Monday, September 14, 2015

JAWS: Book vs Movie

I can't remember the first time I saw Jaws.  I do remember it was at a very young age.  The film was a favorite of mine when I was a younger man browsing the video stores of my town.  I swear that I rented that film a dozen or so times in the late eighties and early nineties.  There are so many vivid scenes that stand out in my mind.  Scenes that we stick me even if I never, ever watch the movie again.  The first scene with the first victim; how she swam out into the dark ocean, carefree and adventurous.  Nobody except her unconscious boyfriend knew she was out there.  All of a sudden there's a tug from beneath the waters.  Her expression terrified me.  Her jutting gasps of air still ring in my ears to this day.  Then, she's gone.  The last shot lingers on the cold, dark water.

I was scared shitless. 

Quint's death has never left my mind either.  One of my favorite scenes in film history.  The shark launches itself onto the boat, and chomps down into Quint's abdomen.  The agonizing screams, the panic.  He fights to no avail.  The way he's taken under; arms sprawled and descending down into the murky, mysterious waters.  

Okay, enough gushing!  Back on topic.

I just finished the book last week.  I was so excited to see what the source material had to offer.  I knew going in that there were some differences.  I was curious about those differences.  The film omits much that the book offers to the reader.  Give the producers of Jaws credit for cutting out the dramatic stuff.  They wanted an adventure story straight through.  None of this mafia business with Mayor Larry Vaughn.  The affair with Brody's wife, Helen, and the handsome Matthew Hooper is a glaring, but appropriate omission from the film.  Helen's character is like night and day.  She's much more prominent in the book.  In the film she's not nearly as important. 

The Shark

Let's start there.  He's the central character in the book and film.  Reading Peter Benchley's description of the shark made me feel, at times, like I was reading an academic book about sharks.  He admits having an immense interest with the animals and studies them vigorously.  His passion for sharks certainly seeps through the pages.  The shark is portrayed as a mindless killing machine, same as in the film.  The shark, although mindless, definitely has an agenda.  He won't go away.  The impulse to feed is unbearable.  The victims grow in numbers. Those damned beaches of Amity.  He's a monster so huge, that even God himself is saying, "What did I create?"

Because of mechanical malfunctions the mechanical shark didn't always work for Spielberg on set.  Verna Fields had the intuition to deliberately give the shark less screen time, thus amping up the scares for the unknown, unseen horror.  It worked well.  If you would see the shark more in the film those scares would diminish over time.  You would be able to tell that it was a fake shark crafted by the hands of a human.  Less is always more.  The POV shots are incredibly genius.  The camera is under the kicking feet and the thrashing arms.  The presence of the shark is felt without seeing him on screen.  There are times when you do see the shark; mostly the fin rising above the surface and giving chase, or the massive jaw with rigid teeth rising out of the water in hopes of devouring something.  And what about the anthem of the great fish? Whenever we hear that iconic music we know the shark is damn close.

The Characters

Police Chief Martin Brody.  He's the character I have the most sympathy for in both book and film.  He's a man with so much on his plate.  If it's not one thing it's another.  Martin Brody in the book is worse off than he is in the film.  He realizes from the very first shark attack that the beaches must be closed until further notice.  Mayor Larry Vaughn and his money hungry business partners think otherwise.  Although Mayor Vaughn seems to be a completely selfish human being, he's really got a great point.  The town of Amity just can't thrive without the summers financial income.  The decision to close the beaches is similar to slicing the throat of the town.  Brody comes under the scrutiny of the townsfolk because their businesses dry up.  He overrides his better judgment (after being threatened termination by Vaughn) and opens the beaches.  That means more fish food for the killer shark.  The shark does continue to feed. Meanwhile, Brody has to deal with his cheating wife, Helen.

The book version of Helen is very unlikeable.  At times there are moments where you may find some fine line to sympathize with her, but as the story progresses and you see inside her mind. She comes off as nothing more than a spoiled housewife.  She has a longing for her past.  She's feeling old, useless and miserable.  She doesn't find her husband attractive anymore, and she's quick to spark a fling with Matt Hooper, who is just as easily unlikeable.  In one scene in the book she has a dinner party and invites Hooper.  The entire party she flirts with him while Brody tries to keep his cool.  This scene alone made me despise her.  The affair doesn't last long, and Helen does come to regret what she did.  The affair was so pointless.  But if Hooper had lived what then?

Matt Hooper of the film is one of my favorite characters, but in the book I can't stand him.  Part of the charm is Richard Dreyfuss, who plays Hooper perfectly.  In the film there is a camaraderie with Hooper and Brody, while in the book they butt heads constantly.  The definitive similarity is the fact that Matt Hooper is a shark expert who wants nothing more than to know and understand the animal.  He wants to study it rather than kill it.  Matt Hooper's death in the book comes because of his curiosity.  He gets what he wants, the chance to get close to the shark, to see it with his own eyes.  The shark also gets what he wants.

And Quint.  Quint is Quint not matter how you slice it.  He's cantankerous. He's got a dry sense of humor and wit.  And he's got enough stories to know that he's been around or a long time.  He knows what he's doing.  He's determined to catch the big one.  In the film Quint is played by Robert Shaw.  This performance is one of the finest in the movie, if not, the finest.  Robert Shaw echoes what my first impressions of Quint are:  He's as mysteries as the water he travels on.

Harry Meadows is a prominent character in the book.  He's a newspaper man, who uncovers truths about Mayor Vaughn's association with the mafia.  He gets Matt Hopper involved by hiring him, after going against Brody's decisions to close the beaches.  He tries to be helpful to the town and assists in doing what he can to get rid of the shark.  He's obese and is one cheeseburger shy from a heart attack, but manages to outlive most of the characters in the book.

The book or the film?  I like them both.  The film is a straight up adventure story with great, compelling characters that are fun to revisit twice a year.  I love Benchley's voice.  I wasn't a fan of the mob stuff and the affair.  They slow the story down.  I'll always go back to the film.  I grew up with it and it's one fine piece of genius cinema made by a then 26 year old kid named Steven Spielberg.

While they're out there fighting for the town of Amity - the people, the victims and the safety of the community - that's where I had the most fun.