From Novel to Film pt. 20: Jaws


"When I read the book, I rooted for the shark."
- Steven Spielberg.

Jaws isn't an easy book to like. It's a perfectly acceptable page-turner, but like Spielberg, I found it difficult to sympathize with any of its characters. At least one reviewer at Goodreads thinks this is by design, that Benchley is commenting on the predatory hierarchy of human relationships and that there is always a bigger fish. Even its casual (though unremarkable for its era) racism is a deliberate construction on the author's part. It's an interesting interpretation (and a thoughtful review). But ultimately, I disagree - if Benchley succeeded in writing such an allegory, it seems unintentional.

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.
Ya cheats.
After getting the affair out of her system, she's able to feel better about her life and family upon seeing how miserable Larry Vaughan (the mayor) is and after he suggests they (he and Ellen) may have made a happier marriage than the ones they chose: "A relationship with Brody was more rewarding than any Larry Vaughan would ever experience; an amalgam of minor trials and tiny triumphs that together added up to something akin to joy." Character arc, I guess? The only problem is we've spent the entire novel steeped in a different kind of math: what we see of Brody and Ellen simply can't add up to "something akin to joy."

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.


- 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.
Second, Quint. He dies from being dragged down into the depths when the rope attached to the dart he has struck in the shark's side becomes coiled around his foot.

Not like this.
Third, Brody does not stick a tank of compressed air in the shark's mouth and shoot at it, nor say "Smile you son of a bitch" in the novel; the shark merely succumbs to its many wounds. I greatly prefer the way the film deals with 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.
Scheider also enjoyed his time on set/ on the water, describing it as grueling but rewarding, particularly as Spielberg was receptive to his actors collaborating on their characters.

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:   

driven, obsessive,
self-reliant to the point of alienating,
ultimately doomed.


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?
Here are some interesting tidbits and opinion from Peter Biskind's endlessly-readable Easy Riders, Raging Bulls:

"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.

This guy.
"Foreground, my ass!"


  1. I forgot to mention - one for Movie Trivia Night: the mechanical shark used for the production was named "Bruce" after Spielberg's lawyer.

    1. Neat! I knew the name but not its origin.

  2. The mechanical shark not working was a blessing for John Williams. His music put the shark in scenes where you never even see it. His contribution to the film cannot be overstated.

    Hooper lives in the movie because of some really great (but flawed) camerawork involving a real great white. The scene of the shark thrashing about atop the vacated cage was shot in Australia. But there was no one in the cage at the time. Spielberg loved the footage so much he rewrote the script to allow Hooper to survive, all so he could use that footage.

    Shaw was a notorious drunk. He tormented Dreyfuss non-stop. Their antagonistic relationship off-screen really helped the scenes of the two of them competing/bickering with each other.

    Shaw did 2 takes of the Indianapolis scene. One where he was very drunk and the other stone-sober. It's just about impossible to tell which line is from which take. Shaw was THAT good an actor.

    Spielberg has said he wanted to shoot flashback scenes during Quint's tale of the Indianapolis. But his performance was so brilliant Spielberg kept the camera on him and saved some time and money not having to shoot those scenes. I agree with you. That's one of the best (maybe THE best) monologues in movie history.

    I like the movie more than the book. This is one of the very rare times I can say that.

    1. Amen re: the Williams score. Such an essential part of the movie.

      Flashbacks to the Indianapolis might not have worked - I say might though my feeling is "definitely would not have," but given the talent involved, who knows. Either way, glad it was just a monologue.

    2. I totally agree that flashbacks would have undercut the Indianapolis sequence. Locking the camera on Shaw gives it such an impact. I'm reminded of the Air East 31 scene that was cut from Close Encounters, in which the plane is shown landing and government types come on board; it totally ruins the mystery of the air traffic control scene.

  3. I started 4th grade in September of '75. The buzz among my classmates for Jaws was a forerunner of what would come later with Star Wars. There was an electric feeling in the air for the film. It would take me a few years to actually see it, though I dived into any and all books about sharks I could get my hands on. I developed a fascinated dread of them, as did much of the country then.

    Post-Star Wars, it's easy to take for granted that kind of atmosphere of cinematic excitement. But at that time, there was no precedent for it. It just felt different from anything that had come before. It's such a vivid memory to me now.

    You'd have to include the shark from Jaws in the pantheon of great movie monsters. His presence is almost supernatural, maybe not even "almost." He's too smart, too vindictive, too physically powerful: "...he can't go down with three barrels on him, not with three he can't..." The ocean below becomes even more of a mystery, a maritime stand-in for the subconscious.

    Quint is fascinating to me. His apparent deathwish, or at least thirst for revenge against the sharks that killed so many on the Indianapolis, seems to drive him until even he seems to relent in the face of a creature that outstrips any he's seen.

    The Indianapolis monologue is a big deal to me, too. Before it, the movie is a horror thriller; afterward, it becomes high adventure, mythic in its scope. The characters seem to move from the real world into one of legend, with the otherworldly songs of whales heard in the distance and shooting stars lending a bit of magic.

    The shooting star that is so obviously added into that night sky shot has long fascinated me. Spielberg would go on to use them even more in the movie in which they are contextually fitting, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There, I like to watch the starfields that fill the screen in so many shots, with the occasional subtle and not-so-subtle stars that move. In Jaws, In Jaws, I like to think it means something, though what it is, I don't know. Maybe it means what I mention above, or maybe it's just something Spielberg threw in to spice up the night shots.

    The book really isn't very pleasant, is it? The characters are uniformly unlikable. Reminds me a bit of Jurassic Park in that respect. No character in either book is one I root for. I'm glad they ended up making some of them worth caring about for the movies. I know that many horror films these days purposely make their slate of characters unlikable so as to make the inevitable slaughter palatable to the viewer. But in both these Spielberg efforts I mention, it's necessary to have characters whose demise would pack a punch.

    1. I always looked at the shooting star as just his Hitchcock cameo/ signature, not something to complement the story. I can't recall when he stopped doing those - I doubt very much it's in his 90s and beyond work, but I'm not sure which would be the first to not use the shooting star. Gaede would probably know. Or I could google - ha, but it gives me an excuse to bug him.

      I appreciate the glimpse of contemporaneous Jaws excitement. That maritime metaphor of the subconscious is powerful for me. I like that quote about how we might never see a 100 ft great white, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence for the reasons quoted.

      I am very much not a fan of purposely making characters unlikable in horror films. Hate that trend! And it's lingered too long. May someone kill it for real, soon.

  4. I read the book long ago, and literally the only thing I remember about it is Ellen Brody hooking up with Hooper. I didn't remember that it was that unpleasant, though; good lord, I think I was about 12 or 13 when I read that thing -- what must I have thought?!?

    This is indeed one of the semi-rare cases in which the movie is not only better than the book, but better than the book by a whopping margin. Outclassed at every level.

    "And tears, whether shed in orgasm or in anger, disconcerted him." I mean . . . I guess I can understand that. But when writing a novel, why even consider making that one of its lines? It makes it seem as if Brody has lived a long life full of trysts with women who "have an orgasm" and then start crying. I think you might be doin' somethin' wrong there, champ.

    Love that screencap that makes it seem Brody is judging his wife and finding her guilty. Poor movie-Ellen; she didn't do nothin' wrong!

    1. ha, poor movie-Ellen. I actually felt a twinge of guilt about that for the same reason! And yes, exactly, re: Brody. A poorly-placed line like that opens up an avenue of questions the reader shouldn't even have to ask.

  5. As with many Spielberg movies (especially the early ones), I could go on and on about how much I love "Jaws." Someday I might even get around to doing it.

    For now, though, I'll try to prevent myself from leaving TOO many spearate comments about it. No promises, though.

    First of all, I have to say: while I have read (and loved every page of) "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," I think Biskind is full of shit on the subject of Spielberg. B-movie director my ass. NO movie as impeccably well-made as "Jaws" is a mere b-movie; when artistry hits a level this distinguished, all other considerations -- including whichever ones Biskind must have had in mind as requisite to achieve A-picture status -- fly out the window.

    Which makes me wonder: is there some modern equivalent of Spielberg, in the sense of him/her being someone who is mostly disregarded as a "serious artist" now but who will, in a few decades' time, be regarded as a master? In other words: is, like, Michael Bay actually a genius and I'm just not giving him credit for it?

    I suspect not. But how would I know?

    1. 1000% agreed on Spielberg. I mean, what the hell does the guy have to do? Sheesh.

      As for his modern equivalent, that's a good question. No one is coming to mind, but I'm sure there is someone currently laboring under "b-movie director" status who is just biding his time. Hell, remember when Peter Jackson was just that Kiwi guy who directed porn-puppets movie and the (disgustingly brilliant) Dead Alive? Now he's our Oscar-winning ambassador to Middle Earth and all-things-CGI.

  6. Imagine if this movie was made in 2015. All you'd read about it on the internet is (1) how stupid the ending is with the exploding tank and (2) how misogynistic it is on account of how it doesn't have anything for Ellen to do.

    In this respect, if in no other, 1975 wins in a landslide.

    1. Yes. One of the many reasons 2015 is so ridiculous.

      Take Fury Road. Haven't seen it, looks fun from the previews, sure it's cool. But it's being touted (at least in my news feed on facebook and twitter) as "the feminist masterpiece..." yadda yadda.

      Maybe - just MAYBE - how something promotes feminism or in support gay marriage is not the best metric for whether a film succeeds or fails, or really the ultimate judge of its quality.

      I seriously don't think people even factor in whether a film works internally or any other rubric of judgment anymore, just how well it fits their #trendbait agendas.

      I'm sure it's a great flick, and I'm sure it DOES have something akin to a feminist consciousness. But good fucking lord - when all you want from a movie is for it to expose the evils or praise the glories of capitalism/ communism, that's a propaganda movie, folks. Raise your game. There's more to fillmmaking than giving SJWs soundbites.

    2. True. I haven't seen "Fury Road" yet, either (that might or might not happen tonight), but I couldn't care less about its feminism or lack thereof. I care that it be a well-made movie that does nothing to offend my various sensibilities; I don't have a mental list of boxes that need to be checked in order for it be deemed socially worthy or whatever.

  7. A few things from the movie that stand out to me:

    (1) That opening death scene is WAY up there on my list of most-disturbing-movie-deaths. In its way, it's as awful as anything I can think of, because it just seems real.

    (2) The effects sometimes get crapped on, but they work for me at a near-perfect level. Much has -- rightly -- been made about the luck everyone experienced by way of the shark not working all the time and alternative solutions needing to be found. I'm sure that's true, but the scene they got with the shark when it WAS working are terrific. You could only get away with that approach today in an indie movie.

    (3) Robert Shaw delivers what might be a perfect performance. I'd be hard-pressed to think of anything he ought to change. No love from the Oscars, though; not even a nomination. Shameful.

    (4) Scheider and Dreyfuss are awfully good, too. In 2015, Brody would have to be played by a leading-man type; he'd be, like, Ryan Reynolds or somebody boring as hell, and Quint would blow him off the screen. Scheider is good enough that that doesn't even come close to happening, great and iconic though Shaw may be.

    (5) Is the dolly zoom that happens when Brody becomes aware that a shark death is occurring the best such zoom in cinema history? The only competition I know of is the one in "Vertigo."

    (6) The scene in which Brody's youngest son is imitating him is... Again, I think I have to resort to the word "perfect." How do you even begin to plan such a scene like that? The obvious answer is that you don't; you just roll film and hope something magical like that happens on its own. And yet, there are similar scenes in numerous early Spielberg films, which suggests that he must have been able to plan it SOMEhow.

    1. This is Comments Heaven for me!

      1) Absofrigginlutely.
      3) I'll never put on a lifejacket again.
      4) Oh man - just the thought of that is awful. And so spot-on it makes me cringe. See above comments on 2015.
      5) In the running, absolutely! We used to re-create that zoom all the time in my film production class. Our professor told us to stop it, when he saw it in 9 out of 10 of our first assignments.

  8. One more:

    Regarding John Williams, it's certainly true that this is one of the all-time best -- or, at least, most effective -- movie scores. But for Williams, "Jaws" arguably marks the beginning of a fertile period which lasted -- depending on what you want to include -- about a decade and during which he pumped out masterpiece after masterpiece.

    Now, let's not think that by "masterpiece" I am engaging in hyperbole. No sir, I mean exactly what I say. If you consider Williams as a baseball player, then the years 1975-1984 (or so) would be represented by him standing at bat, smacking damn near every ball thrown at him over the top of the wall in center field. Maybe even all the way out of the park.

    Oh, and somehow, the bases are loaded every time.

    This is what John Williams did during those years:

    Jaws (1975)
    Star Wars (1977)
    Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
    Superman (1978)
    The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
    Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
    E.T. (1982)
    Return of the Jedi (1983)
    Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

    All of those are handily among the finest film scores ever written. And he wrote NINE of them in a single decade.

    I've omitted quite a few scores which are merely great, by the way, including stuff like "1941," "Dracula," "The Fury, "Family Plot," "Black Sunday," and "The River." As if that wasn't enough, he wrote an iconic theme for the 1984 summer Olympics during this time, and an iconic theme for NBC Nightly News one year later.

    In other words, John Williams during this time period was about as on fire as it's possible for an artist to be. I would stack that decade's worth of accomplishments up against any other decade of productivity by any artist in any medium. If there's a better one, I damn sure want to know about it!

    "Jaws" led the way. And it's not just that iconic main theme; the rest of the score is glorious, too.

    1. Oh eff to the yes on this. John Williams' run in the period you describe is like the John Carpenter film run from Halloween through They Live. (Maybe even In the Mouth of Madness.)

      I always wonder with composers like Williams - if he lived 100 years ago, would these all be symphonies? Did he have the work lying around in scraps or portions and just cannibalize it for film scores? However he did it, the man cannot be praised enough. I've been whistling the Return of the Jedi score all this past week, particularly the Ewoks/ Endor themes - there's probably no week of my life where I don't whistle some portion of a Williams score, sometime.

      Joe makes a good point, too, above, on how the music IS the monster for most of "Jaws." Certainly true, and certainly cool.