Film adaptations are often perceived as easier to work with. After all, the book is already written so all a screenwriter has to do is follow what the original author laid out, right? Wrong. In researching the 52 books I assembled for “But Have You Read the Book: 52 Literary Gems That Inspired Our Favorite Films,” out now from Turner Classic Movies and Running Press, a quote from director W.S. Van Dyke — the director behind the popular adapted mystery series “The Thin Man” — was constant, use the book as a foundation, not a guide.
Half of the fun of reading books that are adapted to movies is in how a screenwriter chooses to use them. Some junk the source material entirely, characters are eliminated, some people die on-screen who live on the page. In the case of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic, “Jaws,” the story of a hungry shark and the men intent on taking him down was more of a sad relationship drama when author Peter Benchley wrote the book in 1974. In the below excerpt, what Spielberg left out is discussed including an illicit affair between oceanographer Matt Hooper and Chief Brody’s wife, the capitalism at place on Amity Island, and the Mob.
During a beautiful summer evening on the beaches of the fictional town of Amity, a young woman throws off her clothing and skinny-dips in the ocean. She swims for a moment until she feels something in the water. The poor girl is pulled under water and dragged along by an unseen entity, setting the stage for Steven Spielberg’s 1975 feature film, “Jaws.” The film didn’t just make people afraid to go into the water, it became the first blockbuster and revolutionized the way audiences see movies. It was the first film to be marketed nationwide via television and boasted long lines at movie theaters. But audiences today often forget that the film – which was nominated for Best Picture, established the summer movie season, and spawned three sequels – was adapted from a novel that is equally deserving of attention and celebration.
Author Peter Benchley based “Jaws” on what he knew, having grown up fishing with his father off Nantucket. He wanted to write a novel about a shark that enters a resort community and not only how it was destroyed but how, in turn, it destroyed the town whose waters it inhabited. The novel examines the parasitic symbiosis between the townspeople of Amity and the shark itself. There’s an increased sense of isolation, with Brody and his wife Ellen (Lorraine Gary in the film) being natives to the area, unlike the feature where the two are transplants from New York. Much of Benchley’s text examines the dichotomy between Amity natives and the “summer people,” those who visit Amity and are commonly associated with wealth and privilege.
The relationship between Brody and Ellen is fraught with complexities in the book, both questioning and regretting the decisions they’ve made. Ellen, herself once a summer person before her marriage to Brody transitioned her into an Amity resident, feels particularly adrift, so much so that she engages in a brief fling with Hooper. Hooper’s character is also very different; he’s described as a tanned, good-looking man who spent his own summers visiting posh Southampton. He and Ellen bond over their pasts as summer people, as well as a shared history, with Ellen once dating Hooper’s older brother. When Hooper and Brody end up chasing the shark on the Orca in the third act, Brody’s lingering worry that Hooper and Ellen have been together intensifies the quest, while Hooper’s death brings in an added layer of guilt and sadness for the Brodys.
When Benchley was initially commissioned to adapt his book, he was urged to “drop the Mafia stuff,” referring to Mayor Vaughn. Murray Hamilton’s performance as the callous mayor is iconic, but in the novel he’s presented more as a weakling whose business investments are tied up with the Mafia. In the film, Vaughn is a stand-in for political interests that often supersede public safety but, in Benchley’s world, the mayor is just one of countless characters who want the shark gone. There’s far more discussion in the novel with regard to how Amity, as a town, doesn’t want the beaches closed. Lengthy paragraphs describe the economy of Amity, one wholly reliant on strong summers to support families during the winter. With the beaches closed, Brody is confronted with numerous people wondering how they will survive. The shark, in this case, stands in for any concept of blight – a living, eating embodiment of a bad harvest or hurricane.
In the foreword to an updated version of “Jaws,” Benchley worried he’d done more harm to shark conservation than good, based on how often he depicted sharks and other marine life being killed in the novel.
The shark takes on a decreased role in the novel, but it allows his power to intensify. Quint and Brody comment regularly about how the shark acts differently than most fish, with Brody comparing him to a demon and believing it’s an act of God. Select passages put the reader in the shark’s point of view, understanding how a shark’s body works and how highly attuned it is to its prey. The audience is told to sit back and let the nightmare unfold, fully realizing Brody’s horror of the shark being more powerful than man. Whether one’s reading the book or watching the movie, the water will never be the same.
“But Have You Read the Book: 52 Literary Gems That Inspired Our Favorite Films” is on bookshelves now.