Jaws has a great legacy in Hollywood for still being one of the greatest films ever made. This is partly down to director Steven Spielberg’s deft handling but, perhaps mostly, down to the many issues that arose during production. It was a completely troubled shoot that overran its given 55 day schedule by more than 100 days. By the time it was finished the film had cost double it’s estimated $3.5 million budget and had cause Spielberg no end of stress. There were problems with props, and filming at sea proved incredibly tricky. There was great tension between the main cast and the watery setting constantly caused them to become seasick. Pretty much everything that could go wrong with filming did but it didn’t stop the film. Despite all the stress, Jaws became a tremendous success and was released to positive reviews. It has remained a on Best Film lists since its release and has one of the most iconic scores in film history. It’s a great achievement considering how difficult it was and given the fact that the book it’s based on hasn’t fared so well.
Peter Benchley, the author of the novel Jaws, had a hand in the screenplay and offered Spielberg several drafts to build on. When he agreed to do the film, the director had decided he wanted to stay faithful to the final part of the book but change the first two thirds, It was the shark attack that really interested him whilst the subplots surrounding Amity were less of a concern. The characters were changed to more sympathetic versions of their book counterparts and the unnecessary adultery, mafia and class tensions were deleted. Martin Brody remained the protagonist but the film feels much more the story of the hunt for a shark than Benchley’s book.
The film opens with the scene of a young girl skinny dipping at night before being dragged around the water by an unknown assailant. When he hand is washed up on the shore the Chief of Police (Roy Scheider) declares is a shark attack and begins proceedings to shut the beaches. Thanks to pressure from the town, Brody covers up the attack and the beaches remain open. Unfortunately, other deaths occur and panic sets in around the town. This kick starts desperate search for the killer whilst Brody must keep people out of the water.
Brody is joined by oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and together they try to track down the huge shark. When more people wind up dead and his children are put in danger, Brody has no other choice but to turn to gruff shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw). The trio set out on Quint’s boat, the Orca, and manage to come face-to-face with the foe that has been haunting their town. The group become locked into a battle with the beast where they find there is more to the shark than they first thought.
Jaws has succeeded as a film because of Spielberg’s vision and approach. This has not been despite the problems that arose during filming but partially because of them. One of the major production issues was that the mechanical sharks that were built kept failing when they were placed in water. This meant Spielberg couldn’t rely on visuals of the shark and had to create tension in other ways. Using the camera to give the perspective of the shark and adding in John Williams’ score meant Spielberg could create enough danger without ever having to show the killer.
It is something that worked so well and, when you finally see the shark, it’s pretty clear the film would have been less terrifying had everything gone to plan. Instead of a generic B movie about a shark, Jaws became a thriller that has more in common with Alfred Hitchcock than Sharknado. Like the book, it is the scenes concerning the shark attacks that are the most memorable and engrossing because of how well Spielberg overcame his difficulties. The attacks themselves, whilst not technically perfect, are exactly what they needed to be. Although, I have to say, it is not something that necessarily transfers to a modern audience who is used to much greater gore and bloodshed than a 70s audience were.
Again, like the book, the action on shore is less interesting and feels stilted in comparison to the film’s final, water-based section. The characters, whilst more sympathetic than their literary counterparts, are still not exactly people you care about. Of the main three, it is only really Quint who gets any real development meaning he is the stand-out performance. Brody, the main character, just flits through his scenes never really giving the audience much to go on. The opening scene in which Brody is at home with hi family is so laughably bad that it would feel out-of-place in a terrible soap opera.
Still, this film has shown the test of time which says a lot for it’s creation. It is not the best story ever told and it suffers from a certain amount of awkward bumbling before it gets to where it really wants to be. The film is always building towards its great finale which, in my opinion, isn’t as clever as the book’s but is certainly much more dramatic. Jaws has the feel and heart of a classic B movie but Spielberg’s deft touch manages to elevate it something much grander. It’s fun and terrifying but it is clever and calculating. It’s a classic piece of cinema that, no matter how outdated it may seem, will always have people afraid to go in the water.