The International Writers Magazine
: Cinema v Literature

Movie by Steven Spielberg, 1975
Book by Peter Benchley, 1974
Alex Segal

he terrifying motion picture from the terrifying number one best seller’ is the tagline. Jaws is the movie and the one that is considered the original summer Hollywood blockbuster after being adapted by movie mogul Steven Spielberg for a hit movie in 1975. These two different mediums brought two undisputed successes, so one must wonder why the movie adaptation caused outrage and resentment from the original creator of the worlds most famous Great White Shark.

In 1974, Peter Benchley’s first novel about a fish became iconic due, mainly, to its believability factor. For years, the thriller section of bookstores revolved around the terrorizing tales of monsters or ghosts. However, the tale of the man-eater gripped audiences worldwide because the concept of numerous shark attacks broke down the barriers of realism between fiction and non-fiction.

Benchley’s ideas for this tale, in which terrorizes a small coastal resort community, actually stemmed from the true story of the Jersey Shore Shark Attacks of 1916. Benchley focused on the relationships in the community as people were pitted against the shark. This not only made it easy for the reader to connect with the characters but at the same time established the book as a horror novel.

The author was originally signed to write the screenplay; however, troubles began in pre-production as a host of writers were hired to adapt Benchley’s draft. Spielberg introduced many alternative scenes to what the book offered. The novel, for instance, illustrates a sexual encounter between Hooper (an oceanographer hired to help the community) and Ellen Brody (the wife of the town’s Chief) which was deemed surplus to requirements in the film. Hooper is killed during his attempts to examine the shark in the book version, but Spielberg believed that Hooper’s survival in the scene provided an increased sense of suspense and acted as a catalyst for the high-octane climax. The characterisation of Quint is also redeveloped with his death at the climax being completely rewritten.

The Oscar award winning film, which was the first to oust the $100 million point, was successful for an array of reasons. Spielberg utilised the famously ominious and intimidating soundtrack by John Williams for an effect only a classically American film can provide. Intertwined with the maelstrom of special effects, the principal cast of Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Scheider and Robert Shaw all who put in career topping performances that enrich the characterizations of Hooper, Brody and Quint providing a real sense of screen chemistry.

Looking at the film from an alternative perspective, its success could be seen as a surprise due to Spielberg admitted that production of the film was "racked with problems from the outset". Spielberg has been quoted as saying, "I was three times over budget, I was three times over schedule, and it was my second movie, my first having been a critical success but a commercial failure." To make matters worse for the production team, the electronic shark failed to work leaving Spielberg having to use the camera as if it were the shark with various point of view shots. Ironically, many cinemagoers see this camera work as what really made the film memorable.

From a personal viewpoint, the film takes you into a world where the book can only dream of going. Benchley’s novel heavily diverts with an affair that does not drive the plot forward. He also ends the drama on a fairly bizarre sentence as if the final pages had been previously ripped out. The main focus of the attacks on the local community is lost until the final stages. Although the way the shark scenes have been written, especially the highly tensed closing stages, are indisputably enthralling, the film takes this, and combined with music, effects and rich storytelling, propels it to a point where Spielberg believes the audience are "screaming and tossing popcorn into the air - some running for the exit."

The only possible reason for Peter Benchley’s on set outburst over the rewritten climax, that led to him being removed from the filming at Martha’s Vineyard, is to hide the fact that he wished he had thought of the idea first. Benchley claims ‘I discovered in the process that books and movies are completely different media… but I liked the book as a book.’ However, nowadays, the book seems very 1970’s and outdated. The novel doesn’t have the lasting effect that will label it ‘timeless’. However, the same cannot be said of the film as you can still stick Jaws into your tape player and feel the same nervous energy intended thirty years ago.

The greatest thing about Jaws is that it launched Steven Spielberg into superstardom, "the success of "Jaws" gave me freedom to pretty much make any movie I’ve since wanted to make" and with films such as Jurassic Park, Catch Me If You Can and Back To The Future in his Producer credits and E.T., Schindler’s List and Indiana Jones in his Director category we must be thankful that back in 1974, Peter Benchley did write about the Great White Shark.
Benchley, P. (1974) Jaws USA: Pan Macmillan Ltd.
Spielberg, S (Director). (1975). Jaws [Motion picture]. USA; Universal.

Alex is a Creative Arts major at the University of Portsmouth

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