Saturday, May 26, 2012

Jaws, by Peter Benchley (1974)

I was unaware until a few months ago that Jaws was a book before Steven Spielberg made it into a movie. It just so happened that my Young Adult Literature professor had it on her bookshelf and handed it to me for my Man vs. Nature book ladder assignment. The difference between the two versions is huge, as Spielberg has a better knack for storytelling. That's not to say Peter Benchley's novel is without its entertainment; it's just that his cynicism shifts the story in a bad direction.

The opening will likely sound familiar. A man and woman, drunk, have sex in the backyard of his family's house. She decides to take a dip in the ocean while he is passed out. Little does she know a shark lurks in the dark.

Chief of police Martin Brody is put on the case of the missing woman, and when he finds her detached head, there's no doubt she was the victim of a shark attack. Brody proposes closing down the beaches for several days, but it's bad timing for the town, Amity. Harry Meadows, editor of the town's local paper, and Mayor Vaughn don't want the beaches closed because the town relies on summer tourism for revenue to survive the winter. So, against Brody's better judgment, the beaches remain open and the shark attack is covered up. However, when a second and third shark attack occur, the mayor has no choice but to close them down.

Brody calls on shark expert Matt Hooper to help out. Hooper can't explain why the shark, which he identifies as a great white, is hovering around the area, especially when the waters are still chilly, but he does know it's a really big shark (which inspires the famous line in the movie, "I think we need a bigger boat"). He also recognizes Brody's wife, Ellen, who dated his older brother back in the day. Ellen loves her husband, but despises her life as a "winter" person, meaning she lives in Amity yearlong rather than as a summer getaway. She's clearly attracted to Hooper, a "summer" person, and Brody suspects this. Also joining the scene is Quint, captain of a fishing boat. He despises sharks, but loves slitting open their gut and dropping them in the water to watch them eat their own insides over and over until they die. Like in the movie, these three men go on the final quest to hunt down the shark.

The novel is actually pretty good for the first half of it. Benchley writes with a lot of humor, similar to Stephen King, although some of his humor relies too much on bodily functions. I grew to like the police chief, Brody, and even Harry Meadows, as well as another policeman, Hendricks. However, Benchley's mistake is to forget about the shark plot about halfway through the novel in order to develop a romantic subplot between Ellen and Matt. This subplot takes up a significant portion of the novel and only serves to undermine it. Those who don't like graphic sexual language might want to skip this section of the novel. While the scene produces a lot of tension, it also changes the tone of the novel for the worst, making the rest of the novel difficult to enjoy.

In exploring a Man vs. Nature theme, the novel does have some interesting points to make. Matt Hooper says some fascinating things about sharks. Everyone wants an explanation as to why the shark is hanging around, and Matt makes it clear that sometimes there are simply unexplainable anomalies in nature. The shark's presence is a threat to the town's economy, and because the shark lives in the ocean, it is difficult to find and kill. Thus we find how humans are sometimes powerless to fight off mother nature, no matter how big their boat is.

Though my Young Adult Literature teacher had this on her bookshelf, I wouldn't consider it YA, due to the graphic language. However, it's not difficult to imagine teenagers in the 1970s reading the novel due to the popularity of the movie. I wonder what they thought of it. You're probably familiar with the claim that the book is always better than the movie, but I think Jaws proves that wrong. Spielberg's movie remains a classic, while Benchley's novel has fallen into relative obscurity, and with good reason.

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