Here’s a film that I’m sure most people will be familiar with – Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. For, me, it’s one of my all time favourite films. It’s one of the ones I watch repeatedly – whatever time of day, if it comes on TV, I’m hooked again within minutes. I was vaguely aware that it was adapted from a book but never thought about reading it until I happened to see it on offer in Fopp (2 for £5 I think it was). However, as I am interested in book – film – tv – games etc. etc. adaptations I thought I would give it a fair go.
Peter Benchley’s Jaws was first published in 1974, just one year before the film was released as the producers had bought the rights before publication. The overall story arc of the book is the same as the film so will be familiar to most. When a young woman is fatally attacked by a great white shark on Amity beach at the start of the summer, the local police, mayor and business owners are hoping it’s a one off. As a small resort town relying on the summer trade, Police Chief Martin Brody is convinced not to allow the news to go public – believing that it was a one off, a freak accident. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case, the shark continuing to terrorise the beach. When it becomes obvious that the shark isn’t going to move on to more ‘natural’ feeding grounds, Brody teams up with ichthyologist (fish scientist to you and I) Matt Hooper, and pro shark hunter Quint. They head out on to the open water on Quint’s boat Orca to face the great white at sea.
The main difference between the book and the film are the various extra sub-plots in the book and the characterisation of the three main characters. There is also an additional main character – Ellen Brody, the police chief’s wife, who we do see in the film, but don’t get to know her so well. She is an interesting character and although I don’t think this is absolutely necessary, stops the book being entirely male dominated as the film is. Ellen feels like an outsider on Amity island, she is from a wealthy background and used to be part of the holiday crowd so even when she marries the local police chief, she never really feels accepted as a resident. When Matt Hooper arrives they realise they knew each other in their high school years and it triggers a restlessness in Ellen. Their pursuant relationship is uncomfortable, slightly shocking, but adds an element of ‘domestic thriller’ to novel as well as an interesting debate on class and status. It doesn’t redeem Hooper or Ellen to the reader, but instead focuses down Brody’s character more as a consequence. Brody has always suffered with an inferiority complex – from his wife’s wealth. Hooper’s intellect, even Quint’s masculinity – and we see how the fear of being right about this prevents him in confronting his wife about what is going on in their marriage. This also gives you an understanding of many of Brody’s motivations and actions, for example, his reluctance to stand by his convictions and how he allows the mayor and even the local news reporter to dictate how he does his job.
What I found to be lacking in the book was the development of the relationship between Brody, Hooper and Quint while on the Orca. However, I realise this is me looking at it through Spielberg tinted glasses – the scene where they compare scars, Quint makes his Indianapolis speech and they all sing “Show Me The Way To Go Home” is one of my favourites. And, Brody becoming friendly with Hooper just ain’t gonna fly with the whole Ellen affair debacle, BUT, it does mean that all three of them are pretty unlikeable and stay unlikeable for the duration. For this fundamental reason, I have to say that the film is miles, leagues if you will, better than the book.
That said, it’s a good book, even if it doesn’t match up to its, frankly, outstanding film counterpart. If you’re a bit of a sharkophile, you’ll cringe when the shark is described as a mindless killing machine, but because you’ll mostly dislike the human characters you’ll be pleased when he’s doing a good job of munching his way through them.
Have you read Jaws? Let me know your thoughts on it in the comments.