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 the 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 that 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.