Jaws is a 1974 novel by Peter Benchley. It tells the story of a great white shark that preys upon a small resort town, and the voyage of three men to kill it. Benchley was inspired by several real-life incidents, such as the Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916 that included five attacks over 12 days, four of which resulted in death, and the exploits of shark fisherman Frank Mundus. Doubleday commissioned him to write the novel. Film producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown read the novel before its publication and bought the film rights. They helped raise the novel's profile and when it was published in February 1974 it became a great success, staying on the bestseller list for some 44 weeks. Reviews were mixed, with many literary critics finding the prose and characterization lacking despite the novel's effective suspense.
The film adaptation was directed by Steven Spielberg and released in June 1975. Many of the novel's minor subplots were omitted from the movie, which instead focused more on the shark. Jaws became the highest grossing movie in history up to that point, and is regarded as a watershed film in motion picture history and the father of the summer blockbuster film. It was followed by three sequels.
Plot[edit | edit source]
The story begins with a group of college kids drinking and hanging out by the beach when one of the college girls is attacked by a shark in the water. She is ruthlessly killed and investigators find that it was a shark that killed her. Police chief Brody insists on closing the beaches but the Mayor insists on keeping the beaches open in order to keep the tourists in town. The Mayor is able to cover up the story of the shark attack on the college girl.
A few days later, the shark kills a young boy and an old man not far from the shore. A local fisherman, Ben Gardner, is sent to kill the shark but disappears on the water. Brody and deputy Leonard Hendricks find Gardner's boat anchored off-shore, empty, with large bite marks in the side. Hendricks pulls a massive shark's tooth from one of the holes. Blaming himself for these deaths, Brody again moves to close the beaches and has Meadows investigate thhan is in business with to find out why the Mayor is so determined to keep the beaches open. Meadows uncovers his links to members of the Mafia, who are pressuring Vaughan to keep them open in order to protect the value of Amity's real estate, into which they had recently invested a great deal of money. Meadows also brings in ichthyologist Matt Hooper from the Woods Hole Institute to advise them on how to deal with the shark.
Meanwhile, Brody's wife Ellen misses the affluent life she left when she married Brody and had children. She strikes up a friendship with Hooper, especially after learning that he is the younger brother of a man she dated years before. The two have a brief affair in a motel outside of town. Throughout the rest of the novel, Brody suspects they have had a liaison and is haunted by the thought.
With the beaches still open, people pour to the town, hoping to catch a glimpse of the killer shark. Brody sets up patrols to watch for the fish. After a boy narrowly escapes being attacked by the shark close to the shore, Brody closes the beaches and hires Quint, a professional shark hunter, to kill the fish. Brody, Quint, and Hooper set out on Quint's vessel, the Orca. Hooper is angered by Quint's methods, which include disemboweling a blue shark they catch and his use of an illegally fished unborn dolphin for bait. Quint taunts Hooper for refusing to shoot at beer cans with them. Brody and Hooper bicker as Brody's suspicions about Hooper's possible affair with Ellen grow stronger. At one point, Brody unsuccessfully attempts to strangle Hooper on the deck.
Their first two days at sea are unproductive, and they return to port each night. On the third day, Hooper reveals to Brody and Quint a shark proof cage. Initially Quint refuses to allow the cage on the boat, considering it a suicidal idea, but he relents when Hooper offers him a hundred dollars. On the ocean, after several unsuccessful attempts by Quint to harpoon the shark, Hooper goes underwater in the cage to attempt to kill it with a bang stick. He is so taken with the shark that he resolves to first take photos, before making his attempt to kill it. The shark, however, attacks the cage, and, after ramming the bars apart, kills and eats Hooper.
Larry Vaughan arrives at the Brody house before Brody returns home and informs Ellen that he and his wife are leaving Amity. Before he leaves, he reveals to Ellen that he always thought they would have made a great couple. When Brody and Quint return the following day, the shark repeatedly rams into the boat, but Quint is able harpoon it three times. The shark then leaps onto the stern of the Orca, and the boat starts sinking. Quint plunges another harpoon into it, but as it falls back into the water, his foot gets entangled in the rope, and when the shark drags him under, he drowns to his death. Now floating on a seat cushion, Brody spots the shark swimming towards him and shuts his eyes, preparing for death.
However, just as the shark gets within a few feet of him, it succumbs to it's wounds inflicted by Quint, rolls over in the water, and dies before it can kill Brody. It sinks down out of sight, its dead body suspended in the water just beyond the light by the barrels attached to it, and with Quint's body still dangling from it. Using the cushion as a makeshift float, Brody starts to paddle back to shore.
Conception[edit | edit source]
Benchley had been thinking for years "about a story about a shark that attacks people and what would happen if it came in and wouldn't go away." Then, in 1964, he read a news story about a fisherman, Frank Mundus, who caught a great white shark weighing 4,550 pounds (2,060 kg) off the shore of Montauk Point at the eastern end of Long Island, New York. He again did not act on his idea until a discussion with his editor in 1971. Benchley cites the 1964 incident as the inspiration for his novel, and the further exploits of fisherman Frank Mundus who caught several great white sharks off Long Island and Block Island. Some writers (including Richard Ellis, Richard Fernicola, and Michael Capuzzo) suggest that his inspiration also came from Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916, as well as Coppleson's rogue shark theory.
Doubleday editor Thomas Congdon had read some of Benchley's articles and invited him to lunch to discuss some ideas for books. Congdon was not impressed by Benchley's proposals for non-fiction, but was interested in his idea of a novel about a great white shark terrorizing a beach resort. Congdon recalls that Benchley wrote a page in his office, "and I gave him a cheque for $1,000. On the basis of that he did me 100 pages."
Much of the work had to be rewritten, as the publisher was unhappy with the initial tone. Congdon recalls that the "first five pages were just wonderful. They just went into the eventual book without any changes. The other 95 pages, though, were on the wrong track. They were humorous. And humour isn't the proper vehicle for a great thriller." Benchley worked through the winter in a room above a furnace company in Pennington, New Jersey, and in the summer in a converted turkey coop in Stonington, Connecticut.
After various revisions and rewrites, Benchley delivered his final draft in January 1974. According to Carl Gottlieb, who would share with Benchley the credit for the film's screenplay, Benchley had only received a $7,500 advance "for a year's work and a lifetime's preparation." This was far less than what Benchley was used to as a professional writer, and, furthermore, the advance had been paid sporadically during the writing process.
The title was not decided until shortly before the book went to print. Benchley says that he had spent months thinking of titles, many of which he calls "pretentious", such as The Stillness in the Water and Leviathan Rising. Benchley regarded other ideas, such as The Jaws of Death and The Jaws of Leviathan, as "melodramatic, weird or pretentious". According to Benchley, the novel still did not have a title until twenty minutes before production of the book. The writer discussed the problem with editor Tom Congdon at a restaurant in New York.
- "We cannot agree on a word that we like, let alone a title that we like. In fact, the only word that even means anything, that even says anything, is "jaws". Call the book Jaws. He said "What does it mean?" I said, "I don't know, but it's short; it fits on a jacket, and it may work." He said, "Okay, we'll call the thing Jaws."
Steven Spielberg, who would direct the film adaptation, recalls that the title intrigued him when he first saw the book. He points out that the word was "not in the national consciousness at the time. It was just a word. It was kind of an unusual word." Situating the incident in the era of the explicit film Deep Throat, some retrospectives suggest that upon seeing the title Spielberg asked if the novel was about a "pornographic dentist".
Bantam assigned New York illustrator Roger Kastel to do the paperback cover. Kastel studied the Great White exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History, taking pictures of the ones lying on easels for cleaning. The female swimmer was then created as Kastel took five minutes at the end of a photo shoot for Good Housekeeping to place a model onto a stool, and get her to do an approximation of the front crawl. The art would eventually be reused by Universal Pictures on the film posters.
Publication and film rights[edit | edit source]
Benchley says that neither he, nor anyone else, initially realized the book's potential. Tom Congdon, however, sensed that the novel had prospects and had it sent out to The Book of the Month Club and paperback houses. The Book of the Month Club made it an "A book", qualifying it for its main selection, then the Reader's Digest also selected it. The publication date was moved back to allow a carefully orchestrated release. It was released first in hardcover in February 1974, then in the book clubs, followed by a national campaign for the paperback release. Bantam bought the paperback rights for $575,000, which Benchley points out was "then an enormous sum of money".
Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown, film producers at Universal Pictures, heard about the book at identical times at different locations. Brown heard about it in the fiction department of Cosmopolitan, a lifestyle magazine then edited by his wife, Helen Gurley Brown. A small card gave a detailed description of the plot, concluding with the comment "might make a good movie". The producers each read it overnight and agreed the next morning that it was "the most exciting thing that they had ever read" and that, although they were unsure how they would accomplish it, they had to produce the film. Brown says that had they read the book twice they would have never made the film because of the difficulties in executing some of the sequences. However, he says that "we just loved the book. We thought it would make a very good movie."
According to John Baxter's biography of Spielberg, the director, Zanuck, Brown and friends bought a hundred copies of the novel each to push the book onto California's best-seller list. Most of these copies were sent to "opinion-makers and members of the chattering class". Jaws was the state's most successful book by 7 p.m. on the first day. However, sales were good nationwide without engineering; within weeks of release "it was climbing towards an eventual 9.5 million sales in the US alone".
Zanuck and Brown purchased the film rights to the novel for $150,000 after an auction. (Another source quotes the figure as $175,000.) Andrew Yule cites the figure as "$150,000 with escalation clauses to $250,000, plus a percentage of the profits". Although this delighted the author, who had very little money at the time, it was a low sum, as the agreement occurred before the book became a surprise bestseller.
Reception[edit | edit source]
Jaws was published in February 1974 and became a great success, staying on the bestseller list for some 44 weeks. By the time the film adaptation debuted in June 1975 the book had sold 5.5 million copies domestically, and eventually reached 9.5 million copies. Benchley's 2006 obituary in The Times says that "Jaws stayed for 40 weeks in the bestseller charts of The New York Times, eventually selling 20 million copies."
Despite the commercial success, reviews were mixed. The most common criticism regarded the human characters, with Michael A. Rogers of Rolling Stone declaring that “None of the humans are particularly likable or interesting” and confessing the shark was his favorite character "and one suspects Benchley’s also.”. Steven Spielberg shared the sentiment, saying he initially found many of the characters unsympathetic and wanted the shark to win, leading to characterization changes in the film adaptation. Benchley's writing was also reproved by literary critics, with Time reviewer John Skow described the novel as "cliche and crude literary calculation", where events "refuse to take on life and momentum" and the climax "lacks only Queequeg's coffin to resemble a bath tub version of Moby-Dick." Writing for The Village Voice, Donald Newlove declared that "Jaws has rubber teeth for a plot. It's boring, pointless, listless; if there's a trite turn to make, Jaws will make that turn." An article in The Listener bombarded the plot, stating the "novel only has bite, so to say, at feed time," and these scenes are "naïve attempts at whipping along a flagging story-line." Andrew Bergman of The New York Times Book Review felt that despite the book serving as "fluid entertainment", "passages of hollow portentousness creep in" while poor scene "connections [and] stark manipulations impair the narrative."
Nevertheless, some reviewers found Jaws entertaining on its description of the shark attacks. John Spurling of the New Statesman asserted that while the "characterisation of the humans is fairly rudimentary", the shark "is done with exhilarating and alarming skill, and every scene in which it appears is imagined at a special pitch of intensity." Christopher Lehmann-Haupt praised the novel in a short review for The New York Times which highlighted the "strong plot" and "rich thematic substructure." The Washington Post 's Robert F. Jones described Jaws as "much more than a gripping fish story. It is a tightly written, tautly paced study," which "forged and touched a metaphor that still makes us tingle whenever we enter the water."
In the years following publication, Benchley began to feel responsible for the negative attitudes against sharks that he felt his novel created. He became an ardent ocean conservationist. In an article for the National Geographic published in 2000, Benchley writes "considering the knowledge accumulated about sharks in the last 25 years, I couldn't possibly write Jaws today ... not in good conscience anyway. Back then, it was generally accepted that great whites were anthropophagus (they ate people) by choice. Now we know that almost every attack on a human is an accident: The shark mistakes the human for its normal prey."