JAWS: Peter Benchley's Influence & Regret
The movie Jaws is undisputed as the first “blockbuster” and its reputation, despite dated special FX, is firmly in place, playing all over basic cable and streaming services every summer. When I was a kid my brother and I watched the movie on our tiny little black & white TV that sat on a rickety little stand in between our two beds. We often pretended the floor was the ocean water and jump back and forth trying to avoid the great white shark, waiting down there to eat us whole. I’m sure it drove our mom nuts.
But what makes Peter Benchley’s book mandatory reading?
The novel grew out of Benchley's interest in shark attacks after he learned about the exploits of shark fisherman Frank Mundus in 1964. Doubleday commissioned him to write the novel in 1971, a period when Benchley worked as a freelance journalist.
Through a marketing campaign orchestrated by Doubleday and paperback publisher Bantam, Jaws was incorporated into many book sales clubs catalogues and attracted media interest. After first publication in February 1974, the novel was a great success, with the hardback staying on the bestseller list for some 44 weeks and the subsequent paperback selling millions of copies in the following year. Reviews were mixed, with many literary critics finding the prose and characterization lacking despite the novel's effective suspense.
Film producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown read the novel before its publication and bought the film rights, selecting Steven Spielberg to direct the film adaptation. The Jaws film, released in June 1975, omitted practically all of the novel's several subplots, mainly focusing on the shark and the characterizations of the three protagonists. Jaws became the highest-grossing movie in history up to that time, becoming a watershed film in motion picture history and the very first summer blockbuster film. Three sequels followed the film, which were met with mixed to negative responses.
Peter Bradford Benchley (May 8, 1940 – February 11, 2006) was an American author, screenwriter, and ocean activist. He is known as the author of the bestselling novel Jaws and co-wrote its film adaptation with Carl Gottlieb. Several more of his works were also adapted for both cinema and television, including The Deep, The Island, Beast, and White Shark.
Later in life, Benchley came to regret writing such sensationalist literature about sharks, which he felt encouraged excessive fear and unnecessary culls of such an important predator in ocean ecosystems and became an advocate for marine conservation.
By 1971, Benchley was doing various freelance jobs in his struggle to support his wife and children. During this period, when Benchley would later declare he was "making one final attempt to stay alive as a writer", his literary agent arranged meetings with publishers. Benchley would frequently pitch two ideas, a non-fiction book about pirates, and a novel depicting a man-eating shark terrorizing a community. This idea had been developed by Benchley since he had read a news report of a fisherman catching a 4,550 pounds (2,060 kg) great white shark off the coast of Long Island in 1964. The shark novel eventually attracted Doubleday editor Thomas Congdon, who offered
Benchley an advance of $1,000 leading to the novelist submitting the first 100 pages. Much of the work had to be rewritten as the publisher was not happy with the initial tone. Benchley worked by winter in his Pennington office, and in the summer in a converted chicken coop in the Wessons' farm in Stonington. The idea was inspired by the several great white sharks caught in the 1960s off Long Island and Block Island by the Montauk charterboat captain Frank Mundus.
Jaws was published in 1974 and became a great success, staying on the bestseller list for 44 weeks. Steven Spielberg, who would direct the film version of Jaws, has said that he initially found many of the characters unsympathetic and wanted the shark to win. Book critics such as Michael A. Rogers of Rolling Stone shared the sentiment but the book struck a chord with readers.
Benchley co-wrote the screenplay with Carl Gottlieb (along with the uncredited Howard Sackler and John Milius, who provided the first draft of a monologue about the USS Indianapolis) for the Spielberg film released in 1975.
Benchley made a cameo appearance as a news reporter on the beach. The film, starring Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss, was released in the summer season, traditionally considered to be the graveyard season for films. However, Universal Studios decided to break tradition by releasing the film with extensive television advertising. It eventually grossed over $470 million worldwide. George Lucas used a similar strategy in 1977 for Star Wars which broke the box office records set by Jaws, and hence the summer blockbuster was born.
Benchley estimated that he earned enough from book sales, film rights and magazine/book club syndication to be able to work independently as a film writer for ten years.
In light of Peter Benchley's lifelong record of shark conservation and educating the public about sharks, the Peter Benchley Ocean Awards have been instituted by Wendy Benchley and David Helvarg as his legacy.
In 2015 researchers confirmed a new species of lanternshark had been found off the Pacific coast of South America, naming it Etmopterus benchleyi. Lead researcher Vicki Vásquez noted the author's work in promoting ocean conservation, particularly sharks, as motivation.
The story is set in Amity, a fictional seaside resort town on Long Island, New York. One night, a massive great white shark kills a young tourist named Chrissie Watkins while she skinny dips in the open waters. After finding what remains of her body washed up on the beach, investigators realize she was attacked by a shark. Police chief Martin Brody orders Amity's beaches closed, but mayor Larry Vaughan and the town's selectmen overrule him out of fear for damage to summer tourism, the town's main industry. With the connivance of Harry Meadows, the editor of the local newspaper, they hush up the attack.
A few days later, the shark kills a young boy named Alex Kintner and Morris Cater, an elderly man not far from shore. A local fisherman, Ben Gardner, is hired by Amity's authorities to kill the shark, but disappears on the water. Brody and deputy Leonard Hendricks find Gardner's boat anchored off-shore, empty and covered with large bite holes, one of which has a massive shark tooth stuck in it. Blaming himself for these deaths, Brody again attempts to close the beaches, while Meadows investigates the Mayor's business contacts to find out why he is determined to keep the beaches open. Meadows discovers Vaughn has ties to the Mafia, who are pressuring the mayor to keep the beaches open in order to protect the value of Amity's real estate, in which the Mafia has invested a great deal of money. Meadows also recruits ichthyologist Matt Hooper from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for advice on how to deal with the shark.
Meanwhile, Brody's wife Ellen is missing the affluent lifestyle she had before marrying Brody and having children. She instigates a sexual encounter with Matt Hooper, who is the younger brother of David Hooper, a man she used to date. The two go to a motel after Ellen invites him to lunch at a restaurant several miles away from Amity. Throughout the rest of the novel, Brody suspects the two have had a liaison and is tormented by the thought.
With the beaches still open, tourists pour into the town, hoping to glimpse the killer shark. Brody sets up patrols on the beaches to watch for the fish. After a boy narrowly escapes another attack close to the shore, Brody closes the beaches and hires Quint, a professional shark hunter, to kill the shark. Brody, Quint and Hooper set out on Quint's vessel, the Orca and the three men are soon at odds with one another. Quint dislikes Hooper, dismissing him as a spoiled rich College boy. Hooper is angry over Quint's methods, especially when he disembowels a blue shark, and uses an illegally caught unborn baby dolphin for bait. Brody and Hooper also argue, as Brody's suspicions about Hooper's possible tryst with Ellen grow stronger; at one point, Brody unsuccessfully attempts to strangle Hooper.
Their first two days at sea are unproductive, although they do come in contact with the shark by the end of the second day. Upon seeing it for the first time, Hooper estimates the fish must be at least twenty feet long, and is visibly excited and in awe at the size of it.
Larry Vaughn visits the Brody house before Brody returns home and informs Ellen that he and his wife are leaving Amity. Before he leaves, he tells Ellen that he always thought they would have made a great couple. After he is gone, Ellen reflects that her life with Brody is much more fulfilling than any life she might have had with Vaughn, and begins feeling guilty over her prior thoughts of missing the life she had before marrying Brody.
On the third day, after seeing the size of the shark, Hooper wants to bring along a shark-proof cage, to take photos of it and then to use it in an attempt to kill it with a bang stick. Initially, Quint refuses to bring the cage on board, even after Hooper's offers to pay him $100, considering it a suicidal idea, but he relents after Hooper and Brody get into a heated argument. Later that day, after several unsuccessful attempts by Quint to harpoon the shark, Hooper goes underwater in the shark cage. However, the shark attacks the cage, something Hooper did not expect it to do, and, after destroying the cage, the shark kills and eats Hooper. Brody informs Quint that the town can no longer afford to pay him to hunt the shark, but Quint no longer cares about the money and vows to continue pursuing the shark until he has killed it.
When Quint and Brody return to sea the following day, the shark begins attacking the boat. After Quint manages to harpoon it several times, the shark leaps out of the water and onto the stern of the Orca, tearing a huge hole in the aft section which causes the boat to start sinking. Quint plunges another harpoon into the shark's belly, but as it settles back into the water, Quint's foot becomes entangled in the rope attached to the harpoon, and he is dragged underwater to his death. Brody, now floating on a seat cushion, spots the shark slowly swimming towards him; he closes his eyes and prepares for death. However, just as the shark gets within a few feet of him, it succumbs to its many wounds. The shark rolls over in the water and dies before it can attack Brody. The great fish slowly sinks down out of sight, dragging Quint's still entangled body behind it. The lone survivor of the ordeal, Brody watches as the dead shark disappears into the depths and then he paddles back to shore on his makeshift float.
The story of Jaws is limited by how the humans respond to the shark menace. The fish is given much detail, with descriptions of its anatomy and presence creating the sense of an unstoppable threat. Elevating the menace are violent descriptions of the shark attacks. Along with a carnivorous killer on the sea, Amity is populated with equally predatory humans: the mayor who has ties with the Mafia, an adulterous housewife, criminals among the tourists.
In the meantime, the impact of the predatory deaths resemble Henrik Ibsen's play An Enemy of the People, with the mayor of a small town panicking over how a problem will drive away the tourists. Another source of comparison raised by critics was Moby-Dick, particularly regarding Quint's characterization and the ending featuring a confrontation with the shark; Quint even dies the same way as Captain Ahab. The central character, Chief Brody, fits a common characterization of the disaster genre, an authority figure who is forced to provide guidance to those affected by the sudden tragedy. Focusing on a working class local leads the book's prose to describe the beachgoers with contempt, and Brody to have conflicts with the rich outsider Hooper.
In the years following publication, Benchley began to feel responsible for the negative attitudes against sharks that his novel engendered. He became an ardent ocean conservationist. In an article for the National Geographic published in 2000, Benchley writes "considering the knowledge accumulated about sharks in the last 25 years, I couldn't possibly write Jaws today ... not in good conscience anyway. Back then, it was generally accepted that great whites were anthropophagus (they ate people) by choice. Now we know that almost every attack on a human is an accident: The shark mistakes the human for its normal prey." Upon his death in 2006, Benchley's widow Wendy declared the author "kept telling people the book was fiction", and comparing Jaws to The Godfather, "he took no more responsibility for the fear of sharks than Mario Puzo took responsibility for the Mafia."
To answer our question, “what makes Jaws mandatory reading?” we need to consider the book’s longevity and influence, regardless of the author’s uneven remorse with it. It is the one work he will be remembered for, a fact he turned to an educational advantage.