out (most likely for pacing or changes in character). One thing that was a pleasant aspect was the occasional POV from the shark, reminding the reader that the shark is not a monster with some agenda. Instead it points out that the shark is really only acting out of instinct. In a way that actually makes the animal all the more horrifying, because at least an agenda has some level of prediction or can even be negotiated to an extent. But animal nature isn’t something you can argue or bargain with and it can be incredibly unpredictable. Quint discovers this in the later part of the novel when his cocky assumption of fish being stupid is put to the test when the shark seemingly outsmarts his plans for capture.

We are treated to a much more intimate view of Amity as a town; even if we do not meet a lot of the people themselves, we are treated to numerous descriptions and discussions of the culture of the town and the economy. What makes things interesting, however, is that while the film does mention the local economy being a major factor in keeping beaches open, it completely omits the mafia subplot that explains why the mayor is so incredibly dead set on keeping those beaches open. The book actually does a much better job at showing us just how desperate the mayor has become and turns him from a man in charge to a man pleading for cooperation from the police chief to keep the mafia from killing him. It even goes on to include a scene where a mobster murders the Brody family cat in front of Brody’s youngest son and leaves him with a threat to tell his dad. While this made the mayor’s plight more understandable, it makes sense that it was left out of the film. I did feel for the mayor in the book when he stopped by the Brody home as he announced his leaving the town and his complete ruination.

Another huge subplot that was thankfully left out of the film revolves around Ellen Brody and Matt Hooper. In the movie, they had never met before and there was no interaction outside of the dinner at the Brody home. In the source material, the pair are old friends from school. Ellen dated Matt’s older brother, but they very quickly begin a flirtation in front of her husband, and it escalates into a full-on adulterous affair. It’s a one-time booty call, but the lead up to it takes up a lot of page space and fuels a lot of character development between Ellen, Matt, and Chief Brody. While this plotline is acceptable in the book, it would have added absolutely nothing to the film and only served to drag it out to the three-hour mark. It’s a very graphic affair and honestly I think the way they began it with Hooper giving Ellen a gift before the dinner party was so in-your-face that he was putting the moves on her in front of her man that it was almost insulting. To his credit, the chief wasn’t totally blind to the allusions, and even if by the end of the book he doesn’t have his definitive answer as to what happened between the two, he at least addressed his suspicions with his actions toward Hooper. I was additionally very surprised how vulgar and raunchy the affair was described. I refer to the lunch Ellen and Matt shared before their actual dalliance in the bedroom. They use a lot of coarse language that I had a very hard time picturing these characters saying, especially so nonchalantly. Perhaps in this case it would have been better had I not seen the film first, as it was near impossible not to picture Richard Dreyfuss and Lorraine Gary sitting in the restaurant exchanging graphic fantasies and then afterward having a raunchy sexual experience. I am by far no prude, but it did surprise me.

If the affair left a sour taste in your mouth, you would be pleased upon reading that Brody later on tries to beat up Hooper as he suspects something going on, and then later still Hooper is eaten alive by the shark. Obviously, he survives in the film, but given the way the characters are differently developed, I think people had a much easier time applauding his escape from the shark in the film than had they continued with the infidelity plotline. In truth, I think regardless of how they characterized Hooper, his death was needed to raise the stakes of just how dangerous the shark was. It hadn’t killed anyone since Alex Kintner, so it was easy to forget the threat, especially when it was almost overshadowed by the threat of the mafia. Hooper’s death snapped us back to the reality that the shark is the primary antagonist and that when the book starts killing major characters, the plot is winding down and the climax is coming.

We also see the hunt for the shark takes far longer in the novel. The trio (and later on, duo) take the Orca out numerous times to seek out the giant fish and the comraderies between the men is drastically different. It made sense to me that it would take more than one lucky trip out to sea to find and kill the animal, even if we did get an overnight scene in the film. I liked the way they had to return to shore each day to find bigger and better ways to try and overtake the beast and it felt more realistic. I understand why they didn’t go that route for the movie though, as the single trip did add more tension.

The ending of the novel was also very different from the film, and actually felt incredibly anticlimactic, albeit more realistic compared to a well aimed bullet to an air tank. Quint is dragged down in the water by a rope tied to a harpoon after he has already turned the shark into a pincushion. He drowns and the shark succumbs to its wounds just before going in for the kill on Brody, the lone survivor in the vast ocean. There is no scream of joy as the beast is defeated and there is no excitement of Hooper dodging death. The shark simply bleeds out, weakened by the numerous wounds and slips away beneath the surface. Honestly I found myself more concerned about how Brody was to survive making it back to shore on a tiny float from a chair on the now sunken Orca. At least in the film he had substantial wreckage to grab on to regardless if he were alone or not.

Characters: Overall, I found most of the book’s characterizations to make the characters rather unlikable. In fact, had they been made that way in the film, it would have changed it for the worse. They made a great call in the changes they made in the characterizations for the film, yet oddly they work quite well for the book, where it focuses much more on the relationships between people than fighting a shark.

Chief Brody in the book is a lot more abrasive than his film counterpart. At times he could be a downright jerk. He drank a lot more, was constantly bantering with his wife beyond the point of playful teasing and was rather harsh when talking to people in general. On one hand I can understand him – he is under an excessive amount of pressure and stress, filled with guilt about the deaths of a handful of townspeople. I can see how that might make someone less than pleasant to be around. The thing is, we get the impression that this is his usual demeanor. That in mind, I found the chief in the film to be a much more likable guy and definitely fit the hero role more easily. That said, the novel’s version does seem slightly more interesting as far as who he is deep down, mainly because so many things happen to or around him.

Ellen Brody is a huge departure from her novel source. The film depicts her as a typical housewife, charming and sweet. In the book, she has a lot more to her. In fact, her character development is a large chunk of the middle of the book. She’s far more flirtatious and constantly seems to miss being a rich girl so to speak. We don’t know exactly if she is justified in her frustrations with her marriage only because we see so little of it from her husband’s point of view, but we see quite a revelation with her character. I found it near impossible to relate to her entire arc regarding the sexual tryst, thus making it hard for me to feel sympathetic to her. I ended up just not liking this version of her and felt no real sadness when she discovered Hooper was dead, whom she seems to almost dismiss as not a lover, just a fling. It makes her appear shallow, and I think she deserved better than that.

Matt Hooper came off to me as unlikable in his novel form as well. While the film Hooper was rich, he played it off in a more playful manner, not putting out the rich boy air. In the novel, he just comes across as a cocky young guy who thinks he is God’s gift to oceanography and has no problem whatsoever with taking advantage of another man’s wife. Sure, she came on to him pretty hard, but if he had any sense of respect for the chief and their family, or any sense of base morals, he would have shut her down and gone back to his room alone. Instead, he encouraged it and played into it, almost baiting her at the dinner party. That makes it far harder to care when he meets his demise later, and almost makes it seem like karma. He also makes it near impossible for Brody or Quint to like him, and he makes no effort whatsoever to attempt comradery with them. Movie Hooper was far more likable, moral, and ultimately, I was relieved to discover he survived at the end.

Quint was one of the few characters that I liked in both versions. While he was crass and cocky in both, there was something mysterious about him that made him an interesting character. He wasn’t bogged down by emotional baggage, but instead seemed a much-needed level head in the midst of everything. He was determined, intelligent, and no-nonsense. He was, forgive the pun, the anchor amidst the storm of the drama between Brody and Hooper, keeping them focused on their common enemy. The main difference that they added for the movie (aside from his manner of death) was that he was a survivor of the ill-fated USS Indianapolis sinking. It gave him a little something extra and gave him a chance to make a very compelling speech that was otherwise unseen before. The other difference between the two versions is that book Quint was far more dismissive of the threat of the shark in the ways he was insistent that the fish was stupid. In the movie I felt like he had far more respect for his adversary as a credible threat. Either way, I enjoyed his character the most out of the book characterizations.

An important change in characterization came in the form of the mayor. In the film we feel little sympathy for him as he comes off as careless and greedy. In the book we actually get to see a much more complex man, but we only have time for that in a novel where a movie runtime is not a factor. With the mafia plotline in the novel, we gradually come to understand exactly why the mayor is so dead set on opening the beaches. When it is told to us that he got involved with loan sharks and the mafia because of expensive hospital costs for his ailing wife, we see that it isn’t anywhere near as simple as just fear for local economy. Sure, he has the concern that Amity will basically die, but more so than that he is worried for his own life. Just when we think he might be overreacting, we are treated to the scene of the mob threatening the Brody family, and that proves that he has a right to feel afraid. He’s stuck between a rock and a hard place, and I feel bad for him. There really is no clear-cut decision to make. If they close the beaches, the town will most likely economically die, as will he due to the mob, and if they leave them open, there runs the risk of another attack. What makes it so difficult is that there is no guarantee what will happen with the shark. They could have closed them and nothing have happened, or they could have opened them and again nothing happen. Or someone could have been attacked. The closest to a compromise would be actively seeking out the shark to kill while leaving the beaches open, so that they were then in a position to destroy the beast and lure it away from the swimmers. But even that has no guarantees. I found myself sympathizing with him far more than in the film.

A minor character with an important contribution was the reporter, Harry Meadows. In the film he was mostly a walk-on cameo, but in the book it was he who brought in Matt Hooper, and it was he who communicated to the town that it was not Brody who should be blamed for the shark attacks. He is also the one who informs Brody (and us) of the mayor’s mafia ties, and that information is vital to the mayor’s arc.

Most of the other changes were minor; the Brody family had three kids instead of two, only one of which shared a name of Sean across both versions. Mrs. Kintner was far less vicious to Brody when she confronted him. I honestly think that the slap and short speech she made in the movie carried so much weight in its simplicity and raw emotion as far as the guilt aspect being ignited in the chief. In the book she was just hysterical and came off like a crazy woman rather than a grieving mother.

Overall: While there are a lot of nit picks and negatives about the book’s characterizations, I still thoroughly enjoyed it and respect that it was the foundation for one of the most genre-defining movies in history. It’s an entirely different experience than the film, and that’s good. If the film had been an exact translation from the book it would have been quite different. In fact I don’t think that version lends itself to an enjoyable viewing experience. The changes they made to fit the medium were good ideas, but that doesn’t mean the original was bad; just different.

As a bonus to the digital version of the novel, included at the end is a short letter from the author to the filmmakers and I found it an entertaining look inside just how Peter Benchley felt regarding some of the changes made. It would be great to see more of those exchanges.

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