Everyone knows the story of Jaws right? Well, I thought I did. Of course, not being too up-to-date with popular fiction of the 1970s, was only really aware of the story thanks to the film. I knew that Steven Spielberg changed much of Peter Benchley’s book but had never thought to read it. Until I found a copy with the most amazing cover I’d ever seen. No matter how many times I get burned by ignoring the well-known idiom, I always judge a book by its cover. Still, I at least knew that Benchley’s book was a much trashier affair than Spielberg’s film so it seemed like perfect reading during the recent run of good weather. Even ex-literature students love a bit of trash every now and then. Maybe one day I’ll tell you all about The Second Lady by Irving Wallace. Now that’s some fucking great trash. So it was with a piqued interest that I sat down to read the book that became a surprise best-seller after its release in 1974.
Peter Benchley’s novel has the same basic premise of the Steven Spielberg adaptation that was released a year after the book first came out. A small seaside town is terrorised by an underwater beast and comes close to financial ruin when the tourists they rely on stay away. That’s kind of where the helpful comparisons come to an end. Benchley padded out his narrative with subplots of adultery, political corruption, mobsters and class divides. The characters that litter his novel are almost unrecognisable to those we are so used to seeing on screen. In stark contrast to the titular fish, they are all terrible and immoral people. It’s difficult to read the novel and not want the shark to win in the end.
It’s difficult when discussing Benchley’s novel because, in so many ways, it can never compete with the superior work. The two recently celebrated their 40th anniversaries and, whilst the film was obviously lauded for its greatness, the books birthday passed in a much quieter manner. After reading it I can see why the novel hasn’t remained the huge success it was in the mid 70s. In fact, it is kind of shocking that it remained on the best-sellers list for as long as it did. It was Benchley’s first novel and it is hardly the greatest example of writing the world had ever seen. The story is massively cliched, the dialogue is stilted and the subplots are fairly bland and pointless.
There are moments of greatness within the novel but Benchley just throws too much at it. It’s like the kind of Christmas trees you decorated as a child: there’s a solid base there but you’ve just chucked too many shiny things on top of it. The sections of the novel that really stand out are the ones with the shark. Taken from its point of view, we see the attacks on the human victims through the eyes of a predator and it’s weirdly captivating. Benchley’s writing is factual and solemn in these sections and they’re just brilliant. From these few sections you can see why people considered it an exciting thriller. The scenes with the shark have a level of intensity that the rest of the book just can’t match. The fault within the novel doesn’t lie with our fishy protagonists but with the human ones.
One of the main criticisms of the novel, and one taken up by Spielberg himself, is that the human characters are just too unlikeable. I can see where they’re coming from but I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. In fact, Ellen Brody, despite being an offensively written and whiny housewife, has way more depth than she ever did on screen. I don’t necessarily find the awful nature of the human characters to be a problem but I do object to it being done for no real reason. Martin Brody, for example, has a massive chip on his shoulder but it never goes anywhere beyond his petty jealousy of Matt Hooper. The human sections within the shark tale are just about entertainment and adds nothing from a literary point.
Although, you could argue, the real focus is and should be on the shark. This is a murder mystery set under the sea and the fish should be what you remember. However, Benchley also takes this a bit too far with his allusions to Moby Dick. Quint is much the same as you remember from the film but his relationship with the shark goes much deeper into Captain Ahab territory. The final battle sequence is. I guess, quite exhilarating but it pushes the whole plot to a new level of insanity and revenge. As soon as Quint enters the scene we leave reality and enter a much more fantastical world. A weird thing to say considering Benchley’s ending is much more sedate and sombre than the film. No massive explosion here just a beast that can’t stop fighting anymore. It may not be the Hollywood spectacle that Spielberg wanted but the timid ending of this novel is, in it’s own way, incredibly meaningful in regards to natural order. Maybe it does hold up to its visual brother after all.