In honor of the 40th anniversary of Peter Benchley’s Jaws, the book that inspired the first big summer blockbuster movie, Oxford University’s blog has a great tribute by Kirk Curnutt, focusing on the novel, now almost, well, swallowed up in public consciousness by the behemoth of a movie from Steven Spielberg, then still in his 20’s.
The novel that scared a generation out of the ocean and inspired everything from Shark Week to Sharknado recently turned forty. Commemorations of Peter Benchley’s Jaws have been as rare as megalodon sightings, however. Ballantine has released a new paperback edition featuring an amusing list of the author’s potential titles (The Grinning Fish, Pisces Redux), and in February an LA fundraiser for Shark Savers/Wildaid performed excerpts promising “an evening of relentless terror (and really awkward sex).” Otherwise, silence.
The reason is obvious. Steven Spielberg’s 1975 adaptation is so totemic that the novel is considered glorified source material, despite selling twenty-million copies. Rare is the commentator who doesn’t harp on its faults, and rarer still the fan who defends it. Critics dismiss the book as “airport literature,” while genre lovers complain it lacks “virtually every single thing that makes the movie great.” Negative perceptions arguably begin with Spielberg himself. Amid the legendary production problems that plagued the making of the movie—pneumatic sharks that didn’t work, uncooperative ocean conditions that tripled the shooting schedule—the director managed to suggest that his biggest obstacle was Benchley’s original narrative: “If we don’t succeed in making this picture better than the book,” he said, “we’re in real trouble.”
It is good to see an argument made for the book, though Curnutt is frank that it is more an artifact of its era than the movie, which still feels timeless. But it had its power, at least for the then-10-year-old Curnutt.
Maybe it’s because my friends and I had great fun sneaking ketchup packets into the pool to reenact it, but Shaw’s blood-belching final close-up never haunted me as much as the novel’s Ahab-inspired image of Quint dragged to a watery grave snared in his own harpoon line. Hooper’s fate is even more macabre. As the ichthyologist is turned into a human toothpick Brody attempts an ill-conceived rescue by strafing the water with rifle fire. He manages to miss the shark completely yet land a bullet in Hooper’s neck. Long before reading Melville, I intuited that this was how a naturalistic universe mocked humanity.
By the way, author Benchley was the grandson of 30’s humorist Robert Benchley, noted wit (and an Oscar winner for one of his series of short films). And he was the son of Nathaniel Benchley, also a writer, whose book was the basis for another story set at the shore, the hilarious comedy The Russians Are Coming, The Russians are Coming.