Posted on June 20, 2020

Jaws: Novel vs. Film

Dawn Keetley/ Elizabeth Erwin

On the 45th anniversary of the release of the film that made people afraid to go in the ocean, we consider Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) in relation to Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel. Which is better? Or, perhaps a more useful question, what do the novel and film uniquely do? Check out answers by Elizabeth Erwin and Dawn Keetley.

Here’s the original trailer for Jaws:

Elizabeth’s take

At first glance, the length of Peter Benchley’s most arguably well-known work (1974), which comes in at a concise 278 pages, feels like exactly the type of light read one would take, somewhat ironically, to the beach. But Jaws is a novel that wastes little time in establishing a template of psychological horror that leverages language and intimacy as a means of effective dread building. Unlike the film, which revels in moments of normalcy disrupted by distinct and shocking events, the novel takes a quieter and—dare I say it?—more effective approach to tapping into cultural primordial fears of what lurks within nature.

Like Herman Melville’s great white whale, the shark in Benchley’s novel is less a specific monster and more a pointed symbol of a natural world ready to strike back. The novel’s opening pages are careful to establish a sense of trespass that accompanies the story’s initial killing by the shark. Leaving the warmth and safety of the bedroom, the woman enters the ocean alone and her complete isolation immediately creates in the reader specific anticipatory expectations. Devoid of any human contact, “the woman” as she is initially called, enters into a space of isolation.

Chrissie in the water in Spielberg’s Jaws

For the reader, this image of a woman alone and without means of contacting help carries with it certain culturally ingrained fears tied to her safety. We expect something bad to happen because that is the narrative passed down in real life, not just reel life. But here Benchley subverts our expectations by prioritizing the experience of the victims. In a departure from the film that uses the deaths as a means of shock and in order to build a sense of dread directly tied to the shark and without much fanfare for the victims, the novel treats each death with a gentleness that is as surprising as it is effective. In each case, the experience of the victims is prioritized over the villainization of the shark. The woman, in the beginning, is thrown into a state of shock that obscures a large swathe of her fear and makes her death more tragic than spectacle. Even a later scene in which her mangled body is discovered is designed in such a way to remind readers that this was a person and not just a collection of body parts. For example, this discovery accompanies the revelation that “the woman” was named Chrissie and this addition of a proper name is a way Benchley humanizes her to the reader. A similar scenario occurs with Alex.

When we meet Alex in the novel, he’s a six-year-old child playing on the beach while simultaneously complaining to his mother that he’s bored. She finally relents and allows Alex to take his raft into the water, and this is when Benchley cleverly alternates perspectives between Alex and the shark. By reiterating to the reader that the shark is responding by instinct alone, there is never an association with monstrosity because there exists no intent. That’s important because we understand that the shark isn’t trying to harm Alex, but simply to engage with prey. Devoid of ill intent, the description of Alex’s body being severed piece by piece lands differently than it does in the film. It should read as a grotesque spectacle but it never quite rises to that level. The description of Alex’s death illustrates that while the boy suffered a shock, he never experienced any pain: “The boy’s last –only –thought was that he had been punched in the stomach. The breath was driven from him in a sudden rush. He had no time to cry out, nor, had he had the time, would he have known what to cry, for he could not see the fish.”

Alex Kintner in Spielberg’s Jaws

The pain, it would seem, will be suffered by his mother. Mrs. Kintner is new to single motherhood and her exasperation with Alex is what finally causes her to relent and allow him to go into the water. That, plus her being “half asleep” on the beach at the time of her son’s death, provides Mrs. Kintner with the makings of some serious survivor’s guilt, something alluded to in the novel. Her awareness that her son has been killed creeps up on the reader such that when her revelation comes, it’s a gut punch to the reader because of how her emotional and frantic reactions contrast against Alex’s quiet death. The moment isn’t just a 10 second shot of a mother frantically calling for her child on the beach. It’s a slow build toward an almost unfathomable discovery fueled by character development. The book offers a depth of emotion that the film never achieves and gives us characters to care about and to wonder about long after the final page.

Dawn’s take

While the movie Jaws is far superior to the novel, there is one way in which Benchley’s novel is actually quite a bit more interesting. In the film, the great white shark is either an unseen predator or, well, a shark. It acts; the characters react; and then Quint (Robert Shaw), Brody (Roy Scheider), and Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) hunt it down. There is very little philosophizing in the film about the nature of the shark. In the novel, on the other hand, there’s actually a great deal of commentary on the shark and the kind of threat it poses.

In Spielberg’s Jaws, the shark is a shark

Indeed, the way Benchley describes the shark elevates it so that it becomes more than shark: it becomes representative of many kinds of natural threats. Benchley’s shark eventually seems to stand in for a hostile nonhuman world, one very much inimical to us and, most of the time, escaping our ability to understand it. Hooper –who is the expert on sharks—declares that there’s so much that no one knows about sharks that it reveals how “cloudy” the line is “between the natural and the preternatural.” For “a whole lot” of natural things, he says, “there’s just no good or sensible answer.” A shark can avoid one swimmer and attack the one behind, just as tornadoes “touch down here but not there” (218-19). There never is an answer for what the shark is, where it came from, what it wants, and why it came to Amity and not somewhere else.

Because Benchley’s shark becomes so much more than a shark, it assumes a symbolic weight. It can represent all kinds of natural threats and can thus speak to many different historical moments. As I re-read Jaws in May 2020, for instance, I couldn’t help but read the novel as speaking rather directly to COVID-19. This connection is reinforced by the fact that the shark—the natural threat about which we know very little—threatens the economy and thus the very life of the community of Amity. As the mayor, Larry Vaughan, says, “this town is dying!” (100). Brody agrees, thinking that the sluggishness of Vaughan’s real estate business was a “sickness . . . as contagious as smallpox” (101). Sure, the shark is a threat, but so is the “sickness” of poverty caused by the response to the natural threat. It’s easy to vilify Vaughan for strong-arming Brody into keeping the beaches open—and, in the novel, he keeps trying—repeating much later in the novel, “The town is dying. . . . And every day we keep the beaches closed, we drive another nail into our own coffin” (180).  But even Brody knows he has a point—that Amity is poised between two kinds of “sickness.”

The Orca heads into the shark’s domain

While I would make the case, then, that the novel definitely has some redeeming qualities, the film is, in my view demonstrably better. There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of them is the perfect simplicity of Spielberg’s Jaws. The novel spends a lot of time with the class struggles and aspirations of Ellen Brody and her affair with Matt Hooper (including an unfortunate foray into rape fantasies). You could actually argue that Benchley’s novel is a more feminine affair—taking Ellen much more seriously than the film does. But the time devoted to Ellen—and also to Vaughan’s entanglement with the Mafia—detracts from the central drama of man vs. shark (and, yes, it is man vs. shark). The film centers that drama and offers a perfect two-part structure: shark attacks humans; humans pursue and kill shark. The pivot of this structure is the scene in which Hooper, Brody, and Quint depart Amity, heading for open sea in the Orca. The scene is framed by the skeletal jaw of a shark, highlighting the tension of the moment: as the men pass into the shark’s domain, will they be triumphant or will they be reduced to shark food? Will they lay the threat to rest or will it consume them?

Note: there were some creative instances of journalists and folks on Twitter connecting Spielberg’s Jaws to issues swirling around COVID-19.

Related: Dawn on Jaws as a slasher (and its relation to Halloween) — and Gwen on why Jaws remains the best shark horror film.

You can stream Jaws on Amazon:

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