(Click here for information on the 2014 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. As all of the
four five selected titles have filmed adaptations, we will be looking at the movie versions as we go along. Today, the July alternate/bonus selection, Peter Benchley’s Jaws.)
When I announced Jaws as the bonus selection for this year’s edition of Imaginary Summer Book Club, I hadn’t read it in about 25 years, and I dimly recalled it as being “Peyton Place with a shark” (this being one of those books I read long before I was allowed to see the movie). The sum total of my memory of the book was: “grass and gazpacho”, “AC/DC”, how unscrupulous restaurateurs make fake scallops, and an extremely awkward sex scene.
While Steven Spielberg’s 1975 movie has completely overshadowed its source material, Benchley’s novel was a blockbuster in its own right, spending 44 weeks on the bestseller lists and eventually selling 20 million copies. The fact that it now qualifies as a Lost Classic is testimony to both young Spielberg’s skill as a filmmaker, as well as the frustrating un-likeability of Benchley’s characters (supposedly upon reading the book Spielberg announced that he was rooting for the shark).
While the book opens with the familiar attack on poor, hippy-dippy Chrissie Watkins during some ill-advised late-night skinny dipping, the novel’s focus quickly shifts to Police Chief Martin Brody and the various intricacies of small-time policin’ in the resort town of Amity Island.
Brody is a stuffy square, an Amity “townie”, long married to an ex-debutante who came to the island with the “summer people”, and is now walking around in a fog resentment and sexual frustration. Clearly, he is a man ready to go on some sort of symbolic journey to reclaim his masculinity.
Ellen Brody has a much greater role in the novel than the film, but her characterization is pretty much just a shrill, desperate housewife, constantly judging the native Islanders for their lack of culture and downing Seconal to avoid having sex with her husband. When the town brings in studly young ichthyologist Matt Hooper to solve their shark problem, Ellen immediately starts making eyes at him, and quickly discovers that he’s the younger brother of an old boyfriend. Her kind of people.
When Ellen orchestrates a dinner party to welcome Hooper to town, Chief Brody takes an immediate dislike to him:
He was young- mid-twenties, Brody thought- and handsome: tanned, hair bleached by the sun. He was about as tall as Brody, an inch over six feet, but leaner: Brody guessed 170 pounds, compared to his own 200. A mental reflex scanned Hooper for possible threat.
Brody probably would have challenged Hooper to a dick-measuring contest right then, but the other guests start arriving, including the girl Ellen invited as Hooper’s “date”, a moony hippie chick named Daisy Wicker. Brody hates her too:
“Have you ever tried a G and G?”
“Can’t say that I have.”
“You ought to try one. Of course, you might not enjoy it, since it’s breaking the law.”
“You mean eating this thing is breaking the law? How? What is it?”
“Grass and gazpacho. Instead of herbs, you sprinkle a little grass over the top. Then you smoke a little, eat a little, smoke a little, eat a little. It’s really wild.”
Jeez, Brody, what kind of man are you, just letting hippies into your house to talk to you like that?
In the meantime the whole town has spun into a financial panic over the shark news- most Amity residents are on welfare during the off-season anyway (the editor of the local paper describes Amity in winter as “Harlem-by-the-sea”), but a “bad summer” without the much needed tourist dollars could prove unrecoverable. Especially vulnerable is Amity’s sharp-dressed mayor, Larry Vaughn, who has recently bought up a bunch of real estate in partnership with a mysterious holding company. Is something shady going on between the Mayor’s office and organized crime? Let’s just say that after Brody permanently closes the beaches, a swarthy gangster-type murders the family’s cat, making the hunt for the rogue shark… personal.
Meanwhile, Hooper and Mrs. Brody are luncheoning together at a posh inn on a remote part of the island. Hooper offers some instructive advice on how to tell if the scallops you ordered are fake (flounder cut into circles with a cookie-cutter) and is soon trading double entendres with Ellen, which quickly leads to a rendezvous at roadside motel:
Even after his obvious, violent climax, Hooper’s countenance had not changed. His teeth still clenched, his eyes still fixed on the wall, and he continued to pump madly. He was oblivious of the being beneath him, and when, perhaps a full minute after his climax, Hooper still did not relax, Ellen had become afraid- of what, she wasn’t sure…
GUYS! He even humps like a shark!
By this time Brody is starting suspect that something is up, but when he confronts Hooper about his whereabouts he swears that it was Daisy Wicker that he was making sweet, sharky love to all afternoon.
But Brody’s secretary down at Gossip Central Precinct has some disquieting news for the Chief:
“You don’t know about Daisy Wicker?”
“I guess I don’t.”
Again Janet lowered her voice. “She’s queer. She’s got a lady roommate and everything. She’s not even AC-DC. She’s just plain old DC.”
Well, that sets the stage for getting on a boat to symbolically prove your manhood!
The climax of the book returns to mostly- familiar territory for movie fans, as the town, now in its economic death throws after a foolhardy teenager is almost eaten on live TV, finally antes up to pay mythical, shark-slaying ubermensch Quint to take care of their Shark Problem. Hooper gets eaten on the first day out, which is fine because he was kind of a douchebag. Quint and Brody battle the beast mano-a-mano, and Brody finally defeats the shark/saves the town/resolves his crisis of masculinity.
In the movie the Brodies have escaped the mean streets of New York City for what they think will be a quiet life policing Amity Island. Still in his first year on the job, Brody’s authority is constantly undermined by the native-born elected officials. However, there is no sign of strife in this Brody marriage, and they’re an affectionate, efficient parenting team (and notably the most functional nuclear family depicted in Spielberg’s early work).
If Benchley’s serious themes about systemic poverty are weighed down by his pulpy prose, Spielberg’s movie (screenplay by Benchley) manages to do the opposite, elevating a genre film above its trappings. In the movie the social issues fade into the background, and Chief Brody becomes a benign patriarch, despite being an outsider, who is just trying to save his stupid town.
Stray Thoughts and Observations:
It’s a commonly repeated story that the shark doesn’t appear until a full hour into the movie because Spielberg & company were having so many mechanical problems with it; however, that is actually fairly faithful to the original plot of the novel, where the reader doesn’t a good look at the shark until the climactic battle.
We can thank Helen Gurley Brown for the film: when a pre-publication copy of the book was favorably reviewed by Cosmopolitan’s fiction department she passed it along to her husband, David, who would co-produce the film with Richard D. Zanuck.
Or maybe the TOWN is the shark!
“The town survives on its summer people, Mr. Whitman. Call it parasitic, if you will, but that’s the way it is. The host animal comes every summer, and Amity feeds on it furiously, pulling every bit of sustenance it can before the host leaves again after Labor Day. Take away the host animal, and we’re like dog ticks with no dog to feed on. We starve.”