The Original Shark Week: Cassie-la Takes a Bite Out of “Jaws” by Peter Benchley

Book: Jaws by Peter Benchley
Movie
: Jaws
Genre: Fiction, horror, shark, thriller, one of the few times the movie was actually better
Rating: 3.6 out of 5 stars (book), 4.9 out of 5 stars (movie)

SummaryA vicious killer fish from the deep wreaks havoc on the seaside town of Amity, killing four people and ruining the economy for its poor citizens. Caught between his desire to save lives and save the struggling town, police chief Brody is forced to make some painful decisions. Add in a mob subplot, a wife dissatisfied with her life choices and a horny ichthyologist and you have a book that will have you jumping into the water, into the fins of a much nobler shark who’s at least true to himself.

Last August in a slightly inebriated post about reading as escapism, I had the brilliant (see: shark themed) idea to read and review Jaws in honor of Shark Week. AND I ACTUALLY REMEMBERED TO DO IT! You’re welcome everyone who still doesn’t actually care. And you’re actually welcome shark enthusiasts.

As documentaries and the internet will tell you, Jaws (the book, not the Spielberg movie- yes, there is a book) was inspired by the Jersey Shore attacks of 1916, not to be confused with the Snooki attacks of the 21st century. Scientists believe the five attacks were perpetrated by one shark, a SHARK WITH A LUST FOR BLOOD! Or one who was sick/starving and probably confused by the influx of flesh in the hypodermic needle strewn water during a freak heat wave. I kid, I’m sure the water was just full of mob bodies in 1916.

Now the 25th anniversary of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week has come and gone and we’ve once again been reminded of the all the wrongs persecuted against our finned friends. Total downer. No one fought more against these misconceptions than (now deceased) Jaws author/fellow Jerseyan Peter Benchley. At the time of the novel’s inception not much was known about sharks- hence the desire for human flesh present in Benchley’s fish. As a result of his book and the success of the extremely popular movie adaptation, shark hunting went on the rise and Benchley felt horrible, working the remainder of his life alongside his wife to change the misconception of sharks and promote conservation efforts. Reverse downer?

It was with all this in mind that I started to embark on the literary adventure that is Jaws, which is more about how a shark affects the fictional town of Amity than the shark itself. Whereas the film is a thrill ride with a marauding shark and some town politics and intriguing characters thrown in, the novel is all politics, some mob intrusion, cat murder and occasionally the threat of a shark eating you. The shark is not the cat murderer. I know, right?

The novel is all about opposition, comparing the different social classes, the rich, definitely white summer people and the poor locals who rely on the income of the vacationers to keep their town thriving. Police chief Brody represents the locals, with his pitiful $15,000 salary and his feelings of inadequacy compared to his wife Ellen and her summer friends. Ellen, who willingly left her rich, upper class privileged lifestyle, abandoning school and her life to marry Brody now regrets the decision, and spends the novel trying to re-enter her former stratosphere through marine biologist Hooper, himself a former summer tourist. The people in this book are awful.

After reading the novel for the first time, Jaws director Steven Spielberg rooted for the shark. It’s easy to see why. Ellen is full of regret and self-loathing, going so far as to purposefully orchestrate an affair to make herself feel better. Complete with rape fantasy. Brody is immediately threatened by Hooper due to his station in life and becomes suspicious that Ellen is having an affair because she came home from work with a headache, wondering if he should beat her as punishment. And the mayor of the town is embroiled in a random mob scheme, keeping the beaches open despite that a killer shark is on the loose killing swimmers. It’s a class act of a town where everyone works for the greater good. The newspaper and the police cover up facts, the mayor corroborates them, and the townspeople kick out bad seeds. If only it were as funny as Hot Fuzz.

In contrast, the shark is much nicer. Benchley alternates between making the shark just a fish with natural impulses and a vicious killing machine with a purpose. It reacts to stimulus much like real sharks, with distressed swimming equaling injured prey in its mind. The woman in the opening is targeted because her erratic swimming signals a meal. However, when Brody, Hooper and Quint board the Orca to kill the shark and save the town, he (I honestly don’t remember the shark’s gender but he was a boy shark in my mind) outsmarts them, proving to be more than a mindless killing/eating machine. Although he likes doing that too. Regardless of the shark’s motivations, we know one thing for certain, night swimming is a very bad idea.

The death scenes are the more exciting bits of the novel. Benchley writes some memorable gory scenes with people literally being bitten in half. Sadly, this action is severely lacking in the middle of the book, which instead focuses on how “the fish” affects the economy and prosperity of the town. As a result, Brody, Quint and Hooper go on an exploration to capture/kill the menace and we get the most anticlimactic ending possible. No explosions, no extended manly adventure at sea, only some bland fishing terminology, a few unnecessary (see: lamest and easily avoidable) character deaths and a dolphin fetus. Yup, dolphin fetus.

Thankfully, where Jaws lacked, the production fraught film version of Jaws more than made up for. It created likeable characters and much more action. Although I greatly appreciated the character development in the novel, the characters were unlikeable to the point of not caring what happened to them. I guess that’s where Jaws 2 comes in- character growth wise. And who doesn’t like a little shark electrocution?

THE GOOD:
-Shark is smart, but not so smart that it would follow a widow to the Bahamas
-Also it doesn’t roar
-Attack scenes are bloody, gory and intense
-Nice to see plenty of character development, even if they’re awful people

THE BAD:
-Ending was anticlimactic, explosions and one-liners are much preferred
-Referring to the shark as “the fish” made it a lot less terrifying
-Awful characters you can’t wait to have devoured by a man-eating shark

So what shark themed post would you like next year? Do you want me to locate a copy of the 48 page abridged children’s version of Jaws? Want to make me read a novelization of an unused Jaws 2 script or punish me with the book Jaws: the Revenge? Does it roar in the novel? Are there any books about sharks that don’t involve the Jaws franchise?

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