Tuesday, March 15, 2011

REVIEW: Jaws by Peter Benchley

by Peter Benchley

NOTE I fully and openly admit to being a child of the movie version of this book. I’d always been interested in reading the novel, because it’s one of those novels that changed the world, creating hysteria towards sharks and causing people to think of them specifically as man-eaters.

A small, summer town is set upon by a man eater... a Great White Shark with a taste for human flesh.

Character Likability:
Martin Brody: I have to admit, I’ve always loved the Schneider version of Martin Brody and I was happy to see that the movie followed closely to Benchley’s vision of Brody… and that Schneider was, in fact, the perfect man to play him. For me, Brody has always been a strong male character. My affection for him is close to the affection I feel for Atticus Finch. Brody is clear on what he considers right and wrong and does what he can to live by “right”. Unlike in the movie, the book actually gives better reasons as to why Brody would allow the beach to be reopened, as opposed to JUST political pressure. He stands up for what he believes in, and unlike in the book, he IS a local and has clout with the locals because of this. He also doesn’t have the fear of water that has been given to the character in the movie… but this is really neither here nor there, and is a curious addition to the movie itself, and proves to give Brody one of his few weaknesses that, in the book, simply isn’t an issue.
Hooper: There is a dramatic difference between the movie Hooper and the book Hooper. Where the Richard Dreyfus version is likable, joking and generally a friendly presence… smartly scientific when he needs to be… the Hooper of the book comes in more to represent the life that Mrs. Brody used to live… a connection to her past that she has been so struggling to regain. Hooper is more of a vehicle to cause Mrs. Brody to examine her marriage, her life and what she really wants in the world. At the same time, he still acts as the scientific advisor, and while seeming at least slightly capable, there’s something disturbing about Quint seeming to know more about sharks than Hooper does… Hooper, the man who has dedicated his life to studying them. Hooper is a “summer kid”, the rich, spoiled kids who come to summer in Amity because they have rich mommies and daddies, and frankly, despite his grown up profession, Hooper hasn’t shaken this “rich kid” feel, which, for me, discredits him a bit as a scientist. I much preferred the movie Hooper who was strictly business and seemed to come from a more down-to-earth background.
Other than physical description (the book Quint was bald and fit), this character stayed pretty much the same from book to movie. In the book, Quint is forced to watch several dramatic moments between Hooper and Brody play out, but he does it stoically. He’s all business as a fisherman, but willing to tease and joke when the mood grabs him. The book Quint has fewer interesting stories and focuses more on the fishing aspect of the trip. He uses more gruesome bait such as baby porpoises and sheep, and talks more about the science of fishing than the movie Quint did. His fate is the same as it is in the movie, to be taken down by the shark… but in the book he has a much more Ahab ending.
The Shark: Often we, as readers, were able to see an attack from the perspective of the shark, much like the underwater scenes in the movie… except Benchley uses these moments of shark perspective to introduce the reader to the detached science of a shark attack… from the sensors in the snout to the scent of blood in the water to the fact that humans sound like distressed fish… we get to see the unemotional science behind a shark attack… which only makes it all the more frightening.
Mrs. Brody: Unlike the loving wife of the movie, Mrs. Brody in the book is selfish, annoying and so wrapped up in herself and her longing for her old life that she’s unlikable. Sure there might be a shark attacking the coast and making her husband’s life a living hell… but to her, none of that is as important as feeling sexy and attractive and being accepted by the upper crust of Amity society. She does terrible things, and frankly, I didn’t get the sense, by the end of the book, that in several years she wouldn’t just revisit her depression and do the whole thing all over again. I pity Brody for his married life in the book, where in the movie they were a cute, loving couple.
Meadows: A character that is absent in the movie, Meadows runs the local newspaper and publishes articles that, for the most part, help Brody… thanks to Brody and Meadow’s friendship. He is instrumental in dropping information to Brody throughout the story that Brody wouldn’t have had otherwise and that was cut from the movie all together.

Quality of Writing:
Benchley told an interesting, fast paced story that made it difficult to put the book down. Despite having seen the movie, the book was incredibly interesting and different enough to keep you wondering what would happen next. In comparison to the movie, I think there was a bit more of the ‘fantastical’ in the book, where things seemed very conveniently timed… but it had you on the edge of your seat the entire time, and it’s easy to see how this story began a wave of shark slaying. The fish in this story is relentless and endlessly hungry.

To be completely honest, I prefer the ending in the movie. Sure, Mythbusters has proven that Brody couldn’t have exploded the fish in such a manner… but I don’t care. The Captain Ahab, convenient timing ending of the book was a bit anti-climatic. I got to the end and found myself very much missing the “Smile you sonnoffa…*KABOOM!*”

This book had a fast paced plot that kept me, as a reader, interested in finding out what happens next, despite having seen the movie.  The book took the opportunity to explore more of the science behind shark attacks, as well as more of the social interaction that occurs in a summer town than the movie did. It focused very much on the terror not just of unpredictable shark attacks but also of the looming threat that closing down the beach imposed on the townsfolk who needed to stay there year round. It discussed the small town politics and the “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” mentality of many of the year round folk. It also explored social status and one’s contentment with their lot, as well as the possibly unforeseen positive effects that can be caused by negative press. There was a lot of social commentary going on, and it kept the book interesting and moving inbetween the gruesome shark attacks.
Not to mention that this book was loosely based on real shark attacks that happened along the Jersey Shore and in a small river in 1916 … the real life attacks almost as fantastical as the ones in the book, and adding to the hysteria that caused this book to be a ‘world changer’ and incite the mass hunting of sharks.

Believability of World:
While a lot of this book is believable, there are some instances that are just a tad too convenient for my liking… most notably, the end. However, the small town politics and the vast majority of shark attacks, and the publics reaction to them was entirely believable.

Overall Grade: A-


  1. I am right there with you! I grew up loving this movie and hating the ocean. I always cringed when Quint got taken down in the movie. Still do sometimes. ;)

    But yeah, read the book years ago since I grew up on the movie and it's one of the rare occasions where I prefer the movie than the book. I didn't care for the wife in the book, just because I liked her better in the movie.

    Although I wasn't a fan of the sequels. Just the first one!

  2. I love the way you compared the book to the movie, since I'm sure most people know the movie but not the book. I also love the movie's ending, regardless of the science ;) That's interesting that Mrs. Brody is so unlikeable in the book whereas in the movie, her part is somewhat small but provides Martin with a sense of commitment.

  3. No matter, what anyone say's.... it gave me and still does the creeps when swimming in deep water. I have swam with sharks.... tiddlers :-) x x
    Mind you, it's the two legged one's you have to worry about !
    :-) x x x