"When I read the book, I rooted for the shark."
- Steven Spielberg.
- Steven Spielberg.
Those (like myself) who read the book after seeing the film may find the characters' lack of likeability surprising. Brody, Hooper, even Quint, gruff as he is, are great fun to watch in the movie.
The broad strokes are the same - Brody is married to Ellen and is Amity Island's Chief of Police, Hooper is the well-to-do oceanographer who comes into town to offer his expertise, and Quint is the charter fisherman the town hires to kill the shark - but each is characterized rather negatively. Brody is resentful of Ellen's past as part of the "summer people" crowd, and he makes crude or baffling remarks throughout - "Ellen was close to tears. And tears, whether shed in orgasm or in anger, disconcerted him." (It just doesn't seem like the sort of thing Brody would think - why would he say "whether shed in orgasm or in anger?" Unless Ellen cries when she climaxes?) Especially at a dinner party she gives halfway through the book where he gets blotto-drunk and angry.
Ellen is dissatisfied with her life on Amity and her marriage to Brody and arranges to have an affair with Hooper.
|Who is all too willing to oblige.|
Speaking of the affair, it's... unromantic. Ellen and Hooper loosen each other up with booze and small talk. She confesses to rape fantasies, though "not by a black man"; he, to orgies and women who drive with no underwear. Then they find a motel. She recalls their lovemaking later:
"(Hooper's) eyes seemed to bulge until, just before release, Ellen had feared they might actually pop out of their sockets. Hooper's teeth were clenched, and he ground them the way people do during sleep. From his voice there came a gurgling whine, whose tone rose higher and higher with each frenzied thrust. Even after his obvious, violent climax, Hooper's countenance had not changed. His teeth were still clenched, his eyes still fixed on the wall, and he continued to pump madly."
Ellen is disturbed by this memory. I don't blame her. It all comes across very odd and poorly structured - the giggling-through-rape-fantasies prelude to it and then Ellen's change of heart at the end of it all.
Quint, while perhaps most alike from novel to film, is far more objectionable. He mocks Hooper's "rich kid bullshit" when Hooper objects to Quinn's ace in the hole for baiting the shark: an unborn baby porpoise he ripped from its mother's womb once he illegally caught and killed it. Lovely. I suppose we can wring some metaphorical value from this, but it seems nastier than it has to be.
It's not just the main characters. The locals are as corrupt (the mayor is running a real estate scam with the mafia - a subplot that takes up considerably space) as the summer people: "These were not Aquarians. They uttered none of the platitudes of peace or pollution, of justice or revolt. Privilege had been bred into them with genetic certainty. As their eyes were blue or brown, so their tastes and consciences were determined by other generations. (...) Intellectually, they knew a great deal. Practically they chose to know almost nothing. They had been conditioned to believe (or, if not to believe, to sense) that the world was really quite irrelevant to them. And they were right. Nothing touched them."
|Until... (cue Jaws theme.)|
Benchley hit paydirt with Jaws; it stayed on the bestseller list for 44 weeks. He had some success with subsequent work but never repeated the mass success of Jaws. He devoted the last few decades of his life to raising awareness about the plight of sharks and human activity's impact on the marine environment.
"Just because we've never seen a hundred foot great white doesn't mean they couldn't exist. They'd have no reason to come to the surface. All their food would be way down in the deep. A dead one wouldn't float to shore, because they don't have flotation bladders. Can you imagine what a hundred-foot white would look like, what kind of power it would have? (...) It would be like a locomotive with a mouth full of butcher knives."
"This picture is going to be an A-to-Z adventure story, a straight line, so we want you to take out all the romance stuff, all the Mafia stuff, all the stuff that'll just be distracting."
- Richard Zanuck to Peter Benchley.
I love that Zanuck referred to the Ellen/Hooper affair as "all the romance stuff." Few things seem less romantic to me than Hooper's clenched teeth and rape fantasy talk, but what do I know. At any rate, his instincts were correct, and only the bare bones of Benchley's book survived its transition to screen.
SOME NOTABLE CHANGES
- Ellen and Brody have 3 children in the book, not just 2.
|And there is no near-miss on Michael, nor adorable Brody/Sean interaction.|
The kids are more or less familial window dressing in the book. They're a bit more a part of the proceedings in the book. (Something that would become something of a Spielberg trend in the years to come.)
- Deaths. First off, Hooper.
|He does not survive his descent in the shark tank.|
|And in the book, he can spit to clean his goggles. It works much better if he can't, so point, film.|
|Not like this.|
|It's even nicely foreshadowed with this picture from the shark book Brody reads early in the film. (Incidentally, as a kid, I always thought the shark was smoking a stogie, and it never even occurred to me to wonder how/ why this was the case.)|
|Here's the tank of compressed air in the shark's mouth. (Along with what remains of Quint.)|
- Quint's telling Hooper and Brody about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the shark terror that awaited the survivors is arguably one of American cinema's most memorable monologues (and unarguably one of its best).
|It and the whole scene surrounding it (including their singalong of "Show me the way to go home") are inventions of the film.|
Anyone in the Southern New England area is encouraged to go and see a local band Sharks Come Cruisin. I caught them at a few house parties before moving from RI, and they are delightful. Their rendition of "Drunken Sailor" will never leave your iPod.
- Brody's relationship with Larry Vaughan is compartmentalized for the film, for the better, I'm afraid. The whole mystery of Larry's mafia partners is not very compelling - best to strip it to its essence and make it about Brody the everyman-police-chief and Larry the face of the local power structure, more concerned with revenue than safety.
Jaws made stars of Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss. Robert Shaw was already a star, but his turn as Quint might be (at least for non-Bond fans) his most famous role. All three give pitch-perfect performances.
Spielberg praised Dreyfuss's "inexhaustible energy" at the time, only later discovering the secret to said energy:
|Bolivian marching power.|
It's really impossible to overstate how fantastic Shaw is as Quint. The obvious analog for the role is Captain Ahab, and there are certainly shades of Ahab in Quint. Perhaps every era produces this sort of sea captain character:
|self-reliant to the point of alienating,|
The shoot had been planned for 55 days but actually took 159. Spielberg insisted on shooting at sea, and the results are gorgeous. Sure, some things don't match - particularly scenes that transition from daylight to nighttime and back again - but you can almost smell the salt on the celluloid.
The final budget was about $10m - chump change, really, but an overage of almost 300 percent from the original budget. Luckily, no one reported on such things at the time, or it might have failed before it even got out of the gate. But fail it did not, becoming the most successful film in history up until that point. While Spielberg had only a tiny slice of the net (worth about $4m) Zanuck and Brown had about 40% of the gross profits. Zanuck said he made more money off Jaws than his father made in his whole career.
|I wonder how much Linda Harrison got in the divorce?|
"Jaws changed the business forever, as the studios discovered the value of wide breaks - the number of theaters would rise to one thousand, two thousand, and more by next decade - and massive TV advertising, both of which increased the costs of marketing and distribution, diminishing the importance of print reviews, making it virtually impossible for a film to build slowly, finding its audience by dint of mere quality. As costs mounted, the willingness to take risks diminished proportionately. Moreover, Jaws whet corporate appetites for big profits quickly, which is to say, studios wanted every film to be Jaws."
The same would be said of Star Wars (incidentally, the film that knocked Jaws from the top of the all-time-box-office list; he and Spielberg would trade places for the rest of the 80s until James Cameron came along) a few years later. And it's certainly true that the mass success of both films was a game-changer for how movies were promoted and distributed. But that's not to knock either film. Like Lucas said, somewhat defensively but also certainly true, "Popcorn movies have always ruled; why is that my fault?"
At the time of its release, Benchley took a swipe at Spielberg in the LA Times. "(He) has no knowledge of reality but the movies. He is B-movie literate... (he) will one day be known as the greatest second unit director in America." More from Easy Riders: "In one obvious way, Benchley was completely wrong, Spielberg having become probably the most celebrated director in America. But in another way, he was right; Spielberg is the greatest second unit director in America. What (Benchley) could not have foreseen, however, was that every studio movie became a B movie (...) second-unit had become first unit. By the 80s, Roger Corman, who gave so many New Hollywood directors their start, would complain (that) he couldn't get anything done; movies he would make for peanuts with one of the Carradine brothers in the lead were starting to be made by the studios for $30m."
I get a little eye-rolly at any who won't give Spielberg his due, as a bona-fide A-director and not a B-one, but in context of the American New Wave and what replaced it, I can certainly understand Biskind's remarks.
FINAL VERDICT: The film is an American tradition at this point, and certainly one of my all-time favorites. The book's okay. It goes to show how in the hands of a gifted filmmaker, supportive producer, and enthusiastic cast, something truly remarkable can rise above its source material.
And just for my friend Jaume:
Some leftover screencaps - enjoy.
|"Foreground, my ass!"|