Book vs. Movie: Jaws

The cliché tells us that the book is always better than the movie. Except when it isn’t. I know. I just read Jaws.

Most people associate that title with the blockbuster hit that put Steven Spielberg on theimage map. But before Spielberg got his hands on it, Peter Benchley’s novel was a blockbuster in its own right, staying on the bestseller lists for 44 weeks. Today, the film’s considered a popular classic. And while the book remains in print, it’s remembered primarily as the source for the film.

And that’s as it should be. Benchley’s novel isn’t bad. But unlike the movie, it doesn’t hold up as a classic.

There’s nothing special or engaging about Benchley’s writing style. In the first part of the book, he digresses far too often into uninteresting exposition.

The story is still Enemy of the People meets Moby Dick, but the emphasis is far more on the people and community, with the three-men-on-a-boat story delayed until the final chapters. Much of the time, Benchley writes like he’s worried that the book will be too short. There’s an adultery subplot and a mafia subplot. Neither of them add anything to the story.

A novel can give you more detail than a film, and some of the detail in Jaws works for the story’s benefit. We learn much more about the island’s economic problems, which helps explain why everyone is so reluctant to close the beaches. The 1,000 people who live in Amity year round make all of their money in the summer, when the population balloons to 10,000, most of whom are money-spending tourists. Close the beaches, and by next spring everyone will be on welfare. Much is made of the economic differences between the summer and year-round folk.

Benchley describes some early scenes from the shark’s point of view, making it clear jaws2that this is an unthinking, instinct-driven eating machine. But these scenes, while scientifically accurate, contradict later ones, where the shark seems capable of strategic thought.

Several of the characters changed significantly on the way to Hollywood. Hooper, the young scientist played in the movie by Richard Dreyfuss, is a rich snob in the book, untrustworthy, arrogant, and not all that competent. Chief Brody’s wife is also a snob in the book, one who married below her class and now resents her lower society status.

Aside from making these characters more likeable, the film sacrifices realism for suspense. For instance, in the last part of the book, Brody, Dreyfuss, and Quint leave in the Orca every morning looking for the shark, then come home every night. That actually makes sense if you’re looking for something in the immediate waters off your home. The film implies that they sailed out one day and won’t come back until they’re done. Realistically, that’s ridiculous. But it makes better story-telling sense.

For more on the movie, read my Blu-ray Review.

Leonard Maltin’s 2013 Movie Guide

Is this book even necessary? That’s the question I wanted to answer when I agreed to accept a review copy of Leonard Maltin’s 2013 Movie Guide: The Modern Era. Once an indispensible reference for every cinephile, Maltin’s annual reference seems quant today. After all, if there’s anything that the Internet can do better than paper, it’s reference.

Maltin himself suggests so in his introduction. "I suppose it seems strange…that anyone would be publishing such a book in the Internet age, but my colleagues and I still think what we do is relevant…"

I’m not so sure. For $15 on Amazon ($10 for the ebook), you get a 1,640-page leonard_maltinpaperback (how long before that falls apart) containing a fraction of what you’d find on the Internet Movie Database. You’ll get the director, stars, and running time, but not the screenwriter, complete cast, or who wrote the music.

On the other hand, in place of the multiple and often badly-written descriptions on IMDB, the Guide offers pithy and intelligent micro-reviews by Maltin and his staff. For instance, the book describes Fred Willard’s character in A Mighty Wind as "a showbiz promoter and ‘idea man’ whose ideas could sink a continent." If there are spoilers here, I haven’t found them. These descriptions are the best (and pretty much the only) reason to buy this book. It’s fun to browse through, just to find comments written and edited by professionals.

Physical books, even those running more than 1,600 pages, have limited capacity. That’s why Maltin’s reference is now split into two volumes; the other one being the Classic Movie Guide. Most of the films made prior to 1966 land there, yet this Modern Era edition is hardly classic-free. Most of the old movies I thought of can be found in these pages, including several that I would just as happily forget (Caligula, anyone?).

In some ways, the book seems almost intentionally out-of-date. For instance, it uses three simple icons to tell you if a title was released on video cassette, Laserdisc, and DVD. But there’s no indication of its availability on Blu-ray. I imagine that that would interest far more people today than Laserdisc.

I hate to say it, but Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide is a bit like a Laserdisc. It was great in its time, but that time has gone.

The book becomes available next week.

Pandora’s Digital Box: David Bordwell’s Book on Films, Files, and the Future of Movies

Even cinephiles who embrace the look of digital projection (and I count myself among them) have plenty to worry about. The current digital transition threatens independent theaters, independent distributors, the accessibility of older movies (especially those outside the canon), and the long-term survival of yesterday’s, today’s, and tomorrow’s motion pictures.

No one has contributed to the discussion of this transition as well, or as thoroughly, pandoras_digital_box_coveras university professor/film blogger David Bordwell. In the last few months, Bordwell has written several long, extensive blog posts about every facet of the digital transition. Now he’s gathered up these posts, reorganized them, added new material, and released them as a self-published e-book called Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies. The book costs only $4 and comes as an unprotected, read-anywhere .pdf. It’s only 238 pages, and worth every penny.

Bordwell touches lightly on esthetic issues, giving arguments for both sides and noting correctly that unlike sound and widescreen, digital barely alters the movie-going experience–at least not directly. But he shows the grievous effects the transition has on the industry.

Six major production/distribution companies dominate today’s movie industry: Disney, Twentieth Century-Fox, Paramount Pictures, Warner Brothers, Columbia, and Universal. These companies will significantly benefit from the transition. Major theater chains like AMC will probably come out about even. Everyone else will lose.

Just one example of the problems: Small theater chains and independent theaters can’t afford the expensive digital projectors and the servers needed to control them. Many will go under because of this. Others will upgrade via a financing schemed called Virtual Price Fee (VPF). Here, a third party finances most of a theater’s conversion cost. Every time a film is booked into that theater, the distributor pays a fee–usually about $800–which is a little more than half of what the distributor saves by not making a 35mm print.

This works for the big studios, because their pre-digital business model comes pretty close to one print, one booking. Instead of spending about $1,500 to make a print that will only screen in that theater, they send a hard drive and pay a $800 VPF. But small, independent distributors make a handful of prints that move from one theater to another. They’ll have to pay multiple VPFs for every print they don’t make.

What’s more, the financier may prefer to deal only with companies with whom they already have a relationship.

Bordwell also discusses the stifling copy protection rules built into the Digital Cinema Package (DCP) standard used for theatrical projection. A theater needs permission to move a picture from one auditorium to another in the same multiplex, and the distributor can control how often a film is screened and at what times.

I wish Bordwell had covered a few topics that he doesn’t touch on. I would have liked his opinion on to what degree 4K improves on 2K; I’ve heard conflicting reports, and my only true 4K experience was inconclusive. Nor did he cover the environmental issues–one area where I assume that digital has the advantage.

Nor did I agree with Bordwell on everything. As someone who follows digital technology for a living, I doubt that obsolescence will be as much of a problem as Bordwell and others predict. Yes, Moore’s Law marches on, seemingly unstoppable, but market forces rule its effect on the real world.

True, filmmakers like James Cameron are already pushing for projector upgrades, but they don’t have the final word. The big six do. Right now, the major studios have a strong incentive to force theaters to go digital–it saves them money. They won’t have a similar incentive to push them to 4K or 8K, and they don’t want to have to pay VPFs forever. Consider, nearly 20 years after the introduction of digital sound, today’s 35mm prints still come with backward-compatible analog soundtracks. The studios will have no trouble sending out 2K DCPs for a very long time to come.

I suspect that the newer, fancier digital projectors will serve the function of full orchestras in the 1920s and 70mm in more recent decades. They will give the larger, better financed theaters a competitive edge without knocking out the smaller ones..

Despite my disagreements with some of Bordwell’s conclusions, I came away from Pandora’s Digital Box with far more knowledge and appreciation of digital projection’s strengths and problems than I had before–and I had already read his blog posts and have written on the topic myself. If you’re interested in the business or technology of motion pictures, this is $4 well spent.

Film Books I’d Love to Read (Now If Only Someone Would Write Them)

I read a lot of books about cinema history. But I’m picky. I’m seldom interested in movie star biographies, or anyone’s autobiography. But I love a good overview of an era, the story of a major transition, or a scholarly biography of a producer, director, or screenwriter.

Here are a few books that I would love to read. The problem: No one has written them yet. I’d write them myself if I had the time.

Powers Behind the Thrones: The Careers of Joseph and Nicholas Schenck
Throughout the heyday of the Hollywood studio system, MGM president Louis B. Mayer was widely considered the most powerful man in Hollywood. Yet he served at the pleasure of Nicholas Schenck, president of MGM’s parent company, Loews, Inc. Meanwhile, Nick’s brother Joe married a movie star, produced Buster Keaton’s best work, served as president of United Artists, then of 20th Century Fox, and spent time in prison. They weren’t artists, but they made a lot of art possible. At least one Schenck brother turns up in just about any book about Hollywood’s first half century, but to my knowledge, no one has written a book about them.

Film With No Freedom: The Art of Cinema in Oppressive and Totalitarian Societies
One could reasonably assume that great art requires freedom–especially when the art also requires industrial-scale production. But against all expectations, we’ve seen some extraordinary exceptions. Consider the Soviet Union, which gave us Potemkin, Mother, October, Man with a Movie Camera, The Cranes are Flying, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Andrei Rublev and many others (although all of these came before or after the worst years of Stalinism). Iran has been producing great cinema for years. Yet I’d be hard-pressed to name a great film that came out of Nazi Germany or Maoist China. I’d love to read an intelligent discussion on this.

From New York to Hollywood: The American Film Industry in the 1910s
In 1910, the American movie industry is based in New York, all movies were one-reelers, actors went unbilled, and the major companies were Edison, Biograph, and Vitagraph. No one took movies seriously, either as an art or an industry. By 1920, everyone had moved to Hollywood, feature films dominated the market and were built around specific movie stars, and the major companies were Paramount, Universal, and Fox. One of my favorite film history books, Otto Friedrich’s City of Nets, covers Hollywood in the 1940s, year by year. Someone should use the same structure for this important decade.

The Color of Dreams: How the Movie Industry Slowly Abandoned Black and White
You can find good books on the talkie and widescreen revolutions (The Speed of Sound is an excellent choice), but I have yet to find one on the much slower evolution from black and white to color. I’ve covered this briefly in a blog post, but someone else should cover it in more detail.

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